Cold Warriors Get Their Due
Gorbachev's death is unlikely to draw the fanfare that greeted the demise of Reagan and the pope.

The Australian, Wednesday, April 6, 2005

If journalism is the first draft of history, maybe obituaries are the second draft. This thought came to mind over the weekend as I watched the coverage of the Pope's death. John Paul II was the second Cold War giant to die during the past year and, just as in June when Ronald Reagan breathed his last, even his critics were almost unanimous in giving him a large part of the credit for bringing down the Soviet empire.

John Paul assumed the pontificate in 1978, when Jimmy Carter was US president and Soviet communism seemed unstoppable.

The following year he visited his native Poland, where he urged his countrymen to stand for freedom: "Never lose your trust, do not be defeated, do not be discouraged." The following year, Solidarity was born.

In 1981, Reagan became president, determined not to accommodate what he called the "evil empire". He built up US defences, forcing Moscow into an arms race it couldn't win. When Mikhail Gorbachev came to power and Soviet resolve began to crack, Reagan was willing to deal--but also to make demands. "Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" he declared in West Berlin in 1987.

Two years later, Mr Gorbachev stood back as the German people did just that.

Yet a look back at that weathervane of conventional wisdom, Time magazine's Man of the Year, shows that journalists in the 1980s were much more eager to credit Gorbachev, the man who ended up presiding over the Soviet Union's demise, than either Reagan or John Paul II.

Time named Gorbachev Man of the Year in 1987, which was plausible enough, but two years later it dubbed him Man of the Decade. With 15 years' hindsight, it is clear to everyone that either Reagan or the Pope would have been a better candidate for the man who defined the '80s.

To be sure, Time's premature designation of the Man of the Decade--in December 1989, a year before the decade's end--came at a time when Gorbachev's star was particularly high.

The country he ruled still existed and freedom had just broken out in Eastern Europe, with Gorbachev's inaction (that is, his decision not to send in tanks to defend Soviet puppet regimes) a proximate cause.

But Gorbachev's aim was to save communism, not to destroy it, so on his own terms his tenure was a failure. When Gorbachev dies, it's hard to imagine that there will be anything like the fanfare that followed the demise of Reagan and John Paul.

Also, to be sure, it's not as if the Man of the Year people ignored Reagan or the Pope. Reagan was Man of the Year in 1980, but then so was almost every other recent president-elect in the year he won office. Reagan was also Man of the Year in 1983, but he shared the distinction with Yuri Andropov, whoever he was. John Paul wasn't Man of the Year until 1994.

As I browsed through the old Time covers, I came upon an even better example of how fleeting these journalistic enthusiasms turn out to be: the 1988 Planet of the Year issue featuring "Endangered Earth".

More than 16 years later, I stood up and checked under my feet, and Earth was still there. Whew!

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