How Gorbachev Saved Reagan . . .

March 1, 1991 Topics: Society Regions: RussiaNorth AmericaAmericasEurasia Tags: Cold WarGulf War

How Gorbachev Saved Reagan . . .

Mini Teaser: Sidney Blumenthal, Pledging Allegiance--The Last Campaign of the Cold War (New York: HarperCollins, 1990).

by Author(s): William C. Bodie

Sidney Blumenthal, Pledging Allegiance--The Last Campaign of the Cold War (New York: HarperCollins, 1990).  386 pp., $22.95.

In mid-1989 a senior editor at a major New York publishing house was asked about the relative merits of several upcoming volumes on the 1988 U.S. presidential election.  His firm, which had published political chronicles in the past, declined to bid on books about the Bush-Dukakis contest.  "Television coverage has made the Teddy White approach to these campaigns obsolete," he remarked.  "These days, to sell an election book, you really need a gimmick."

It is indeed hard to imagine today's publishing barons, or journalism students, buying into Theodore White's Making of the President series, with its careful reportage, modest prose, and quaint respect for American political institutions.  For some time, would-be campaign historians have sought other pegs--or gimmicks--on which to hang their tales.  To the Nightline generation, even Joe McGinniss' treatment of Republican "handlers" in the 1968 Nixon-Humphrey race or Timothy Crouse's angle on press coverage of the 1972 election may seem archaic.  With Pledging Allegiance, Sidney Blumenthal hopes to revive the genre by wedding electoral politics to another large theme--in this case, no less than the history of the Cold War itself.

Readers interested in the campaign's prosaic details--primary results, campaign strategies, vote counts--will be disappointed.  Such minutiae as the results of the Democratic primary in New York, for example, are not mentioned.  Instead, the dust jacket boasts that, "Blumenthal takes the reader behind the public facade of American politics."  This is achieved, in the author's words, by relating the election to "the largest event in the world"--the end of the Cold War.  Blumenthal is nothing if not a big thinker.

Blumenthal, who covered the 1984 campaign for the New Republic before serving as a Washington Post political reporter, is perhaps best known for his acerbic distaste for the conservative "counter-establishment" that sprouted in Washington during the Reagan years.  But in his new book, the usually acidic Blumenthal reveals a decidedly warmer side with his near adolescent infatuation with Mikhail Gorbachev--a figure variously credited by the author with "saving" Ronald Reagan's presidency, sparing George Bush from exposure in the Iran-contra scandal, and "creating the preconditions for the revival of liberalism" in America (all this, and destroying communism in Russia and liberating Eastern Europe, too).

The thesis of Pledging Allegiance is that while Gorbachev was remaking the world and destroying old "shibboleths and taboos," the political class of the United States was behaving like a dysfunctional family, playing out destructively familiar roles, and unable to deal with new therapies.  Blumenthal believes the Cold War--which he alternately refers to as a "metaphysical system" and an "epistemological system"--has shaped and deformed American political life for the past four decades.  Anyone who challenges the comfortable mantras of "Cold War Conservatism" is "speaking the unspeakable" and banished from the political mainstream.  In an ironic Cold War coda, Blumenthal presents Ronald Reagan, whose "politics involved a massive misapplication of memory," as the one voice of "reality" in the political vacuum of 1988 (though only after Gorbachev helped him shed all the vestiges of Reaganism).

Although Chapter One is entitled "A Long Twilight Struggle" after the JFK speech which marked the "zenith" of the Cold War, Blumenthal shows little interest in examining the U.S.-Soviet rivalry as anything other than an exercise in psychotherapy.  On Washington's reaction to the emerging competition in the 1940s, for example, he is satisfied to recount Walter Lippmann's rationalization of the Red Army's occupation of Eastern Europe.  We read nothing of Stalin's imposition of communist regimes throughout Eastern Europe, his "two camp" thesis, the infiltration of labor movements in the West, or Soviet involvement in the Greek civil war.  The Baltic states may exist in the paranoid celebration of Captive Nations Day, but nowhere else.  The Korean War, it appears, was important only because it created an "overheated political atmosphere" in which liberals "obscured their inherent realism even from themselves."

One does find the occasional hasty critique of Moscow--"the Soviets provoked voyages to the brink over Berlin and Cuba," "there was a Soviet buildup in the 1970s"--but they are few, and always followed by an exculpatory "but."  "Cold War" is used exclusively to identify all manner of American ills and malefactors, with Richard Nixon as the archetypal figure.  "The Cold War," Blumenthal asserts with a confident flourish, "was Nixon's reason for being."

Pledging Allegiance begins with a neatly revised history of the Institute of the United States and Canada, an organization that serves the propaganda interests of the Politburo.  For Blumenthal, however, "The task of the institute's experts was to comprehend America and communicate their views to the Central Committee and the Soviet president."  For such purposes they "had been granted a remarkable freedom," even though "some of them were lying, perhaps without knowing they were doing so."  Under Gorbachev, though, "These Soviets, who formerly thought of themselves only as experts or Communists, have taken on the mentality of citizens." 

Essay Types: Book Review