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The Republican's Chernenko versus the Democrat's Gorbachevs

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Americans might well remember the hypocritical scorn that so many of their brethren -- especially among conservatives and members of the news media -- heaped upon the physically feeble and, presumably, mentally inflexible gerontocrats, who ruled the Soviet Union during the early years of the Reagan administration. Hypocritical? Yes! After all, Ronald Reagan was no spring chicken himself. And neither is John McCain.

It's generally uncontested "that on average, the decline in…basic mental abilities begins gradually in the middle to late 60's and accelerates in the late 70's," although "the rate of decline differs for various mental faculties and differs in men and women." Moreover, "'fluid' memory, the ability to add new information to memory or recall something that happened recently, is more prone to decline, beginning in the 60's." [Daniel Goleman, "Mental Decline in Aging Need Not Be Inevitable," New York Times, April 26, 1994]

Thus, although he appeared physically fit, according to former Secretary of the Air Force, Thomas C. Reed (who served on Reagan's National Security Council from January 1982 to mid-June 1984), President Reagan's mental "decline" began in late 1983, when he was still 72 years old and President for less than three full years.

On page 275 of his often unreliable book, At the Abyss: An Insider's History of the Cold War, Reed asserts: "In 1983, Bill Clark questioned Reagan on the wisdom of a second term. As that second term unfolded, National Security Adviser John Poindexter felt sure that Reagan was losing his mental grip. I last saw Reagan in the summer of 1992. He joined a group of us at a northern California resort. He was charming, but had no idea who I was. In the summer of 1993, Reagan was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease."

According to Reed's revisionist account, it was a mentally lucid Reagan, who confronted the Soviet Union, but a mentally declining Reagan who allowed himself to be seduced by Mikhail Gorbachev. Thus, by erroneously claiming that Reagan's early confrontational policies subsequently won the Cold War, Reed could reconcile with the Cold War hawks, including himself, who already were on record for having doubted Reagan's deals with Gorbachev prior to the Cold War's end.

(For example, William Safire scornfully accused Reagan of seeing "in Gorbachev's eyes an end to the Soviet goal of world dominance." Howard Phillips claimed, "Reagan is little more than a speech-reader for the pro-appeasement forces in his administration." And George Will alleged: "Reagan has accelerated the moral disarmament of the West - actual disarmament will follow - by elevating wishful thinking to the status of political philosophy.")

Although Reed's revisionism if far more extreme and dubious than that propagated by most apologists for Reagan, orthodoxy still reigns in America when it comes to the Soviet gerontocrats: They were feeble old men, who were locked in their ways. Only when the young, vigorous Mikhail Gorbachev brought his "new thinking" (novoe myshlenie) to power, did the Soviet Union find someone capable of dealing with the dynamic Reagan.

When Leonid Brezhnev, the first mentally inflexible gerontocrat, died in November 1982 (just a month before turning 76), Reagan was three months away from turning 72. (Brezhnev had suffered a stroke in March 1982.)

Brezhnev was succeeded by Yuri Andropov, who, at 68, was actually younger than Reagan But, in February 1984, he also died in office, some four months before tuning 70.

Andropov's successor, Konstantin Chernenko, was 72, "by far the most advanced age of any new leader in Soviet history." As Sovietologist Seweryn Bialer observed in 1986, "That Chernenko could become general secretary at all, despite his uncertain health, was in itself an expression of the Soviet Union's problems, of the crisis of the system, in this case in its leadership dimension. The appointment of Chernenko after several years of leadership paralysis expressed the Soviet malaise and at the same time contributed immensely to its perpetuation." [Seweryn Bialer, The Soviet Paradox: External Expansion, Internal Decline, p. 100]

Beyond emphasizing the subtitle of Professor Bialer's book, "External Expansion, Internal Decline," and the evidence of malaise that has afflicted the United States ever since the Bush administration's invasion of Iraq made our President the "War President," it should be observed that, at 72, Chernenko was seven months younger than the "declining" Reagan in 1984. Moreover, when Chernenko took over he was as old as John McCain will be, if he becomes President in January 2009.

Like Chernenko, who found himself unable to extricate Soviet forces from Brezhnev's foolish and unwinnable war in Afghanistan, the militaristic mind-set of a visibly aging McCain - "if your only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail" [David Olive, thestar.com, Feb. 3, 08] - will render him incapable of extricating American forces from Bush's foolish, criminal, unwinnable war in Iraq. Whenever McCain asserts, "We are winging in Iraq," he needs to have someone stretch his mind by asking: "Please, describe precisely what 'winning' means"

Thus, although McCain seems nowhere as physically enfeebled as Chernenko was, Professor Bialer's observation about Chernenko's inability to overcome his country's malaise seems equally applicable to McCain: "It was unlikely…he would suddenly disclose hitherto hidden talents or change his long-held views." [Ibid] In fact, McCain has little to offer that differs from Bush's strikingly discredited policies.

Consider this: whereas Reagan joked, "My fellow Americans, I am pleased to tell you today that I've signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes," John McCain sings the Beach Boys song, "Barbara Ann," but with his own very revealing lyrics: "Bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb bomb Iran." Yet, Americans still revel in the conceit that it was only the mentally inflexible Soviet gerontocrats who were fixed in their ways.

What's even worse is the fact that Americans living under a McCain presidency will lack the ace-in-the-hole that the "living corpse," Chernenko, possessed. Chernenko had Mikhail Gorbachev as his second-in-command. And Gorbachev gradually took over the running of the Soviet Union as Chernenko declined. McCain and the Republicans don't have that luxury, because America's Gorbachevs - those individuals capable of engaging in "new thinking" -- reside in the Democratic Party. Two are running for President.

 

Walter C. Uhler is an independent scholar and freelance writer whose work has been published in numerous publications, including The Nation, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, the Journal of Military History, the Moscow Times and the San (more...)
 

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good article,I view Mccain more as a Krusheiv type... by dave stanley on Thursday, Feb 7, 2008 at 5:06:22 PM
author gives way too much credit to the 2 remainin... by Richard Mynick on Thursday, Feb 7, 2008 at 7:30:45 PM
Reagan, Chernenko, Andropov, Gorbachev, current De... by Mark Sashine on Friday, Feb 8, 2008 at 9:22:52 AM