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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Great Communicator

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On Jan. 18, 1989 -- his next-to-last day in office -- U.S. President Ronald Reagan finally invited me to dine at the White House. Frankly, I had begun to wonder.

There wasn't much I could do to help by then, of course: Eight years of chronic executive undermanagement had led to a presidential routine punctuated by meaningless photo ops, extended afternoon naps and policy advice from the first lady's astrologer. Not surprisingly, corruption and malfeasance in Washington had reached levels unknown since Watergate. The infamous Iran-Contra scandal -- a Rube Goldberg criminal operation run from inside the White House in which the U.S. government assisted state terrorists and drug-dealing thugs in two different hemispheres at once (and got caught doing it) -- was but the hallmark national embarrassment in an administration chock full of 'em.

And yet Reagan remained enormously popular with the U.S. public. That he was obviously not the sharpest knife in the drawer did not dull this popularity one whit. Clark Clifford, one of Washington's venerable wise men, soberly characterized Reagan as "an amiable dunce" (distinguishing him retrospectively from the current president, who is not amiable). Yet most Americans beheld the man and, well, simply liked him -- and liked what he seemed to stand for. Reagan's ability to make his countrymen react to him this way was reflected in another, more flattering epithet: "The Great Communicator." This greatness was not uniformly appreciated by all Americans, however: I, for example, beheld the man as "The Great Big Gasbag." And an incompetent one to boot.

The invitation to dine, which I still have somewhere and which I swear says both "White House" and "luncheon" on it, was not actually extended to me alone. There were perhaps 80 of us, as I recall, and virtually all of us taught, studied or were Russian.

At a 1988 summit meeting in Iceland, Reagan and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev had agreed to expand educational exchanges between our two countries to the high school level. I had been teaching Russian language and literature at the Episcopal High School in suburban Alexandria, Virginia, for most of the decade and thus found myself in the right place at the right time: The U.S. side needed high school Russian programs fast to get the exchange up and running. Episcopal's academic reputation and handy proximity combined to make it one of three initial American entries in the U.S.-U.S.S.R. High School Partnership Program.

The first delegation of Soviet students from three Moscow schools flew into Washington, and together with their U.S. counterparts (and the teachers from both groups) were invited to lunch at the White House to mark the beginning of this historic exchange. I put on my best suit, naturally, and envisioned myself asking Nancy Reagan to pass the mayonnaise.

First omen: It wasn't at the White House, but next door. We all filed into a room in the Executive Office Building about the size of half a basketball court and waited, television cameras poised. Reagan was late, predictably, but finally he swept into the room as klieg lights suddenly came on and the whir of cameras began in earnest.

There I sat, surrounded by my own students and their Russian equivalents, set to listen to a B-actor turned politician whom I had never much liked (except in "Bedtime for Bonzo"). Indeed, Reagan and I went way back. I had started college in California only months after his initial election as governor there. Then I had passionately not voted for the man in many elections, taking real pleasure in the deed only once -- in 1980, when I got to vote for a Republican I both admired and generally agreed with (John Anderson).

Now I was on hand for the penultimate moment in Reagan's political career ... and entertaining mixed feelings about it. While I was happy that my students and the Russian kids had this truly wonderful opportunity -- to participate in the exchange, to meet a president, and so on -- another part of me still wanted, best suit or not, to start up a chant of: "One more day! One more day!" A third part of me was seriously wondering what was for lunch.

Eventually, Reagan looked up from the lectern, smiled and began speaking -- and as he did, something curious and remarkable began to descend on all of us, Russians and Americans alike: Great Communication.

Mark H. Teeter teaches Russian-American relations and English in Moscow.