There is only one musician in American history who played a key diplomatic role, even unwittingly, in the Cold War–not once, but twice. That is the extraordinary legacy of the piano prodigy Van Cliburn, the lanky Texan with the brillo hair, who at the age of 23, took Moscow by storm back in 1958.
This, only months after the Russians had beaten the pants off of America by launching Sputnik, the first satellite into space. When Cliburn won the Tchaikovsky piano competition, it was a huge boost for American morale.
He beat them at their own game, playing Russia’s most famous composer. He returned home and he was given a ticker tape parade up Broadway, the only classical musician ever to have a ticker tape parade. Just think of it.
Then three decades later, the reclusive pianist came back from sabbatical to play at the White House for the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, and his wife, Raisa, at their first state dinner at the White House. The summit had not been going well, but Cliburn had the answer. He performed one of Gorbachev’s favorite folk songs, “Moscow Nights.”
I was there covering it for NBC News and you could feel the ice of the Cold War melting at that very moment. All orchestrated, of course, by Nancy Reagan, who knew just how to do these things. The Gorbachevs responded and the rest, as they say, is history.
Van Cliburn died after a long struggle with bone cancer. He was 78.