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From the book How Ronald Reagan Changed My Life, by Peter Robinson. Copyright ©2003. Published by arrangement with ReganBooks, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.
Ronald Reagan Presidential Library

In June 1987 Ronald Reagan stood in front of the Berlin Wall, the Brandenburg Gate rising behind him, to deliver a challenge to Mikhail Gorbachev. In recent months, the president explained, we had heard a great deal from the Soviet Union about a new policy of glasnost, or openness. If General Secretary Gorbachev were serious about this new policy, the president asserted, Gorbachev could prove it. The president set his jaw, then spoke with controlled but palpable anger — shortly before, he had learned that a crowd that had gathered in East Berlin to hear him had been forcibly dispersed. He delivered the last four words of his challenge, each a single syllable, like hammer blows. ‘Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!’

In delivering that demand, Ronald Reagan overruled virtually the entire foreign policy apparatus of the United States government. How do I know? I wrote the speech. Let me explain.

In April 1987, when I was assigned to write the speech, the celebrations for the 750th anniversary of the founding of Berlin were underway. Queen Elizabeth had already visited the city. Mikhail Gorbachev was due in a matter of days. Although President Reagan hadn’t been planning to visit Berlin, he was going to be in Europe in early June, first visiting Rome, then spending several days in Venice for an economic summit. At the request of the West German government his schedule was adjusted to permit him to stop in Berlin for a few hours on his way back to the United States from Italy. I was told only that the president would speak at the Berlin Wall, that he was likely to draw an audience of about 10,000, and that, given the setting, he probably ought to talk about foreign policy.

In late April, I spent a day and a half in Berlin with the White House advance team — the logistical experts, Secret Service agents and press officials — who went to the site of every presidential visit to make arrangements. All I had to do in Berlin was find material. When I met the ranking American diplomat in Berlin, I assumed he would give me some.

A stocky man with thick glasses, the diplomat projected an anxious, distracted air throughout our conversation, as if the very prospect of a visit from Ronald Reagan made him nervous. The diplomat gave me quite specific instructions. Almost all were in the negative. He was full of ideas about what the president shouldn’t say. The most left-leaning of all West Germans, the diplomat informed me, West Berliners were intellectually and politically sophisticated. The president would therefore have to watch himself. No chest thumping. No Soviet bashing. And no inflammatory statements about the Berlin Wall. West Berliners, he explained, had long ago gotten used to the structure that encircled them.

The diplomat offered only a couple of suggestions. Reagan should mention American efforts to obtain more air routes into West Berlin. And he should play up American support for a plan to turn West Berlin into an international conference center.

After I left the diplomat, several members of the advance team and I were given a flight over the city in a U.S. Air Force helicopter. Although all that remains of the wall these days is paving stones to show where it stood, in 1987 the structure dominated Berlin. From the air, the wall seemed less to cut one city in two than to separate two different modes of existence. On one side lay movement, color, modern architecture, crowded sidewalks and traffic. On the other lay a kind of void. Buildings still exhibited pockmarks from shelling during the war. Cars appeared few and decrepit, pedestrians badly dressed. When we hovered over Spandau Prison, the rambling brick structure in which Rudolf Hess was still being detained, East German soldiers peered up at us through binoculars, rifles over their shoulders. The wall itself, which from West Berlin had seemed a simple concrete structure, was now revealed as an intricate complex — the East Berlin side lined with guard posts, dog runs and row upon row of barbed wire. The pilot drew my attention to pits of raked gravel. If an East German guard ever let anybody slip past him to escape to West Berlin, the pilot told us, he would find himself forced to explain their footprints to his commanding officer.

That evening I broke away from the advance team to join a dozen Berliners for dinner. Our hosts were Dieter and Ingeborg Elz. German themselves, the Elzes had retired to Berlin when Dieter completed his career at the World Bank in Washington, D.C. Although we had never met before, we had friends in common, and the Elzes had offered to put on this dinner party to give me a feel for their city. They had invited Berliners of different walks of life and political outlooks — businessmen, academics, students, homemakers.

We chatted for a while about the weather, German wine and the cost of Berlin housing. Then I related what the diplomat had told me, explaining that after my flight over the city that afternoon I found it difficult to believe. ‘Is it true?’ I asked. ‘Have you gotten used to the wall?’

The Elzes and their guests glanced at each other uneasily. I assumed I’d proved to be just the sort of brash, tactless American the diplomat was afraid the president might seem. Then one of the men raised his arm and pointed. ‘My sister lives 20 miles in that direction,’ he said. ‘I haven’t seen her in more than two decades. Do you think I can get used to that?’ Another man spoke. Each morning, he explained, on his way to work he walked past the same guard tower. Each morning the same soldier gazed down at him through binoculars. ‘That soldier and I speak the same language. We share the same history. But one of us is a zookeeper and the other is an animal, and I am never certain which is which.’

Our hostess broke in. A gracious woman, she had grown angry. Her face was red. She made a fist with one hand, then pounded it into the palm of the other. ‘If this man Gorbachev is serious with his talk of glasnost and perestroika,’ she said, ‘he can prove it. He can get rid of this wall.’
President Reagan meets in the Oval Office with six members of his communications team, including speechwriters (from left in background) Anthony Dolan, author Peter Robinson and Dana Rohrabacher. (Ronald Reagan Presidential Library)

Back at the White House I told Tony Dolan, then director of presidential speechwriting, that I intended to adapt Ingeborg Elz’s comment, making a call to tear down the Berlin Wall the central passage in the speech. Tony took me across the street from the Old Executive Office Building to the West Wing to sell the idea to the director of communications, Tom Griscom. ‘The two of you thought you’d have to work real hard to keep me from saying no,’ Griscom now says. ‘But when you told me about the trip, particularly this point of learning from some Germans just how much they hated the wall, I thought to myself, ‘You know, calling for the wall to be torn down — it might just work.”

When I sat down to write, I’d like to be able to say I found myself so inspired that the words simply came to me. It didn’t happen that way. Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall. I couldn’t even get that right. In one draft I wrote, ‘Herr Gorbachev, bring down this wall,’ using ‘Herr’ because I somehow had the idea that would please the president’s German audience, and ‘bring’ because it was the only verb that came to mind. In the next draft I swapped ‘bring’ for ‘take,’ writing, ‘Herr Gorbachev, take down this wall,’ as if that were some sort of improvement. By the end of the week I’d produced nothing but a first draft that even I considered banal. I can still hear the clomp-clomp-clomp of Tony Dolan’s cowboy boots as he walked down the hallway from his office to mine to toss that draft onto my desk.

‘It’s no good,’ Tony said.

‘What’s wrong with it?’ I replied.

‘I just told you. It’s no good.’

‘What’s no good? Which paragraphs do I need to rewrite? Be a little more specific, Tony.’

‘The whole thing is no good.’

‘The whole thing?’

Tony just looked at me.

The following week I produced an acceptable draft. It needed work — the section on arms reductions, for instance, still had to be fleshed out — but it set out the main elements of the address, including the challenge to tear down the wall. On Friday, May 15, the speeches for the president’s trip to Rome, Venice and Berlin, including my draft, were forwarded to the president, and on Monday, May 18, the speechwriters joined him in the Oval Office. Tom Griscom asked the president for his comments on my draft. The president replied simply that he liked it.

Now, you might suppose that after hearing the president say he liked his draft a speechwriter would feel so delighted that he’d leave it at that. Somehow, it didn’t work that way. As his speechwriter you spent your working life watching Reagan, talking about Reagan, reading about Reagan, attempting to inhabit the very mind of Reagan. When you joined him in the Oval Office, you didn’t want to hear him say simply that he liked your work. You wanted to get him talking, revealing himself. So you’d go into each meeting with a question or two you hoped would intrigue him. In this meeting, for example, Josh Gilder, who had drafted remarks for the president to deliver at the Vatican, had asked Reagan what role he believed religion might play in the reform of Eastern Europe. The president had responded with a beautiful little disquisition on the need for religious renewal in the Soviet Union itself, exposing an aspect of his thinking none of us had seen. I was hoping for something like that.

‘Mr. President,’ I said, ‘I learned on the advance trip that your speech will be heard not only in West Berlin but throughout East Germany.’ Depending on weather conditions, I explained, radios would be able to pick up the speech as far east as Moscow itself. ‘Is there anything you’d like to say to people on the other side of the Berlin Wall?’

The president cocked his head and thought. ‘Well,’ he replied, ‘there’s that passage about tearing down the wall. That wall has to come down. That’s what I’d like to say to them.’

As the speechwriters filed out of the Oval Office, I felt disappointed. Josh had gotten the president to give him a good two pages’ worth of marvelous new material. All I’d gotten the president to do was mention a passage I’d already completed.

I mention this to show what a fool I could be.

I spent a couple of days obsessing over the speech, although of course I was convinced that each of my feverish rewrites represented an improvement. I suppose I should not admit that at one point I actually took out ‘Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall,’ replacing it with the challenge, in German, to open the Brandenburg Gate: ‘Herr Gorbachev, machen Sie dieses Tor auf.’

‘What did you do that for?’ Tony asked.

‘You mean you don’t get it?’ I replied. ‘Since the audience will be German, the president should deliver his big line in German. And the big line should be about the Brandenburg Gate, not the Berlin Wall, because to the Germans the gate is an even more important symbol that the wall.’

Shaking his head, Tony put ‘Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall’ right back in.

With three Weeks to go before it was delivered, the speech was circulated to the State Department and the National Security Council. Both attempted to squelch it. The assistant secretary of state for Eastern European affairs challenged the speech by telephone. A senior member of the National Security Council staff protested the speech in memoranda. The ranking American diplomat in Berlin objected to the speech by cable. The draft was naive. It would raise false hopes. It was clumsy. It was needlessly provocative. State and the NSC submitted their own alternate drafts — my journal records that there were no fewer than seven, including one written by the diplomat in Berlin. In each, the call to tear down the wall was missing.

Now in principle, State and the NSC had no objection to a call for the destruction of the wall. The draft the diplomat in Berlin submitted, for example, contained the line, ‘One day, this ugly wall will disappear.’ If the diplomat’s line was acceptable, I wondered at first, what was wrong with mine? Then I looked at the diplomat’s line once again. ‘One day?’ One day the lion would lie down with the lamb, too, but you wouldn’t want to hold your breath. ‘This ugly wall will disappear?’ What did that mean? That the wall would just get up and slink off of its own accord? The wall would disappear only when the Soviets knocked it down or let somebody else knock it down for them, but ‘this ugly wall will disappear’ ignored the question of human agency altogether. What State and the NSC, I realized, were saying in effect was that the president could go right ahead and issue a call for the destruction of the wall — but only if he employed language so vague and euphemistic that everybody could see right away he didn’t mean it.

The week the president left for Europe, Tom Griscom began summoning me to his office each time State or the NSC submitted a new objection. Each time, Griscom had me tell him why I believed State and the NSC were wrong and the speech, as I’d written it, was right. When I reached Griscom’s office on one occasion, I found Colin Powell, then deputy national security adviser, waiting for me. I was a 30-year-old who had never held a full-time job outside of speechwriting. Powell was a decorated general. After listening to Powell recite all the arguments against the speech in his accustomed forceful manner, however, I heard myself reciting all the arguments in favor of the speech in an equally forceful manner. I could scarcely believe my own tone of voice. Powell looked a little taken aback himself.

A few days before the president was to leave for Europe, Tom Griscom received a call from the chief of staff, Howard Baker, asking Griscom to step down the hall to his office. Griscom later told me, ‘I walked in and it was Senator Baker [Baker had served in the Senate before becoming chief of staff] and the secretary of state — just the two of them.’ Secretary of State George Shultz now objected to the speech. ‘He said, ‘I really think that line about tearing down the wall is going to be an affront to Mr. Gorbachev.’ I told him the speech would put a marker out there. ‘Mr. Secretary,’ I said, ‘the president has commented on this particular line, and he is comfortable with it. And I can promise you that this line will reverberate.’ The secretary of state clearly was not happy, but he accepted it. I think that closed the subject.’

It didn’t.

When the traveling party reached Italy (I myself remained in Washington), the secretary of state objected to the speech once again, this time to Deputy Chief of Staff Kenneth Duberstein. ‘Shultz thought the line was too tough on Gorbachev,’ Duberstein said. On June 5, Duberstein sat the president down, briefed him on the objections to the speech, then handed him a copy of the text, asking him to reread the central passage.

Reagan asked Duberstein’s advice. Duberstein replied that he thought the line about tearing down the wall sounded good. ‘But I told him, ‘You’re president, so you get to decide.’ And then,’ Duberstein recalled, ‘he got that wonderful, knowing smile on his face, and said, ‘Let’s leave it in.”

The day the president arrived in Berlin, State and the NSC submitted yet another alternate draft. ‘They were still at it on the very morning of the speech,’ said Tony Dolan. ‘I’ll never forget it.’ Yet in the limousine on the way to the Berlin Wall, the president told Duberstein he was determined to deliver the controversial line. Reagan smiled. ‘The boys at State are going to kill me,’ he said, ‘but it’s the right thing to do.’

There is a school of thought that Ronald Reagan only managed to look good because he had clever writers putting words in his mouth. But Jimmy Carter, Walter Mondale, Bob Dole and Bill Clinton all had clever writers. Why was there only one Great Communicator? Because Ronald Reagan’s writers were never attempting to fabricate an image, just to produce work that measured up to the standard Reagan himself had already established. His policies were plain. He had been articulating them for decades — until he became president he wrote most of his material himself. When I heard Frau Elz say that Gorbachev should get rid of the wall, I knew instantly that the president would have responded to her remark. And when the State Department and National Security Council tried to block my draft by submitting alternate drafts, they weakened their own case. Their speeches were drab. They were bureaucratic. They lacked conviction. The people who wrote them had not stolen, as I had, from Frau Elz — and from Ronald Reagan.

Reagan was not alone in calling for freedom. Pope John Paul II, Lech Walesa, Vaclav Havel and others had all denounced the Communist regimes of Eastern Europe. Yet Reagan’s voice had always proven among the most compelling and insistent. ‘That wall has to come down,’ he’d replied when I asked what message he wanted to convey to the people in the East. ‘That’s what I’d like to say to them.’

This article was written by Peter Robinson and originally published in October 2003 issue of American History Magazine. For more great articles, subscribe to American History magazine today!