So when the latest in a string of Soviet leaders passed away in 1985, Reagan once again sent Bush to represent him at the service – and to take the temperature of the young new successor Mikhail Gorbachev. Margaret Thatcher, the hard-line British PM, had declared that Gorbachev was a “man we can do business with.” But Reagan and Bush were not so sure.
After meeting Gorbachev at the funeral, Bush sent a cable back to Reagan with his impressions. In his view, Gorbachev was just a slicker version of the same old Communist apparatchik, a party functionary with “a disarming smile, warm eyes and an engaging way of making an unpleasant point,” but someone to be wary of.
First Reagan and then Bush came to view Gorbachev as an authentic agent of change and a trustworthy interlocutor who could at last help end the Cold War. No American presidents to that time had ever had a closer, more collaborative relationship with a leader in Moscow than Reagan and Bush would have with Gorbachev.
In this era when President Vladimir Putin has again put Russia at odds with the US, the solidarity that developed between Reagan and Bush and Gorbachev is all the more remarkable to remember. It is a testament to how much has been lost since Putin took power and dismantled Gorbachev’s legacy.
Still, it took a while to get there. Reagan went to Berlin in 1987 and challenged Gorbachev to “tear down this wall.” But a series of meetings led to a genuine friendship, and the two negotiated a landmark arms control treaty and even came close to brokering a deal to eliminate nuclear weapons altogether.
In running for president in 1988, Bush initially thought Reagan had gone too far and trusted too much. After taking office, Bush put the relationship on hold for months.
But Bush, too, came to befriend him and navigated the collapse of the Soviet empire and end of the Cold War as a partner of Gorbachev rather than an adversary. After the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, Bush and Gorbachev negotiated the reunification of Germany as well as their own arms control treaty. In the “new world order” Bush envisioned, he and Gorbachev teamed up to counter Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait and to seek a West Asia peace deal.