PEOPLE who live by yesterday's poll results may be puzzled as to whether Mikhail Gorbachev, Tom Brokaw, Bill Cosby, or Lee Iacocca is first in line to inherit the Walter Cronkite mantle as America's favorite substitute-president. Perhaps uncle in chief is a more fitting title. Cronkite had real staying power in the role of fantasy candidate for president. So did Iacocca. Brokaw's momentary occupancy of the slot earlier this month shows that network anchor is a good stepping stone to glory.
Gorbachev is the latest - and best - of a line of communist-bloc leaders who, like Politburo member Frol Kozlov in the 1950s, were said to be capable of ``running General Motors'' had they been born in a different place. (GM's board might like to grab Gorbachev and send Ross Perrot to run the Kremlin.)
All of which is a circuitous way of announcing that this column is going to split in two this week and talk about both Bill Cosby's TV family sitcom and the next act in the very serious drama scripted by Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan.
Let's throw journalistic orthodoxy to the wind and start with the next step in arms control, before turning to TV.
It's likely that the Senate will ratify the treaty dismantling mid-range nuclear missiles. And do so without tacking on major disabling reservations. That's a desirable end.
Ultra-conservative arguments that the treaty ought to be heavily amended make no sense.
The only result of such an amendment would be: (1) to convince Western European leaders and publics that Washington is terminally fickle and untrustworthy. (First asking them to accept missiles, then asking to remove them, then fiddling with the removal. Such behavior could push many Europeans in the direction of neutralism, undermining the NATO alliance.) (2) To give Moscow a reason to renounce the treaty, leaving both sides' missiles in place.
There is, however, sense in the plea of the European and American right that no deep cuts in long-range strategic missiles take place without using that disarmament as leverage for fair reductions in conventional forces (and safeguards on chemical weapons) in Europe.
That position is, in fact, not monopolized by tacticians on the right side of the spectrum. It is advocated by centrists and some progressives as well. In America it runs the gamut from Republican Henry Kissinger to Democratic chairman Les Aspin of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
There is a risk in tying deep cuts in long-range missiles to conventional force cuts. Such a link would substantially slow down another linkage - the US-Soviet ``grand compromise'' that Mr. Gorbachev and Mr. Reagan hope will lower the risk of both accidental war and ``first strike'' vulnerability.
Both men, while still differing, pin their hopes for a major fourth summit in mid-1988 on arriving at such a Grand Compromise. (A Grand Compromise would trade off balanced heavy cuts in various types of offensive long-range missiles in exchange for a slowdown in Reagan's timetable for testing and deploying of a defensive missile system.)
Some conservative politicians in the West would like to see conventional arms bargaining tied to the Grand Compromise package to kill it by delay. Others are genuinely concerned that all kinds of first-strike capability, including tank warfare, be sharply reduced in an Even Grander Compromise between East and West.
Each course has hazards. The Grand Compromise risks loss of Western leverage on conventional-force reductions. Waiting for an Even Grander Compromise risks delay that could see Mr. Gorbachev's momentum and maneuvering room undermined during a change of administrations in Washington.
On the whole, the risk of delay seems acceptable. Mr. Gorbachev's Politburo colleagues seem likely to continue giving him more latitude on foreign policy and arms bargaining than on domestic reform. He won't happily agree to a bigger package including conventional forces. But he won't give up dealing with the West either. Mr. Reagan's successor might lose the services of the redoubtable Paul Nitze as an arms savant. But the most likely candidates for next president would carry on the general course of bargaining set by Messrs. Reagan, Shultz, Nitze, Gorbachev, and Dobrynin.
Now for Bill Cosby.
Martha Bayles, a normally estimable reviewer in the Wall Street Journal sank her teeth this week into the Cosby TV show, and clones that comedically salute family life.
Her argument is a version of a familiar litany: namely, that life doesn't imitate TV or movie plots. Usually this argument plays the other side of the street, saying that films saturated with mayhem and careening cars don't promote sadism and crazy driving in real life. In this case, Ms. Bayles urges that films picturing happy (if occasionally perturbed) family life neither (1) mirror nor (2) influence the widely deteriorated family life of 1980s America.
Ms. Bayles bemoans the cheery humor of the Cosby family in contrast to the gritty reality of divorce-prone, unwed-mother-troubled US.
It seems to me this line of argument misses the point. Any American with one eye open knows from news, documentaries, books, neighbors, and the Census Bureau that marital and family life are not what they should be for large numbers of citizens. The impact of the Cosby serial arises precisely because it shows a way out of such decline. Its unspoken theme: deterioration need not be pre-ordained and irrevocable, for black or white Americans.
In short, Cosby's Huxtable family is a role model for members of ``broken'' families and for straight families that often need more guidance in interpersonal relationships than is apparent to those outside the front door. That's the reason for its persistent No. 1 rating in the US, South Africa, and elsewhere.
What it says about children talking things out with parents and vice versa is transferrable to real life. It works. It works for intact families, for single-parent families, and for children commuting between divorced parents.
Earl W. Foell is editor in chief of The Christian Science Monitor.