For his first four years in office, President Ronald Reagan had a tough time forging any kind of relationship with his counterparts in the Soviet Union. “They kept dying on me,” he later explained. It fell to his vice president, George H.W. Bush, to attend the funerals. “You die, I fly” became Bush’s wry motto.
So when the latest in a string of Soviet leaders passed away in 1985, Reagan once again sent Bush to represent him at the service — and to take the temperature of the young new successor, Mikhail Gorbachev. Margaret Thatcher, the hard-line British prime minister, had declared that Mr. Gorbachev was a “man we can do business with.” But Reagan and Bush were not so sure.
After meeting Mr. Gorbachev at the funeral in Moscow, Bush sent a cable back to Reagan with his impressions. In his view, Mr. Gorbachev was just a slicker version of the same old Communist apparatchik, a party functionary with “a disarming smile, warm eyes and an engaging way of making an unpleasant point,” but someone to be wary of. Mr. Gorbachev was charming and presented himself as a reformer, but neither Reagan nor Bush was convinced he was for real.
On that, they would both be proved wrong. First Reagan and then Bush came to view Mr. Gorbachev as an authentic agent of change and a trustworthy interlocutor who could at last help end the four-decade-old, nuclear-armed Cold War. No American presidents ever had a closer, more collaborative relationship with a leader in Moscow than Reagan and Bush would have with Mr. Gorbachev, not even Franklin D. Roosevelt’s alliance of convenience with Joseph Stalin during World War II.
In this era when President Vladimir V. Putin has once again put Russia at odds with the United States and the two sides are waging a proxy war in Ukraine, the solidarity that developed between Reagan and Bush on one hand and Mr. Gorbachev on the other is all the more remarkable to remember. It is a testament to how much has been lost in the two decades since Mr. Putin took power and effectively dismantled Mr. Gorbachev’s legacy.
Still, it took a while to get there. Still suspicious of the “evil empire,” as he had termed the Soviet Union, Reagan famously went to Berlin in 1987 and challenged Mr. Gorbachev to “tear down this wall.” But a series of meetings in Switzerland, Iceland, Washington and Moscow led to a genuine friendship, and the two negotiated a landmark arms control treaty and at one point came close to brokering a deal to eliminate nuclear weapons altogether.
In his final year in office, Reagan praised Mr. Gorbachev for the thaw in Soviet-American relations. “Mr. Gorbachev,” he told reporters at a news conference in Moscow, “deserves most of the credit, as the leader of this country.”
In running for president in 1988, Bush initially thought Reagan had gone too far and trusted too much. After taking office, Bush put the relationship on hold for months, what came to be known as “the pause,” much to Mr. Gorbachev’s consternation.
But Bush, too, came to befriend the Soviet leader and, with the help of his secretary of state, James A. Baker III, navigated the collapse of the Soviet empire and end of the Cold War as a partner of Mr. Gorbachev rather than an adversary. After the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, Bush and Mr. Gorbachev negotiated the reunification of Germany as well as their own arms control treaty. In the “new world order” Bush envisioned, he and Mr. Gorbachev teamed up to counter Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait and to seek a Middle East peace deal.
“History will remember Mikhail Gorbachev as a giant who steered his great nation towards democracy,” Mr. Baker said in a statement on Tuesday. Despite Bush’s initial doubts about Mr. Gorbachev, Mr. Baker said, “I found him to be an honest broker and could count on his word despite domestic pressure in Moscow.”
No American president would have said that about Mr. Gorbachev’s predecessors and meant it. And none will ever say it about the man who now holds Mr. Gorbachev’s office in the Kremlin.