Gorby is coming! Gorby is coming!
I couldn’t believe it. Mikhail Gorbachev, the recently ousted head of the Soviet Union, who had almost single-handedly ended the Cold War, was coming to Santa Barbara! I knew I was going to be there to greet him.
I had written a long and glowing review of his book Perestroika: New Thinking for Our Country and the World (1987) in my Isla Vista Free Press. In the book, he laid out his plan to shift the USSR toward a market economy and open the political system to real elections.
The occasion was a visit to former U.S. President Ronald Reagan’s ranch at the top of a ridge of the Santa Ynez mountains, a few miles to the west of Santa Barbara. Reagan and Gorby had bonded during their negotiations to slim down the insane inventory of nuclear arms both countries harbored. The trip was to be purely social, since both men no longer held power.
In my opinion, Reagan was a disaster as president but is fondly remembered. This is the man who, 10 years after America’s ignoble retreat from the rooftop of the U.S. embassy in Saigon, called the Vietnam experience a “noble” war. And whose foreign policies led to the deaths of tens of thousands of Central Americans.
Gorby and his wife, Raisa, and Reagan and his wife, Nancy, touched down at Santa Barbara’s Municipal Airport about noon on Saturday May 2, 1992. They arrived in Malcolm Forbes’s jet, a two-toned green 727 that was humorously named “Capitalist Tool.”
My son Genesis, family friend Bert Webb, and I arrived at the airport about an hour early. We were among about 50 civilians who had come to welcome the Gorbachevs (and Reagans, I guess). I brought along a 2’ x 3’ poster that was stapled to a five-foot-long stick so it could be thrust into the air as the party arrived. On one side I had painted “Thank You Gorby” and on the other was a large peace sign.
I thought there would be lots of signs — like back in the 1960s and ’70s. I was surprised to find that mine was the only one
We were disappointed that the welcomers were confined behind a chain-link fence at least a football field away from the arriving party. Still, we could clearly see the Gorbachevs and Reagans and their entourage of media representatives and Secret Service agents as they alighted the aircraft and walked toward their limo.
As the group continued toward the limo, Gorby looked our way and noticed my sign, which I was turning back and forth so he could see both the written message and the peace sign. He then stopped the party, smiled and waved directly at us. It was at that instant that Genesis, forcing his telephoto lens through the squares of the metal fence, snapped a wonderful picture of Gorby waving at us.
Sometime during the event, a reporter with a microphone asked me the meaning of the sign I was carrying. I answered that I felt Gorbachev “was the greatest force for peace in the last 20 years.”
Over the next several days, I heard from friends across the country that had heard me on the radio news talking about Gorby’s arrival in Santa Barbara. A few weeks later, a distant relative sent me a clip from the Jackson (Michigan) Citizen-Patriot newspaper that quoted my comments about the same event. Of course, the AP article didn’t mention that I had been born and mostly raised in Jackson; it said I was from the nearby community of Isla Vista.
As I read this article, I flashed on how much I had changed since I left Jackson nearly 30 years earlier.
No local news media saw fit to mention my welcome to Gorby. But we’ll always have the picture of him waving to us.
Written in honor of Mikhail Gorbachev’s birthday on March 2.