No longer encumbered by a statesman's grueling schedule, former Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev soaked up San Francisco as a tourist on Friday, taking a whirlwind tour of the city that hosts a branch of his Moscow-based foundation.
Traveling by limousine in a motorcade escorted by vanloads of Secret Service agents and a phalanx of motorcycle cops, Gorbachev paused frequently during his jaunt--shaking hands with onlookers, patting the heads of giggly schoolchildren and admiring San Francisco's scenery.
The ex-Communist Party chief marveled at the bravery of a surfer bobbing in the city's frigid surf, laughed when told that Alcatraz Island--a former federal prison--is now a national park, and cracked jokes with a camera-toting crowd that swarmed him on the shore of San Francisco Bay.
There were also some solemn moments. Commemorating Friday's anniversary of the Allied victory over Nazi Germany in 1945, Gorbachev and his wife, Raisa, laid a wreath of red and white carnations at a memorial for American soldiers killed during World War II.
And, during a speech at the oceanfront Presidio Army post, Gorbachev grew misty-eyed as he recalled how his father, an engineer in the Soviet Army, was wounded while fighting the Nazis in Czechoslovakia.
"I remember those years," Gorbachev said, noting that he was a boy of 10 when the "Great Patriotic War," as it is called in the former Soviet Union, began.
Noting that the Presidio--one of the nation's oldest Army posts--is being closed and remade into a national park, he added: "It is wonderful and symbolic that this military base is being converted for the use of people."
The day of sightseeing came midway through Gorbachev's two-week tour of the United States, his first since he resigned as president of a disintegrating Soviet Union in December. Gorbachev's mission is to raise money for his Gorbachev Foundation, which aims to strengthen democracy in his country and enhance global cooperation.
Everywhere he went Friday, the stout, balding ex-president drew cheers and adulation from San Franciscans--a dramatic and no doubt refreshing change from the hostile reception he receives in his homeland.
"This is the guy who brought down the (Berlin) Wall, you know what I mean?" said Army Spec. Scott Siller, 22, as he trained his video camera on the former Soviet leader. "That was really cool, because a lot of soldiers got to leave Germany and come home to be with their families."
Mike Pickett, 11, was permitted to skip school in hopes he might get a glimpse of "Gorby" at the Presidio. The bet paid off handsomely.
"I shook his hand! I shook his hand," Pickett squealed as he jumped up and down repeatedly. "I will never wash this hand again. I swear!"
Despite his display of easy familiarity with the state's people, Gorbachev proved that he is somewhat of a stranger to California culture. As he stood beside crashing waves at Ft. Point, he pointed out to sea at a surfer.
"What's that?" Gorbachev asked his National Park Service host, Brian O'Neill.
"That's a surfer," O'Neill replied politely through a translator.
"What is the water temperature . . . It's not too cold for them?" Gorbachev continued in astonishment.
"Well, he has a wet suit," O'Neill explained.
The surfer, Court Mast, paddled in at a furious pace, noticing he had become a subject of interest. But by the time he reached the shore, Gorbachev was on his way.
"Oh well," the San Francisco photographer said. "It would have been great to meet him."
On Friday night, Gorbachev was feted at a private dinner hosted by his old friend and adversary, former Secretary of State George Shultz. Today, he delivers a speech at Stanford University.