Van Cliburn didn't play, Bruce Hornsby wasn't introduced, and the guest of honor's English interpreter could barely be heard by much of the outdoor audience.

Other than that, the 2008 Liberty Medal ceremony honoring former Soviet leader Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev went off without a hitch last night at the National Constitution Center.

Against the backdrop of clouding relations between the United States and Russia, former President George H.W. Bush, chairman of the center, presented the 20th annual award to Gorbachev for his role in ending the Cold War and bringing democracy to the formerly communist Soviet Union.

"Regardless of the dividing lines between us, President Gorbachev opened up new possibilities for the world to come together and solve its problems in the pursuit of liberty," Bush said.

When the charismatic Nobel Prize winner began his acceptance speech in Russian, however, his booming voice overpowered that of his longtime interpreter, Pavel Palazhchenko, in many parts of Independence Mall.

Their microphones could have used some perestroika (restructuring), a media wag remarked.

Bush, a frail 84, and Gorbachev, a hearty 77, are old friends who share an appreciation for good vodka. They had lunch together yesterday in Center City.

Gov. Rendell, Mayor Nutter and center president Joseph Torsella took turns singing Gorbachev's praises. So did legendary folkie Judy Collins, who opened the program with an ethereal a cappella rendition of "Amazing Grace."

It was announced that pianist Cliburn, who made history in 1958 when he won the first Tchaikovsky International Competition in Moscow, was too ill with an inner ear infection to perform.

Pallavi Mahidhara, a fourth-year student at the Curtis Institute of Music, stepped into the breach on just a few hours' notice, according to a center spokeswoman.

Cliburn appeared afterward to pay homage to his friend. The pianist performed at the Reagan White House on Gorbachev's first state visit in 1987. Cliburn also stayed over once at Gorbachev's apartment in St. Petersburg, he said.

During a late-afternoon news conference attended by U.S. and Russian journalists, Gorbachev fielded a question about Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's comments earlier in the day about Russia's invasion of Georgia last month.

She called on the West to stand up to Russian aggression, saying the country's policies had put it on a path to "isolation and irrelevance."

"I believe the secretary of state should be more careful and should show greater calm and responsibility for her judgment in calling for the West to unite against Russia," Gorbachev said through his interpreter.

As leader of the Soviet Union from 1985 to '91, Gorbachev pressed to democratize the Eastern European communist bloc by promoting glasnost (openness) and perestroika.

In 1988, the Soviet Union abandoned the Brezhnev Doctrine and gave autonomy to Eastern-bloc countries. The following year, it held its first free elections since 1917. And the Berlin Wall came down.

Gorbachev became president in 1990, the year he won the Nobel Peace Prize. The next year, after a coup, he voluntarily resigned. The Soviet Union itself came to an end shortly thereafter.

He has remained in public life with his San Francisco-based Gorbachev Foundation, which promotes political and economic research, and Green Cross International, an environmental organization.

Established in 1989, the Liberty Medal is awarded to men and women "who have strived to secure the blessings of liberty to people the world over." It comes with $100,000.

Last night's program ended with singer Bruce Hornsby walking on stage - unannounced - and sitting at the piano. Before performing his 1986 trademark "The Way It Is," he introduced himself, noting that no one else had.

A center spokeswoman said later that it was all by design.

Past Medal Recipients

2007: U2 lead singer Bono and his advocacy organization, Debt AIDS Trade Africa.

2006: Former Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton.

2005: Ukrainian President Viktor A. Yushchenko.

2004: Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

2003: U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.

2002: Secretary of State Colin L. Powell.

2001: U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

2000: Scientists James D. Watson and Francis H.C. Crick.

1999: South Korean President Kim Dae Jung.

1998: Former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell.

1997: CNN International.

1996: Former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres and King Hussein of Jordan.

1995: Sadako Ogata, U.N. high commissioner for refugees.

1994: Czech President Vaclav Havel.

1993: South African leaders F.W. de Klerk and Nelson Mandela.

1992: U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.

1991: Former Costa Rican President Oscar Arias and Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders).

1990: Former President Jimmy Carter.

1989: Polish President Lech Walesa.EndText

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