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September 22, 2008

An American Honor for Gorby


PHILADELPHIA – In the middle of a campaign season in which “change” and “reform” have been key themes of both presidential candidates, the National Constitution Center on Thursday night honored a man long synonymous with both. But it’s a safe bet that neither Barack Obama nor John McCain will ever deliver the amount of change and reform to their country that Mikhail Gorbachev brought to his.


The 77-year-old Gorbachev, the seventh and last leader of the Soviet Union, was honored with the Liberty Medal Thursday night at the Center. Presenting the award was the other man who presided over the end of the Cold War – former President George H.W. Bush, who has become Gorbachev’s good friend.


The Liberty Medal is handed out annually, to “men and women of courage and conviction who strive to secure the blessings of liberty to people the world over.” U2’s Bono received the medal last year along with the DATA AIDS charity that he co-founded. Several previous winners, including Jimmy Carter, Nelson Mandela and Gorbachev himself, have also been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.


The Center, which opened in 2004, is a museum dedicated to the history of the U.S. Constitution. So far this year it has hosted Obama’s “race speech,” the final primary debate between Obama and Hillary Clinton and a particularly memorable Colbert Report segment.


It was a beautiful event, even as the actual ceremony was marred somewhat by microphone problems which, during his speech, made Gorbachev’s voice too loud and his translator’s not loud enough. But Bruce Hornsby performed a stirring rendition of “The Way It Is” while American pianist Van Cliburn, who wowed a Russian audience in the 1950s, sang Gorbachev’s praises.


President of the Soviet Union from 1985 until its dissolution six years later, Gorbachev has since emerged as an internationally respected philanthropist and commentator on world affairs. Still, even 20 years later, it was quite jarring to see the man who once led the Evil Empire photographed in front of a giant American flag, receiving honors from a former president of the United States, in a ceremony held on Independence Mall.


It was apropos that the ceremony took place in Philadelphia, the home of Rocky. With an American audience wildly cheering their celebrated former foe, the evening resembled the ending of Rocky IV, in reverse. (Indeed, a clip from that film was shown as part of a video, at the event, about the history of the Cold War.)


Prior to the ceremony, Gorbachev hosted a 30-minute Q&A session with reporters in which, speaking through a translator, he discussed the award, his career and the present world scene.


Asked to assess the recently frosty relations between the U.S. and Russia, Gorbachev defended his country’s actions arguing, as he has in recent interviews, that Georgia is to blame for the start of the conflict. He also chided Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice for comments, also Thursday, in which she called for the West to unite in standing up against Russia.


“Two great nations must bear in mind that they have great responsibility,” Gorbachev said, referring to the U.S. and Russia.


On the subject of Vladimir Putin’s stewardship of Russia, Gorbachev argued that there is much more freedom of speech in newsprint and radio than there used to be, although he did grant that there is “too much government influence” on television in the country. However, he also had unkind words for media coverage in the U.S., especially of the Russia/Georgia conflict. “That’s freedom for you,” he said.


As for the election, Gorbachev did not endorse a candidate in the presidential election, saying, “If I made recommendations, you would say ‘Gorbachev is overextending himself.’” But he did say that he hopes whoever is the next president will “think about the lessons” of the past.


© 2008 North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.


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