Thirty-six years ago today, in a meeting at Camp David, Margaret Thatcher shared her insights with Ronald Reagan about a rising Russian politician. His name was Mikhail Gorbachev. Thatcher's observations were not idle gossip. They reflected high-level intelligence, gleaned first-hand. And that conversation between a British prime minister and an American president about a Soviet functionary with a bright future would help make the world a safer place.
Gorbachev, Thatcher told her host, is someone with whom the West could "do business." Gorbachev, set to assume the helm in the Soviet Union, was "an unusual Russian," Thatcher added, in that he was "much less constrained, more charming, open to discussion and debate, and did not stick to prepared notes."
This was welcome news to Reagan, who had long harbored hopes that few people -- including many of his own aides, and certainly not the Soviets -- truly comprehended. Although he was routinely portrayed in those days as some kind of trigger-happy cowboy, what Reagan really wanted to do was effectuate deep reductions in the world's vast arsenal of nuclear weapons. Thatcher understood Reagan's desire. The two conservative leaders had liked and admired each other for nearly a decade by the time of their fateful Dec. 22, 1984, Camp David meeting. And what "Maggie," as Reagan called her, had done in passing along her assessment of Mikhail Gorbachev was to give her American friend an early Christmas present.
Ronald Reagan had spoken evocatively and quite publicly -- once while on center stage at the 1976 Republican National Convention -- about the sword hanging over the head of modern civilization. We all occupy, Reagan said that night in Kansas City, "a world in which the great powers have poised and aimed at each other horrible missiles of destruction, nuclear weapons that can in a matter of minutes arrive at each other's country and destroy, virtually, the civilized world we live in."
Upon becoming the 40th U.S. president, Reagan had written personal letters to successive Soviet leaders Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko proposing summit meetings to discuss this challenge. Neither Russian lived long enough to reply. "How am I supposed to get anyplace with the Russians," Reagan complained to his wife, "if they keep dying on me?"
For Reagan, this was an uncharacteristically self-absorbed locution -- and it induced much mirth when the president repeated it to the White House press corps. Yet Reagan's impatience was genuine, and here was Prime Minister Thatcher telling him that the man about to take command in the Kremlin was a new kind of Soviet leader.
Although the two men would eventually make beautiful music together, progress didn't come without some unmelodious rehearsals. Gorby and the Gipper matched each other when it came to stubbornness, for one thing. Their saving grace was that each had his eye on the big picture: namely, what was good for their respective countries -- and for humankind.
In December of 1988, at their last meeting while Reagan was in office, they were joined by President-elect George H.W. Bush, who wondered aloud whether perestroika, as the new Soviet outlook was called, would last. This question seems almost to have anticipated Vladimir Putin. So did Gorby's reply -- whether or not one believes in the Christian concept of free will, which is that God allows us to make all kinds of mistakes, including in choosing our political leaders: "Jesus Christ himself could not tell you that," Gorbachev said quietly.
"Reagan and Gorbachev never lost their appreciation of each other," noted acclaimed Reagan biographer Lou Cannon. "They knew their nations had passed a turning point from which they could not turn back except at their mutual peril."
The last of the seven meetings between the two men came in 1990, in Moscow.
"Who would have thought," Gorbachev said nostalgically, "that the warmth of that fireplace in Geneva [in 1985] would melt the ice of the Cold War?"
And, we might add today as Vladimir Putin has become the longest-serving Russian leader since Stalin: Who thought relations would re-freeze so quickly after Gorbachev left the stage?
Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.