Speechwriter Who Helped Reagan “Tear Down That Wall” – POLITICO

STANFORD, Calif .– June 12 marked the 30th anniversary of Ronald Reagan’s most subversive presidential speech, a speech delivered in a divided German capital that has become a point of passionate communion between the United States and Europe. The anniversary has a tangy flavor, coming at a time when the White House is sowing so much angst and tension in European capitals – especially Berlin.

In 1987, everything was very different. The United States was the undisputed guarantor of European security. His leadership in what was then unconsciously called the “free world” relieved European governments of the need to spend heavily on their own defense. It was an agreement that bestowed greatness on the United States and ensured peace in Western Europe on very soft terms.

On the day of the speech, Reagan stood on a podium near the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin and called on Mikhail Gorbachev, leader of the Soviet Union, to end the political division between East Germany and the West Germany – to end, in fact, the Cold War.

“Secretary-General Gorbachev,” Reagan said, “if you are looking for peace, if you are looking for prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you are looking for liberalization, come here to this door. Mr. Gorbachev, open that door. Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!

These words were written by 30-year-old Dartmouth and Oxford graduate Peter Robinson, then a junior member of Reagan’s speech-writing team. I visited Robinson, now 60 and a member of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, to talk about the speech and Reagan – a man he wrote for, by his own estimate, ” more than 300 speeches ”.

* * *

The Cold War is the forgotten war. As a personal experience, Robinson tells me, he interviewed his daughter when she was in her final year of high school. He asked her to explain the American War of Independence. “No problem. We won our independence from the British. Civil War?” Lincoln freed the slaves and reunited the country. won. World War II? “Slow down, we beat Hitler and Imperial Japan.”

Fireworks light up the Brandenburg Gate during the celebrations for the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 2014 in Berlin | Sean Gallup / Getty Images

And the cold war…? “She was very uncertain, very vague. They are not taught about the Cold War in American high schools. They don’t know how Vietnam fits in, or Korea. They don’t even know who Gorbachev was.

Most Americans also forgot Reagan’s speech in Berlin, Robinson says. He’s awesome and unfailingly articulate – exactly what you’d expect from a man who’s already made a living putting words in the mouth of a US president.

Very few Stanford University students “have a vague idea” of the political context of the discourse and the Cold War, he says, sitting in an office filled with memories of his days in Washington, including a baseball signed by Gorbachev and several autographed photos. by Reagan.

What about the other side of the pond, I ask. Germans surely have a better sense of history – after all, the end of the Cold War reunified their country and made Germany a colossus again. “It’s politically annoying for the Germans,” he replies. “The cold war was hard for them because their fate was decided every morning in Washington and Moscow, not in Berlin. They couldn’t defend themselves. It’s a complicated memory.

The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 helped Germany regain self-esteem, Robinson says. “I was never able to speak to Reagan about the speech after the fall of the wall, but Mrs. Reagan told me that he was always glad that it was not Gorbachev who demolished the wall, but the Germans themselves. “

The stinging truth, of course, is that America has passed – many believe – from a golden age in which it helped tear down a wall, to a time when its president speaks of a squeaky way to build one on the southern border of the country. . What does Robinson, the Wall Man think?

“Oh my God, I’m the Wall Whisperer, am I not?” ” he asks.

“There is a fundamental distinction between a wall to keep people inside, which they had in Germany, and a wall to defend a border that prevents people from entering illegally,” he says.

People tell him all the time that “Reagan would have hated that Trump wall – that Reagan hated the walls.” And Robinson is sure Reagan would have felt “very uncomfortable with any animosity towards immigrants and certainly towards Hispanic culture.” When Reagan was running for president in 1980, he called for the creation of a Puerto Rican state, Robinson reminds me. “There was no anti-Hispanic sentiment in him, just zero.”

Yet “after three decades in which the US administrations on both sides failed to enforce immigration law, I just think he would have said, ‘Wait a moment. The mandate extends to the border. Let’s fix this. ‘”

* * *

Write speeches for Reagan, says Robinson, was not particularly difficult. Reagan had written most of his own speeches before he became president, and he had used conversational language, the diction of ordinary Americans.

“When you were writing you could hear his wonderful flutes and you knew if something was right for him or not – besides the fact that by the time he took office you had two decades of Reagan writing and recording. on every conceivable problem. You knew where he was standing.

People tell him all the time that “Reagan would have hated that Trump wall – that Reagan hated the walls.”

But the Berlin Wall speech was unprecedented; a break with the cautious diplomacy that the State Department preferred in its dealings with Moscow.

What instructions was given to him? None, says Robinson. He was just thrown into the deep end. “My advice from senior executives on the speech was, ‘An audience of about 10,000 people. Duration: 20 to 25 minutes. Subject: foreign policy. Period.’ It was up to me to figure out what Reagan had to say beyond that.

Robinson, 30 at the time, graduated from Oxford not too long ago with a second BA in ‘PPE’ – Politics, Philosophy and Economics – the ambitious gentleman’s coat rack diploma.

The reckless speechwriter “went to Berlin to do some research and ended up nowhere with the high-ranking American diplomat, who was full of things Reagan shouldn’t say.” The embassy made it clear that it did not want “comie-bashing”.

The inspiration came one evening during a dinner between Berliners, where a woman told him, with a passion that he still remembers: “If this man Gorbachev is serious about glasnost and perestroika, he can prove it by coming here and getting rid of this wall.

“Boom. I put this in my notebook. I knew right away that I had something. Because I knew Reagan would have responded to this woman’s message. I had Reagan in my head. He would have answered that woman’s message. loved it Simple, dignified, but very powerful.

Tunku Varadarajan is the Virginia Hobbs Carpenter Research Fellow in Journalism at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.

About Cody E. Vaughn

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