Tear Down This Wall speechwriter Peter Robinson remembers his friend and colleague Tony Snow, and has sharp criticism of Barack Obama’s desire to speak in Berlin.
HH: On a very sad Monday as I commemorate with a number of his friends in the last couple of hours, and now with Peter Robinson, Hoover Institution senior fellow and former speechwriter for President Reagan, the passing of Tony Snow. Peter, sorry to talk to you on such a sad day. I know you were close to Tony, but I wanted to talk to someone who wrote alongside of him, because he did so many things, but not many people…everyone could see him be at the White House, everyone could watch him on Fox News, but not many people got to work with him as a speechwriter like you did. Tell us about Tony Snow.
PR: Tony Snow, Hugh, was with Bill Buckley and two or three others, actually, I’d include you on this very short list, of the hardest working people I’ve ever known in my life. Now you know, because you’ve written a lot yourself, that of all the enterprises in which somebody who is in our line of work these days can engage in, radio, television, writing, the writing is the hardest, and in some ways, it’s the well. It’s where we all flesh out our ideas. It’s where we think things through most deeply. And Tony worked hard at the writing. He viewed it as Bill Buckley did, as Ronald Reagan did, as the first discipline. He was always reading, and he was always writing. Don’t forget, of course, that he got his start in journalism as a columnist writing under deadlines, thinking through the issues of the day. And then as a speechwriter, nobody worked harder refining a phrase, sorting out his arguments. If you go back and look at speeches that Tony wrote for George H. W. Bush, in those days, by the way, he only had two initials. Everybody called him G.B. Now we have to call him G.H.W.B. But Tony’s speeches were all very carefully wrought arguments. Tony was a wonderful personality. But what people may miss unless they are looking for it is that there was a very good mind at work there.
HH: You know, Peter Robinson, I also want to stress, you are a man of faith, very devout Catholic. So was Tony a man of faith. And I think it actually informed the way that you do this job. There’s a temptation in the White House to give in, especially in the White House press room, to hating your opponents, or getting angry with them all the time.
HH: And Tony just didn’t…I just was talking with Ed Gillespie before you came on, didn’t have an enemy in the press room.
PR: Yes, that’s exactly right. You know, I have to put this carefully, because it could be misinterpreted. But by the time you get to be, there are consolations to being middle aged. And one of the consolations is that you actually get friends you’ve known long enough you can see them grow, and you can see them develop. I first knew Tony Snow, oh, twenty years ago when he was a raw, ambitious kid. And Tony wanted a lot. He wanted to succeed. He was working terribly hard. And I saw him over the years develop into a man whose family was of first importance, whose faith, you’re exactly right, that he actually fought through his faith and became a Roman Catholic. In fact, the longest, I can recall I put up a post about it on National Review this morning, some years ago, he and I spent three years together in Berlin shooting a documentary on President Reagan’s Brandenburg Gate address for Fox News. And Tony and I ended up talking one evening after we’d done the work on our final evening. He ordered, he knew beers in Berlin. Wherever you were on the face on the Earth, Tony had already been there and had figured out the good places to have a beer.
HH: (laughing) Good for him. Good Catholic man.
PR: So he did. Exactly. We ended up talking about faith, and how he had come to his decision, and how much it meant to him. So when you see Tony Snow during those seventeen months when he was White House Press Secretary, what you see is a man who somehow or other has, he’s no longer ambitious. There are none of the envies, or who’s getting ahead, or all these things that really would just torture us all when we were in our 20s, how do you get the next job, who’s doing well, who liked me. He felt that way when he was in his 20s. We all did. But what you see, somehow you see somebody whose risen above all that to the argument. There’s a kind of serenity and sprightliness and joy in Tony as the White House Press Secretary that for those of us who knew him for a number of years and knew him well, this was a kind of full flowering of his personality, a kind of maturity. You could see that in him.
HH: Two weeks ago, Duane had an e-mail exchange with Tony on the subject of prayer. We had wanted him to come on and talk about Tim Russert. Maybe it was three or four weeks ago now. And Tony declined. He didn’t have any voice because of his chemotherapy.
HH: But then he went back and forth with Duane on the subject of prayer. And he was a very prayerful guy. And did you see him in the late stages of his cancer, Peter?
PR: No, the last time…no, the answer is no. The last time I saw him was last February in Washington. We saw each other briefly, and gee, he looked great. He was full of energy, he spoke at an event that the Hoover Institution was hosting in Washington. And I thought to myself, frankly, we chatted for a moment or two, and I went away from that encounter very relieved. I thought this is a guy who’s going to live for twenty years.
HH: That’s what…we had the assumption that he was on the comeback trail…
HH: …because of that exchange. And of course, he kept it very private, and consistent with him that he was not, he was not in this for the show. He was in it for service at the end. I think that’s why he went to the White House…
HH: …is that…
PR: Oh, I think so. There’s no doubt. There’s no doubt. He took…I mean, again, you have to be careful how you say this, because there are plenty of Americans who’d be very happy to have the paycheck that a press secretary receives, but Tony was raising three kids, and he took a pay cut to go to the White House. I have to say there’s also, in my judgment, those seventeen months are not just delightful to think about because Tony was so darn good at what he did, that daily drama of the interchange with the press. It was kind of like a bullfighter in a ring in some ways, and would he pull it off? And every single day, he did, and every single day, he loved it. But in my judgment, when Tony Snow went into the White House, the country was in serious danger of another meltdown on the level of Watergate. The White House had lost its voice, it had lost its self-confidence, and Congress sensed it. The Congress had just changed control from Republicans to Democrats, and there was serious danger, in my judgment, that the country would suffer a serious assault on the president of the United States, and a collapse of authority and self-confidence in the White House itself. And one man, in my judgment, more than any other, prevented that, and that man was Tony Snow.
HH: I think you’re right. And I think he redefined the role of the press secretary. Now I like Dana Perino a lot. She’s not the level of the game that Tony brought to the job, but she’s very good. But I think the next president, whether it’s Barack Obama or John McCain, would be well served to bring a public intellectual, or a seasoned columnist/broadcaster to do battle on the ideas like Tony Snow did.
PR: Right, right.
HH: It advances the public’s understand of what’s going on.
PR: Right. You’re absolutely right. He…I believe he, I’d include Bill McGurn, who was speechwriter at that time, and who gave the President dignified, gravity-filled speeches. There were two or three people who in my judgment really staved off what could have been a terrible moment for the country. But I agree on also Tony, you’re exactly…and it hadn’t occurred to me until you put it just now, but he redefined the job from data, the President will be leaving on such and such a helicopter, and to mere fighting, how dare you say that about the President, to a combat of ideas. He raised the entire level of discourse in that press room.
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HH: I do want to not let you go, Peter, without A) updating people on what you’re up to since we were up at the Stanford institute. You and Rob Long are getting ready to launch Robinson & Long, which I think is going to be the go-to news portal out there. Will it be up and running in July or August? Do we know yet?
PR: My thinking is mid-August.
HH: All right.
PR: I repose my confidence in the hands of the tech guys.
HH: Robinson & Long, we’ll tell people about it when it launches, but people should just put a mental note there. It’s going to be your daily morning wake-up call for conservative commentary and news. And you are writing a history of the Cold War.
PR: Yes, I am.
HH: Is it well-launched? I’ve got some people to talk to about it when I get back to Philadelphia in August. But I’m wondering, is it well-launched?
PR: It is well-launched. It is well-launched. I haven’t written more than a couple of thousand words of notes, but I’m reading and thinking and drawing up lists of interview subjects, and ready to go to Europe to interview people, and have already had…I have to say, one of the things about the Hoover Institution is the people who come here. I just had a long conversation, in fact, I taped a show a couple of days ago with Christopher Hitchens, who thinks Leon Trotsky could have saved Soviet Communism if things had gone his way instead of Lenin’s way. And later that very day, I ran into Bob Service, the great English historian. Not Bob Conquest who lives here, but Bob Service who visits from Oxford each year. And Bob Service is completing a biography of Leon Trotsky. I mentioned Hitchens’ view that Hitch still considers him a Trotskyist, and Bob Service said oh, rubbish.
PR: One of the things that my biography, my work on Trotsky will show is that he laid the foundation for Stalinism. So one of the things I’m taking right on is this lingering notion, you still see it, God bless him, and Christopher Hitchens, who is right on so many subjects, this lingering notion that Communism was a beautiful dream that was somehow hijacked by Lenin and Stalin. Nonsense. It was evil from the beginning.
HH: Well, we’ll both work on Hitchens on that one. But let me ask you, Peter, because you are, you are so steeped in the Cold War history, and you wrote the Mr. Gorbachev, Tear Down This Wall speech along with the Gipper, you know what the Brandenburg Gate meant both for the Kennedy speech, for the Reagan speech…
HH: …but also for the decades of Cold War hostility. What was your reaction when you saw that Barack Obama requested to give a campaign speech there?
PR: I thought it confirmed my notion that Barack Obama is both grasping and silly. He doesn’t understand, in my judgment, what he’s doing by inviting people to compare him, who spent a few years in the Illinois State Legislation, and a couple of years in the United States Senate, and who very clearly has no thought out foreign policy whatsoever, asking people to compare him to two grown ups, two giants. John Fitzgerald Kennedy and Hugh Hewitt and Peter Robinson would not have agreed on every issue, but he wished the United States of America to prevail, intended to stand up to Soviet Communism, and that’s exactly what he said in Berlin with that famous speech, Ich bin ein Berliner. This was a serious man who had traveled the world, and understood foreign policy in depth before he spoke in Berlin. And with Ronald Reagan, who had dedicated his life to thinking through America’s place in the world, and the need for the United States of America to reassert itself and its ideals. For Barack Obama to invite…well, all I can say is, good luck, buster. But don’t go to Berlin unless you have something to say.
HH: Does it not tell us about him, Peter Robinson, that there really is no difference between the political and the policy? And now I know a lot of people used to say President Reagan didn’t draw that line, but he did when it came to the biggest issues, and the biggest issue of course, war and peace and the Soviets. I’m astonished that we get an admission this early on that it’s all about the camera shot with Barack Obama.
PR: Right, right. Now this is, again, John Kennedy’s a Democrat, Ronald Reagan’s a Republican. But there’s this large issue, America’s role in the world, our need to stand up against a vicious and determined enemy. And what you see them both doing is standing up, a certain willingness to fight, a willingness to assert America’s values, and the importance of America’s role in the world. Contrast that with Barack Obama, whose most pronounced foreign policy, his only pronounced foreign policy as far as I can tell, is let’s skedaddle from Iraq just as fast as ever we possibly can, followed and modified by a few head fakes that suggest he may modify his position to the center. I mean, this is just a kind of, it’s a cream puff. It’s not policy. There’s not…it’s a lack of seriousness. The man is running for president of the United States, and what he’s demonstrating by wishing to speak in Berlin, with as far as I can tell, nothing much to say, is a willingness to embrace gimmickry, not to stand for something.
HH: Peter Robinson of the Hoover Institute, always a pleasure, my friend. Thanks for sharing some time with us today.
End of interview.