The Malta Independent 23 June 2024, Sunday
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Bush-Gorbachev Malta Summit dinner enjoyed by crew instead of leaders

Malta Independent Tuesday, 1 May 2007, 00:00 Last update: about 11 years ago

A former White House staff member this weekend recounted how a lavish dinner spread out for then US president George HW Bush and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was eventually enjoyed by American sailors when a strong storm and choppy seas left Mr Gorbachev uneasy about leaving the safety of his own ship.

Former White House social secretary Laurie Firestone, delivering a talk this weekend as part of the White House Lecture Series, recalled the night in question as one of her most vivid memories as she highlighted extracts from her book, An Affair to Remember: State Dinners for Home Entertaining.

Ms Firestone had accompanied the first president Bush to the 1989 Malta Summit, held just a month after the Berlin Wall was famously dismantled brick by brick by a jubilant mob, and which marked the end of post-World War II hostilities between the world’s superpowers.

During the overnight stay in Marsaxlokk Bay, on 2 December 1989 – Bush aboard the USS Belknap and Gorbachev aboard the Maxim Gorky – Malta had been rocked by a violent north easterly storm which had left the warships hosting the leaders rocking precariously at their anchor despite the protected harbour’s relative calm.

Speaking this weekend, Ms Firestone recounted how Mr Bush had planned a lavish dinner to be organised by her aboard the American aircraft carrier – including fine food, expensive American wines and extravagant centrepieces for the leaders to enjoy.

But as dinner was being prepared, a strong storm blew in, rocking the ships. “We joked that we did not know whether to put the Dramamine on the left or right of the plates,” she recalled on Friday evening to hundreds of guests at the George Bush Library.

But just as the dinner was prepared, Ms Firestone was informed that Mr Gorbachev had cancelled the dinner, having refused to leave the safety of the Maxim Gorky in such rough waters. Mr Bush instead accompanied Mr Gorbachev for dinner on the Soviet cruise ship.

“The crew of our ship loved the supper,” Ms Firestone remarked.

The Malta summit had marked the official cessation of Cold War hostilities and will go down in history as a major turning point in East-West relations. As a Soviet official had remarked at the time, the summit had “buried the Cold War at the bottom of the Mediterranean” – where it rests to this day, presumably on the seabed somewhere between Marsaxlokk and Birzebbuga.

The leaders discussed the multiple changes taking place across Eastern Europe, Mr Gorbachev’s perestroika plans and the lifting of the Iron Curtain, which had bitterly separated eastern and western Europe for the four decades following World War II.

At the close of talks, Mr Gorbachev had remarked during a memorable press conference at the Mediterranean Conference Centre, “The world is leaving one epoch and entering another. We are at the beginning of a long road to a lasting, peaceful era. The threat of force, mistrust, psychological and ideological struggle should all be things of the past.”

Replying, Mr Bush had remarked from his podium placed alongside that of Mr Gorbachev, “We can realise a lasting peace and transform the East-West relationship to one of enduring cooperation. That is the future that Chairman Gorbachev and I began right here in Malta.”

In addition to George H.W. Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev, also taking part in discussions was current US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, then relatively unknown and serving as the National Security Council’s senior director for Soviet and East European Affairs. Also on hand was James Baker – Ronald Reagan’s White House chief of staff, secretary of the treasury, and Bush senior’s secretary of state. Most recently, Mr Baker served as the co-chairman of the Iraq Study Group.

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