In an event that would have been unfathomable a few years ago, former Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev opened an office Friday on one of America’s most hallowed military posts, the Presidio of San Francisco.
Gorbachev, who resigned from office in 1991 as the Soviet Union crumbled, was given the key to new digs for his pro-democracy foundation by the Presidio’s commanding general in a ceremony rich with irony and symbolism.
“Please accept this key as a gesture of our goodwill and our best wishes to you as the newest Presidian,” Lt. Gen. Glynn C. Mallory Jr. told Gorbachev.
“I assure you this key is in reliable hands,” the world’s former top communist replied with a grin.
The Gorbachev Foundation USA was invited to sink roots at the Presidio as part of the post’s conversion from the headquarters of the 6th U.S. Army to a national park. The base, a stunning piece of oceanfront real estate that has stood guard over the Bay Area for two centuries, is one of dozens scheduled for closure in cost-cutting moves by the Pentagon.
The Army will vacate the Presidio next year, and the National Park Service is reviewing 350 proposals for potential uses in the new park. They range from construction of a bungee-jumping tower to creation of a center for global environmental studies.
Gorbachev is the first applicant granted permission to move onto the post. His foundation is considered a desirable tenant because it may lure other prestigious organizations with an international focus, a theme the Park Service is promoting.
The foundation’s small staff will occupy a stately white house that was formerly home to a Coast Guard commandant. Ringed by Monterey cypress trees and just steps from the surf, it commands views of the Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco’s skyline.
“The entire Presidio is spectacular, but he got one of the best spots, that’s for sure,” said Park Service spokesman Howard Levitt. He said the lease arrangements are temporary and may change when the park blueprint is completed next year.
Gorbachev launched his Moscow-based foundation soon after resigning as president, declaring as his top goals global peace and the strengthening of democracy in the former Soviet republics. The foundation’s U.S. arm, run by a board chaired by former Sen. Alan Cranston of California, raises money and provides technical support.
On Friday, few who attended the ceremony failed to herald the historic significance of Gorbachev--a onetime Cold War adversary--setting up shop on the oldest continually operating military base in the United States.
“It is only fitting for the leader of a peace foundation to be welcomed by a soldier,” said Lt. Gen. Mallory. “It shows that the defenders of the Golden Gate have been successful . . . and now we proudly stand aside.”
Gorbachev gave this assessment of the moment to the crowd of dignitaries shivering in the San Francisco fog:
“This is the symbol of our irreversible transition from an era of confrontation and militaristic insanity to a new world order, one that promises dividends for all.”
At the close of the ceremony, Gorbachev was joined via satellite by singer Billy Joel, who announced a June benefit concert to raise money to immunize children in the United States and Russia.