WASHINGTON -- President Reagan, despite having called the Soviet Union an 'evil empire' and 'the focus of evil in the modern world,' is now calling its supreme leader by his first name.
Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who spent more than two hours in the first day of their third summit engaged in 'animated' and 'forceful' private sparring over human rights, emerged with a public display of warmth.
Administration officials made clear, in diplomatic language, that Reagan gave Gorbachev an earful on the subject of Jewish emigration and reunification of American and Soviet spouses divided by the Iron Curtain.
But by midday Tuesday, one official said, Reagan told Gorbachev, 'My first name is Ron.' The Soviet leader replied, according to the official who did not hear the exchange, 'My first name is Mikhail.'
Asked by reporters Tuesday evening if old enemies were becoming new friends, the president deftly turned the phrase, saying: 'We are becoming old friends.'
A solid relationship could prove useful to the two leaders, who arranged to tackle the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf crisis in an Oval Office meeting this morning, their third of five one-on-one sessions.
At the White House state dinner for Gorbachev Tuesday night, both men toasted the nuclear arms treaty they had signed earlier in the day as a step toward peace -- but reiterated fundamental differences between their nations.
'Our relationship ... is founded not just on arms control but reaches across a broad spectrum of issues, a relationship that addresses the basic problems of self-determination in the area of regional conflicts and human rights,' Reagan told the Soviet leader. 'There are differences here, (and) ones that require frankness and candor.'
As his tough remarks were translated into Russian, Gorbachev stared hard at the president. He subsequently responded by acknowledging 'great political and ideological distances' but by saying the treaty means 'winter is on the wane.'
'The goal we are setting today,' Gorbachev said, 'is to build a nuclear-free world.'
Indeed, with human rights issues and Afghanistan to be dispensed with by this afternoon, the idea was for the leaders to focus their final day of the summit Thursday on steps toward a 50 percent reduction in longer-range nuclear arms, the strategic arsenals that most threaten the world with atomic destruction.
The agreement signed Tuesday to eliminate U.S. and Soviet missiles with ranges of 300 to 3,000 miles is seen by Reagan as significant evidence of the success of his tough policy toward the Soviets.
'On this vital issue,' the president said, 'at least we have seen what can be accomplished when we pull together.'
A U.S. official who briefed reporters Tuesday said Reagan, who opposed every one of the dozen previous postwar U.S.-Soviet summits, was debating with his counterpart 'always in a very friendly context.'
Nonetheless, the president's ebullience in political triumph after more than 20 years as a strident anti-communist came only days after he reiterated in an interview that he still believes the Soviet Union is an 'evil empire.'
Reagan first made the famous comment in a 1983 speech in which he also denounced the Soviet Union as 'the focus of evil in the modern world.'
Four years later, history found Reagan greeting the leader of the Communist Party on the White House south lawn Tuesday and saying, 'I have often felt that our peoples should have been better friends long ago.'
'Was it a perfect day?' Reagan was asked after escorting Gorbachev to his limousine at the end of the state dinner.
'I haven't thought about it very much that way,' he replied. '(But) it will be one that I will remember for a long time.'