• Neal Spelce

The Pen is Mightier

As Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev prepared to put pen to paper in a worldwide

television event to sign the document that would officially end the USSR and issue

in a new era in global history – his Russian-made pen didn’t work. That’s when a former Austinite, Tom Johnson, pulled his personal pen from his

pocket and said “Here, Mr. Gorbachev, use mine.” Tom’s Montblanc pen dissolved a global power and instantly became a historical artifact.


Mikhail Gorbachev and Tom Johnson's Mont Blanc Photo: REUTERS / Alamy Stock Photo

So how did this footnote to history come to pass? I detailed how this incident

occurred on pages 181 and 182 of my recent memoir, With the Bark Off. It is

timely to recall now because Gorbachev died August 30, 2022, at age 91.

Following service as a White House aide to President Lyndon Johnson, Tom came

to Austin in 1971 and became Executive VP of KTBC-TV, Channel 7. From there,

he had a meteoric rise to the top ranks of journalism with publishing stints at the

Dallas Times Herald and the Los Angeles Times Mirror.

Tom Johnson, Former LBJ White House aide, former publisher of Los Angeles Times, former CEO, CNN

He caught the eye of Ted Turner who had started a 24-hour cable TV venture called CNN. Tom took over as CNN CEO the day before Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990. CNN’s stellar coverage of the Gulf War, under Tom’s leadership, won virtually every award in TV News.


Gorbachev was well aware of CNN’s worldwide influence and its splendid coverage of the Gulf War. This enabled Tom to meet with Gorbachev in Moscow and to out-negotiate ABC’s Ted Koppel for exclusive rights to cover the dissolution of the Soviet Union live.


Fast forward to signing day in Moscow. All the pomp and circumstance of this

rare event was unfolding as CNN cameras carried it worldwide. Tom was standing

just off to Gorbachev’s side when, damn!, his pen didn’t work. When Tom

handed his pen to Gorbachev, the once-powerful world leader glanced at it,

looked at Tom and with a wry smile asked “American?”


That was it. He scribbled his signature. And quick-thinking Tom took back his pen

– the pen that after almost 75 years signified the end of the Union of Soviet

Socialist Republics.


“How important was that one little pen in Gorbachev’s hand? It dissolved a global

power that had dominated a scattering of small Eastern European nations since

World War II, promulgating an ideology that had fueled a dangerous Cold War

that had divided the world for decades,” I wrote in With the Bark Off. Now for the rest of the story, as broadcaster Paul Harvey used to say.


Tom donated the pen to a museum. Then, many years after Tom had departed CNN,

Tom invited Gorbachev to speak in Austin at the LBJ Library. At the end of the

program, I watched as Tom said “Mr. Gorbachev, you may remember that I took

my pen back on that historic day in Moscow. So I want you to have a new pen

exactly like that one.”


He presented Gorbachev with a new black Montblanc fountain pen.


You can learn more about Tom Johnson in hard cover, ebook or audiobook in my memoir With the Bark Off please Join My List.


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