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Updated: May 26, 2012 8:13AM
If I hadn’t known better, I would have mistaken Mikhail Gorbachev for a Chicago ward boss. Except for his Russian accent, of course.
“Salut! Salut!” he boomed as he entered a meeting room at the JW Marriott downtown, where we were to do an interview Tuesday.
With a beefy outstretched hand, the former head of the Soviet Union worked the room with the skill of a well-practiced retail politician, shaking hands with everyone: the cameraman, the producer, and most enthusiastically, with our two young journalism interns from DePaul University.
“Being in college was the best time,” he told the two young women. “Now is not the best time because I am old.”
At 81, Gorbachev fills a room.
He came to Chicago for a summit of fellow Nobel Peace Prize laureates including Jimmy Carter and the Dalai Lama. And on Monday he seemed to jump into American electoral politics with what sounded like a near-endorsement of the re-election of President Barack Obama.
“Certainly not,” said Gorbachev, explaining through a translator that though he views Obama in a positive light, it wasn’t an endorsement.
It was just, well, Gorbachev being Gorbachev. “I am a direct person.
“That’s my nature,” he said. “Therefore, I don’t have to remember everything I said.”
Gorbachev came to power in 1985. And won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990. The year before, he presided over the withdrawal of Soviet troops after a nine-year conflict in Afghanistan. Today, Afghanistan is our problem and Gorbachev declined to offer advice, suggesting America has too often been a superpower-know-it-all without always having the right answers.
“And they forced that advice on many,” he said.
Gorbachev, who helped move Russia from communism toward capitalism, is as familiar with the problems of political corruption in his country as we are in Illinois, with two of our former governors in prison. I asked if he had a theory about what makes some politicians corrupt.
“Well, I think that to some extent these are the failings of democracy,” he argued. “Democracy in our country and other countries and perhaps even here is a process where there are elections and some people, as a result of these elections, may get on top even though they are not really honest.”
In the end, he argued, voters have to assume responsibility for that corruption.
As Gorbachev talked, I glanced over at our DePaul interns, Brittany Jones and Nicole Kisich, and saw on their faces the unabashed wonder of being in the same room with a man of Gorbachev’s stature.
The Nobel laureates came to Chicago to challenge and inspire young women and men and to help new generations chart courses into an uncertain future.
“Today, we the laureates, people who are not getting any younger but people who have experience,” said Gorbachev, “need to address young people, need to connect with them.”
And connect with them, he did.