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The Day Gorbachev Made D.C. Stand Still

WASHINGTON — There have been two surreal visitations in Washington that left people quivering with excitement.

The first was seven decades ago, when a spaceship landed on the Mall and an alien and a large silver robot got out. Hollywood moviemakers had come to do location filming for the 1951 sci-fi classic “The Day the Earth Stood Still.”

The second was on Dec. 11, 1987, when Mikhail Gorbachev — on his way to the White House to meet with President Ronald Reagan — suddenly ordered his driver to stop his Zil limousine downtown. He had seen the lunchtime crowd waving at him, and he wanted to jump out and press the flesh.

“The door opened. He got out. He walked right over and took my hand,” Kimberly Spartin, an account executive, told me, staring at her hand. “I’m still shaking. It was like the coming of the second Messiah or something.”

By the time his K.G.B. detail realized what was happening, the agents were already way down the block. So I got to see a Soviet motorcade drive backward, one of the highlights of my career.

Americans had grown accustomed to, and fearful of, Soviet leaders like Stalin, who killed millions of people and outfoxed F.D.R. at Yalta, and Khrushchev, who banged his shoe on the table and outfoxed J.F.K. in Vienna. They were stunned, and thrilled, to see a smiling Soviet leader on a charm offensive. People were hanging out of windows and leaning over balconies, screaming, “Gorby!”

Indeed, Gorbachev had come to Washington for the same reason the alien in “The Day the Earth Stood Still” did: to pursue peace, before our powerful weapons wiped out the planet.

The year before, I covered the Reykjavik summit, which was the biggest thing to hit Iceland since Gunnlaug the Serpent Tongue fought for the love of Helga the Fair.

The Russians started out persnickety, protesting the presence of a large “Top Gun” poster across from the hotel where their delegation was staying. It was taken down.

But the talks between Reagan and Gorbachev, held at the allegedly haunted Hofdi House on the waterfront, were historic — until they dramatically collapsed at the last minute. The two leaders had come within a few words of an agreement about banning all ballistic missiles. I actually saw one top reporter misting up at the missed opportunity.

They both left bowed, Gorbachev with his brainy and fashionable wife, Raisa, looking glamorous in a silver fox fur coat and suede stiletto boots. But the failed summit set the stage for a treaty in 1987.

It was hard for American leaders to accept the new Soviet openness. “Trust but verify,” Reagan liked to say. And Soviet leaders were equally suspicious of Reagan’s theatrical talk about Star Wars and the Evil Empire.

We didn’t know at the time that there was an unseen hand guiding the fate of civilization.

In her memoir, Joan Quigley wrote about her seven-year gig as the White House astrologer for the Reagans, paid for by Nancy Reagan. The San Francisco soothsayer, who often appeared on “The Merv Griffin Show,” took credit for persuading Nancy to change her Aquarian husband’s mind about the Evil Empire, paving the way for glasnost.

She wrote that Reagan’s defense strategy for the West was possible because of his “combination of a Capricorn Mars with this Taurus Saturn.”

“Gorbachev would have a natural respect for Reagan because Reagan’s Taurus moon, so descriptive of his personality or image, shows him to be a very likable and genial man, but a stubborn one,” she said in the book.

Quigley assured the first lady that the Soviets were not “gangsters.” “Mercury in Aquarius likes ideas,” she wrote. “Gorbachev’s openness to new ideas is phenomenal.” She said she used Reagan’s “location chart” to pick Reykjavik as a summit site and she knew from her charts that “a final resolution there would take longer than anyone had planned.”

At a news conference in 1988, Reagan had to deny that he was a slave to the zodiac, although top aides verified that Nancy was relying on the stars to help schedule summits, surgeries, Air Force One takeoffs and foreign trips.

The Soviet motorcade going backward was a marvel. But that was nothing compared to an astrologer dictating whether America was going forward on a treaty banning intermediate-range nuclear weapons.

When Gorbachev came to America in 1987, he met with top New York businessmen, including Malcolm Forbes and Donald Trump.

I called Trump to see how the meeting had gone, and he said he was dubious about whether we should trust the Soviets and hoped that the Americans were not overly eager to make a deal with Gorbachev.

“In the art of deal making,” he said, “you should not want to make the deal too much.”

But the Soviets cleverly softened up the self-regarding real estate dealer by telling him that they loved Trump Tower; they invited him to build a Trump hotel in Moscow. Maybe, he said, “capitalism is right around the corner.”

And that, dear reader, is when Trump first rolled over for Russia.

A year later, Gorbachev visited New York again to address the United Nations. Hearing that the Soviet leader was in front of Trump Tower, Trump rushed down, pushed through the crowd and shook hands with a man with a port-wine stain on his balding head. But it turned out Trump had been tricked. The faux Gorbachev was really Ronald V. Knapp, an actor doing a stunt for local Fox TV. Knapp later wrote an autobiography called “The Guy Who Got Trump.”

Just as he had in D.C., Gorbachev showed flair. (He studied drama as a young man.) He ordered the driver of his limo to screech to a halt on Broadway in front of the Winter Garden Theater, where the musical “Cats” was playing. Standing beneath a neon Coca-Cola sign with Raisa, Gorbachev raised his arms in a “Rocky”-like victory sign.

Looking down the block, he could see an electronic billboard in the middle of Times Square flashing a red hammer and sickle and the message “Welcome, General Secretary Gorbachev.” A vodka truck drove around acting as a Welcome Wagon (not realizing that the Soviet leader was trying — vainly — to curb the Russians’ deep thirst for vodka). Since it was Times Square, there was also a man with a 12-foot anaconda wrapped around his body.

My favorite summit encounter with Gorbachev was in Malta in 1989. George H.W. Bush had planned a summit at sea, alternating meetings between American and Soviet naval vessels, so that the two men could put their feet up and get to know each other.

But in a huge embarrassment, a storm trapped Bush and his team overnight on the American cruiser.

Top Bush advisers came out to meet the press wearing patches for seasickness. Bush’s spokesman Marlin Fitzwater did his best to spin it, acting as if being stuck at sea was a good thing. He issued a news release painting his boss as Captain Ahab, saying, “The president seemed energized by the intensity of the storm.”

In the end, Bush and Gorbachev talked perestroika in a truncated summit, whose impact Bush described, in his distinctive personal-pronoun-less, verb-less Bushspeak as: “Grandkids. All of that. Very important.”

It drove Bush crazy that he was described as cautious and Gorbachev was described as bold. (An aide gave Bush a list of synonyms for “cautious” he could use.) But the dynamic between the two men worked.

The modest Bush, the clever James Baker and the stalwart Brent Scowcroft held Gorbachev’s hand and did not gloat as he made his breathtaking leaps to open the Iron Curtain and let the Berlin Wall fall. Gorbachev warned Communist leaders not to use force against their own people. (Although he would violently put down uprisings in the Baltics and the Caucasus.)

The following year, I covered the Gorbachevs in Minneapolis, where they dazzled the heartland. When they left, the Greater Twin Cities Youth Symphonies serenaded them at the airport with “Moscow Nights,” and the crowd excitedly waved “Gorby-chiefs,” commemorative handkerchiefs.

Gorbachev was more popular in America than at home, and he was on the cusp of winning the Nobel Peace Prize for ending the Cold War. He was going back to Moscow, where many — like the K.G.B. agent Vladimir Putin — reviled him for setting the Soviet Union on the path to dissolution and for his attempts to clean up corruption.

Gorbachev seemed reluctant to leave the Twin Cities. As the young people sang to him, he pressed his face against the airplane window and then, as the plane took off, his hands. The next year, he would be out of power. Not long after, Putin would come into power and throw the world into the brutal and bloody chaos that Gorbachev had tried to prevent. In the end, Gorbachev would have to watch Putin torch his dreams.

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