Ronald Reagan speechwriter Peter Robinson reflecting on his Tear Down This Wall speech 20 years after it was delivered.
HH: 20 years ago today in front of the Berlin Wall, Ronald Reagan called for it to fall. It took a while, but it did. The man who penned that line for him, and the speech generally, Peter Robinson of the Hoover Institute joins me now. Peter, always a pleasure, friend.
PR: Hugh, how are you? You mean to tell me that Tony Snow is going to be crazy enough to go up against you?
HH: Oh, he’s a wonderful guy. We will go easy on him.
PR: Oh, all right. All right. He is a wonderful guy. Go easy on him.
HH: I was looking, Peter Robinson, at the pictures that Powerline has posted, and you didn’t have any white hair when you wrote this speech.
PR: (laughing) I am completely grey now. I was twenty pounds lighter, and had dark hair. You’re exactly right. Yeah, yeah, right.
HH: It’s a wonderful write-up, and just to get the context going, people can go to Powerlineblog.com and look at the pictures. But let’s listen to couple of minutes from this wonderful speech of twenty years ago today:
RR: Now the Soviets themselves my, in a limited way, be coming to understand the importance of freedom. We hear much from Moscow about a new policy of reform and openness. Some political prisoners have been released. Certain foreign news broadcasts are no longer being jammed. Some economic enterprises have been permitted to operate with greater freedom from state control. Are these the beginnings of profound changes in the Soviet state? Or are they token gestures intended to raise false hopes in the West, or to strengthen the Soviet system without changing it? We welcome change and openness, for we believe that freedom and security go together, that the advance of human liberty…(applause), the advance of human liberty can only strengthen the cause of world peace. There is one sign that the Soviets can make that would be unmistakable, that would advance dramatically the cause of freedom and peace. General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization, come here to this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate (applause). Mr. Gorbachev…Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall (thunderous applause).
HH: Peter Robinson, you must have heard this all day today, and about a thousand…do you ever get tired of hearing it?
PR: No, actually, I don’t. I don’t know why I don’t, but I don’t. Part of it, of course, is Reagan’s delivery. There’s something about it. He was just, he was just so magical, his pipes were so good, his delivery was so good, but it’s like listening to Sinatra over and over. He was so good, somehow or other, it’s always fresh. The answer is no. I don’t get tired of it.
HH: Many people forget open the gate as the prelude.
HH: Had you intended that to be a step-up?
PR: Yes. Actually, I faced a technical problem that you as a writer yourself, Hugh, would appreciate. He was standing in front of the Berlin Wall, which was a symbol that the American audience at home, watching on television, would recognize. Behind the Berlin Wall rose the Brandenburg Gate, an 18th Century structure, which was of great historic importance to the German audience in front of him. So the problem was how do we have him talk about both the gate and the wall, and the solution was come to this gate, applause, and then step up, tear down this wall. That’s exactly right. By the way, could I also add, you and Generalissimo Duane chose exactly the right clip. People tend simply to play Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall, but the speech was embedded in the reality of the moment. Gorbachev had begun talking about glasnost and perestroika. There had not yet been an American response, and with this speech, the President, in effect, called his bluff. If you’re serious about it, there’s one way you can prove it.
HH: Now Peter Robinson, you’ve written extensively about this in your book, How Ronald Reagan Changed My Life. It’s in paperback, by the way, now for the cheap people in the audience, How Ronald Reagan Changed My Life…
HH: But walk people through. It was not an easy path to get the speech passed on, and to keep the Gipper on the track that he originally set.
PR: It was darned hard. You’re exactly right about that. Went to Berlin, taking notes, doing research, I heard a German woman make the remark that if Gorbachev was serious about all this talk, he could prove it by ripping down the wall, went back to Washington, wrote the speech you just heard, had a meeting with the President, he singled out that passage as something he especially wanted to deliver, and then the speech went out to staffing, to the State Department and the National Security Council, and for almost three days, from the moment it was released to staffing, until he finally delivered it, the State Department and the National Security Council attempted to suppress it. It was naïve, it would raise false expectations, it sounded unpresidential. And finally, what it really came down to was that central line, Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall, the direct challenge to Gorbachev himself, they argued, was too much for Gorbachev, too provocative, would put him in an awkward position. So shortly before the President, several days before the President delivered the speech, Ken Duberstein, then chief of staff, sat him down, I wasn’t at this meeting, but Ken told me what happened. It was Ken and the President, two people, sat him down, had him reread that central passage in the speech, then Ken described all the arguments against delivering it. And they talked about it for a little while, and then Ken said that Ronald Reagan, the twinkle came into his eye, and said now, I’m the President, so I get to decide if that line stays in? Ken said of course yes, Mr. President. We’re clear on that much. And Ronald Reagan replied, well then, it stays in.
HH: Peter Robinson, when Gorbachev came to President Reagan’s funeral, and stopped and put his hand on the casket, was that a good moment for you, a bad moment, a mixed moment? What was that?
PR: You know what? It was a good moment. I will tell you, Hugh, you were in Washington in ’88, excuse me, December, ’87, when Gorbachev came to Washington. I was on the South Lawn for the arrival ceremony. It felt very strange to me, and in a way, it felt wrong to me to see the White House decorated not only with the Stars and Stripes, but with the hammer and sickle. I remained very suspicious of him and of the entire Soviet enterprise. Some years later, but before the President died, I met Mikhail Gorbachev. And you know, I felt that I could see in him what Ronald Reagan saw in him. There’s, somewhere under this hide of a communist apparat, there’s decent human being. Margaret Thatcher called him a man of good will. And I asked Gorbachev, why didn’t you pull the trigger? And he said, this was his phrase, that he and Ronald Reagan believed in Christian morality. Now he still believes, calls himself a communist, but somewhere within him, excuse me, let me put it this way, Gorbachev demonstrated the failure of the communist effort to create a new man. Within Gorbachev, the leader of the Soviet Union, there was still an old Russian, someone who still was in touch with Judeo-Christian beliefs of morality and decency. And so by the time the President died, I came to understand, I believe, what Ronald Reagan had responded to in Mikhail Gorbachev. There is a human decency there. And when he put his hand on the President’s casket, that was fine by me. It was one, difficult, tricky, but in the end, decent human being saluting another.
HH: Peter Robinson, yesterday I was playing excerpts of the speech to set up for today, and Glenn from Dallas is a wildcatter down there, and calls occasionally, was listening on the line, didn’t expect me to go to him, and he had, you know, that tear in his voice, because he was just…it’s still remarkable how much Ronald Reagan can move Americans of a certain age.
PR: Yeah. Well, you know what…first of all, the decency of the man, but what…as we know now, of course, he was engaged in all kinds of negotiations with the Soviets, he felt there was a Soviet opening, and this is, of course, why the State Department, excuse me, we were making an opening to the Soviets, the Soviets themselves might create an opening, a new kind of arrangement with the United States, that would have been better for the Russian people. And that’s why the State Department opposed the line. But when it came right down to it, Ronald Reagan, what was non-negotiable with him, was the moral ground of the conflict. You could not put him in front of an affront to human dignity like the Berlin Wall, and ask him to mouth diplomatic platitudes. There’s something, it’s as though he, in that man, you had a tap root, somehow or other, directly to the deepest values of our civilization.
HH: Peter, we’ve got a minute left. Reagan had to run twice for the presidency, had to lose, had to wait eight years against the Soviets, didn’t see the wall come down. It took a long time, patience and persistence. I think that’s his key message to this generation involved in another long struggle.
PR: You bet it is, and I believe the President himself, excuse me, when I say the President, I still mean Ronald Reagan, I believe Reagan himself would have understood that when he came to office, because the Cold War had already been underway for some three decades, he felt he knew what needed to be done. He would recognize that when George W. Bush, when 9/11 happened, the world changed dramatically. He would recognize that this president, that the Hugh Hewitts of the world, that all of us are engaged in a great effort to sort out the policies, to stand up, to find out what’s going to work and what isn’t going to work, the notion that somehow or other we ought to be able to defeat the Islamo-fascists just about as quickly as Ronald Reagan defeated…that’s all false, and he would have been the first to point it out. We’re in for a long struggle, and we’re doing just about, we’re doing fine.
HH: Peter Robinson of the Hoover Institute, as well as author of How Ronald Reagan Changed My Life, always a pleasure, Peter.
End of interview.