Thirty years ago today, I attended a private luncheon for the former Soviet Union President Mikhail Gorbachev. At the time, I was a young trial court judge in Los Angeles County. Although in later years during my congressional service he and I reconnected, this was my first chance to meet the man who presided--unintentionally--over the dissolution over the evil empire once known as the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.
Below is the story of that first meeting, which is excerpted from my 2013 book, "And Then I Met...."
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In the spring of 1992, I received an invitation from Lodwrick Cook, chairman of ARCO, to a luncheon at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library honoring former President Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the now-defunct Soviet Union—for a $5,000 contribution. The invitation to dine with Reagan and Gorbachev was enticing but prohibitive. I wrote Cook and thanked him for thinking of me but declined respectfully: Raising a family on a government salary, I told him, meant that if I spent $5,000 to dine with anyone, I would need to move to the Reagan Library permanently because I'd no longer be welcome in my current home.
A few days later, Cook's secretary surprised me with a phone call: "The Reagan event is sold out anyway," she said, "but Chairman Cook wants to invite you to a private lunch for Gorbachev at ARCO Towers in Los Angeles. He is having the lunch and reception so some of our executives and local government officials can meet Gorbachev during his visit to California." She advised me to get there an hour early because the Secret Service planned to secure the building.
I arrived for the event and found the surrounding streets swarming with activity. Police closed the traffic lanes closest to the building and security agents hovered everywhere. Hundreds of ARCO employees stood behind an outdoor barricade to get a glimpse of Gorbachev when his motorcade arrived.
A Secret Service agent escorted me to a private elevator to the 37th floor; another agent brought me into a large reception room where Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley and other local officials awaited Gorbachev's arrival.
At 12:15 p.m., spontaneous applause spread through the room. Gorbachev, accompanied by his wife Raisa and their daughter Irina, had arrived. Smiling broadly, he mingled freely during the reception and chatted with guests through a simultaneous translator.
When Cook introduced me to his honored guests, Mrs. Gorbachev extended her hand and greeted me in her best English: E-e-e-t e-e-z n-i-z-e to meet you!" Former President Gorbachev gripped my hand and pumped it vigorously.
As Gorbachev and I talked, I had the impression he was in no hurry to move on because (unlike everyone else) I didn't speak "at him" through the interpreter, meaning I didn't look at the interpreter and say things such as, "Please tell Mr. Gorbachev that I want him to know that I...." When communicating with him, I spoke to him directly and he did the same with me. He told me later that I was the only person he met during his California trip who knew how to speak through a simultaneous translation interpreter. I replied that I had an unfair advantage over others: As a trial court judge in Los Angeles County, I dealt each day with criminal defendants through simultaneous translators, so the skill came naturally to me.
"I hope that is the end of the comparison!" he said as he laughed.
Ushers steered the guests into the main dining room. I found myself seated at the table right next to the honorees, with Raisa Gorbachev sitting behind me. During the luncheon, county and local government officials took turns presenting the Gorbachevs with gifts, certificates, and plaques. He acknowledged each memento with a smile and a bow before turning over the booty to an aide.
Between presentations, he continued to greet guests and sign autographs. Even my seatmate Tom Plate, editorial page editor for the Los Angeles Times, wasn't immune to the temptation. "It's not very chic for reporters to ask for autographs," Plate told me. I suggested this might be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to obtain a great memento for his grandchildren. He swallowed hard and approached the former Soviet leader with a pen and menu in hand. Gorbachev inscribed it in Russian, "To a great news editor."
In starting the program, Cook mentioned that Mrs. Gorbachev had a distinguished background as an educator, and that Gorbachev loves the ballet and opera. "And," he noted, "he can recite the works of [Russian author Alexander] Pushkin!" Gorbachev chuckled when he heard the translated claim and then called out a response from his seat: "I can't do too much of that anymore!" Cook presented the Gorbachevs with a handmade quilt from an Amish village in Pennsylvania. While Gorbachev admired the quilt, Mrs. Gorbachev climbed on top of her chair, pointed to the quilt, and said (in Russian), "That quilt is meant for me and not for my husband!"
Gorbachev received a standing ovation when introduced. He embraced his American host and then waved the room to silence. Speaking without notes (and with his interpreter at his side), he promised a brief impromptu speech. Noting that Los Angeles had been rocked by riots the previous week, he praised local officials for their handling of the violence. He said there had been speculation as to whether the unrest might force him to cancel his Los Angeles visit: "I had no intention of canceling," he said, which brought a rousing cheer.
His speech focused on expanding markets in the former Soviet Union. He encouraged the gathering of business leaders to expand commerce to Russia. "Your investments will help to make a free-market economy work there," the former head of the Communist Party implored the gathering of capitalists. It was ironic to hear the man given unprecedented power to hold together that dying communist regime now preaching the gospel of free markets. Yet Gorbachev showed no hint of discomfort at this new role. He expressed his hope repeatedly that Russia and the United States would work together to help modernize his nation through pro-growth policies and economic development.
Three decades have now gone by since I sat in ARCO Towers and listened to the former president of the Soviet Union preach to an American audience the failures of socialism and the benefits of capitalism over a command economy. When reading the economic nostrums of some of our state and national leaders these days, I'm thinking we should invite Gorbachev back for another speech.
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