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September 22, 2008
An American Honor for
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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