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Gorbachev sings for his supper about history he helped create.

OXFORD, England -- What do ex-presidents do with themselves? Answer: Go on lecture tours. It is not that they have anything new to say; rather, in the manner that Jack Nicklaus takes part in over-50 golf tournaments, revealing tantalizing glimpses of his old form, so retired politicians talk.

Lady Thatcher is doing well in the talk league, and former U.S. presidents score well, but the greatest rival and best earner of them all is Mikhail Gorbachev. He was in Scotland and England recently, skillfully eluding what little election fever there was in Moscow.

The impresario of Gorbachev's tour was Jon Smith, an American sporting agent who acted for the England soccer team -- now out of the World Cup -- and for the London Monarch's soccer franchise, of which, I must confess, I had never heard.

Selling Gorbachev is a risky free-market enterprise. Smith had before him the example of Jorge Romeros, an Argentine promoter who lost so much money taking Gorby around Latin America that he went bankrupt and committed suicide last April. I caught up with the great man -- Gorbachev, not Smith -- in Oxford Dec.9.

He spoke in the town hall, a curious building in a style someone described as "Indian baroque." I was late. There was no evidence of Gorbymania, apart from an old lady who said the sidewalk outside the town hall was a good place for spotting celebrities. Her last celeb was Mother Teresa. She was hoping for a dose-up glimpse of Gorby's famous strawberry birthmark. A cop told me there would be no trouble here. In Glasgow, he said cheerfully, a 10-ton truck backed into the university parking lot shortly before Gorbachev was scheduled to speak. "That must be his speech arriving," said a pawky Scottish humorist.

Of course no one can park within miles of Oxford Town Hall. Smith marketed the speech as a "rendezvous with history." Just think, he said, "you can be in the same room as history." And you can address questions to history.

About 1,200 people paid 15 pounds each to look at history. That is the same number as the University Jewish Association, L'Chaim (Life), which organized the meeting and called it the Elie Safra Lecture.

Mikhail Sergeyvich, as history Professor Norman Stone familiarly called him, is not the most arresting of orators. He spoke in rapid bursts of three minutes, which his highly competent interpreter rendered in about 30 seconds.

Gorbachev has obviously decided to live out the rest of his life on a higher plane. He called himself a "dreamer" and allowed nothing so crude as facts to interrupt the flow of abstractions. Edifying phrases emerged: "spiritual values"; "crisis of civilization"; "a global consciousness is being born"; "humanity is faced with a choice" and poised for "a breakthrough to a new dimension."

Thus, triumphantly, to his conclusion: "Bringing together politics, science and religion is the key to solving the problems of today." His one memorable phrase was on the need for "perestroika of the heart." He was hailed with a two-minute ovation--standing in my case because I had been unable to get a seat.

The rendezvous with history never happened. Gorbachev did not take any questions. The man who had changed the course of the world, the instigator of the New World Order (remember that?), the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, is reduced to singing for his supper with platitudes and bromides. One was tempted to believe, listening to the good man, and he is manifestly a good man, that history began in 1985 with perestroika and glasnost and ended in 1991 when he was ousted in the coup. Nothing else seemed to matter. Nothing else entered his ken.

Marxism together with Vladimir Lenin, Joseph Stalin and Leonid Brezhnev were banished to the lumber room of history or rather just vanished into thin air. Professor Stone was little help. He said he disagreed with Mikhail Sergeyvich on the value of international organizations. As war broke out in 1939, he alleged, the League of Nations was disscusing a Dutch proposal, "the harmonization of level-crossing."

Stone claimed that Gorbachev posed the Dostoyevsky question: How do you stop people having liberty, and should you? The shadow of the Grand Inquisitor, the role obviously played by Boris fell darkly across the stage.

Another Oxford Scot, Archie Brown, had somewhat better credentials for introducing Gorby: at a Margaret Thatcher think tank in 1983, two years before Gorbachev came to power, he advised her that Gorby was the coming man and that "one could do business with him" -- a phrase the noble lady later made her own.

This scrupulous scholar observed that "perestroika would have been prepared by dissidents in Russia, had not your predecessors put them all in labor camps."

But such things were beneath the dreamer's gaze into the middle distance. Red has become green. Gorbachev explained that there is a movement called the Green Cross, which corresponds in environmental issues to the Red Cross, "of which I am," he proudly added, "the president."

And of course he is president of the Gorbachev Foundation, which is going to fund the Bolshoi Ballet. For a man who had once been president of the Soviet Union, this was a sad comedown.

And who is Elie Safra? A financier who has just opened a bank in Moscow. Jewish emancipation was one of the fruits of perestroika.

What was it like, then, meeting history? What will I tell my grandchildren about "the day I met Gorbachev?" I will tell them that the antechamber of history is an uncomfortable place and that raw, unforgiving winds blow through it.
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Title Annotation:Mikhail Gorbachev speaking tour
Author:Hebblethwaite, Peter
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Dec 24, 1993
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