I was sorry to learn of Mikhail Gorbachev’s death today. Some time around 2000 Gorbachev was the Annual Dinner speaker for my organization, Center of the American Experiment. It was an epic event; we drew a crowd of 2,000 to the field house at the University of Minnesota. I was the chairman of American Experiment’s board at that time, so my daughters greeted Gorbachev at the airport and presented him with flowers. There was a photo of that on the front page of the Star Tribune the next morning. I wound up spending a portion of the day with Gorbachev, and found him to be a genuinely nice guy. (His daughter, who was traveling with him, was another story.)
At dinner that night, my wife and I were on the dais along with Gorbachev and some others, and I was seated next to him. We chatted a little; his English was excellent, but he delivered his speech in Russian with a simultaneous translation, like at the U.N. Everyone thought it was a fine speech. When he was finished he got a round of applause and returned to his seat. He sat down, leaned over to me, and asked, “Did I talk too long?”
Gorbachev was no free enterprise conservative. He tried to make Communism work and to preserve the USSR, but he failed. One could say that his real accomplishment was putting a human face on Soviet leadership. In the end, he was not willing to order the violence that would have been needed to keep the Soviet regime in power. All I can say about the incidental time I spent with Gorbachev was that, in my opinion, the human face was real.
UPDATE: This is the photo that appeared in the Star Tribune: