A hopeful lesson

Outside editorial

Posted: Monday, November 26, 2001

This editorial appeared in today's Los Angeles Times:

In the childhood memories of many adults alive today, the great evildoer, the Osama bin Laden of a half-century ago, was whoever stood atop the Soviet Union's Communist Party. Some days no one knew. We awaited the Kremlin's next military parade to see how party leaders, bulky and dark in their ominous overcoats, lined up on the parapet in the Moscow gloom. For all anyone knew, the lineup was how they got off the elevator. But absent real information from inside totalitarianism, such public priority conveyed significance about those burly men who undermined democracies. American kids even practiced hiding under school desks because sinister Soviets might attack.

Changes have crept into the relationship for years. But it was particularly refreshing - actually, amazing to some - the other day to see Presidents Bush and Vladimir V. Putin amiably answer questions from another generation of pupils. They joked. They clearly respected each other. They acknowledged differences but more similarities. Bush noted that Putin's two daughters, like his own twin girls, were named for grandmothers. Youngsters in the 1950s didn't even know Soviet leaders had children.

In a remarkable ensuing interview with National Public Radio, Putin answered listener calls and e-mails: We learned he practices judo, sees Andrei Sakharov as a visionary, thinks Russia's democracy has evolved too far to reverse. He acknowledged his spy work for the notorious KGB, saying it provided seminal opportunities to study democracies' workings and slyly noting that a former U.S. president (Bush's father) was also a former spy chief.

Never mind for now the remaining political and policy differences between the two countries and the savvy public relations. What once seemed implacable and intractable no longer is - a hopeful lesson to file. If Americans could feel real terror at times about an opponent's evil 50 years ago, then there's nothing wrong with reveling for a warm moment in the changes today.

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