The 30th anniversary of President Reagan’s memorable speech at the Brandenburg Gate was in June, but his speechwriter, Peter Robinson, switched chairs on his online interview show Uncommon Knowledge, and was interviewed by longtime friend Pat Sajak, which came out just this week.
They talked about the circumstances that led to that line in the speech: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” And it was a piece of history worth revisiting. I’ll share a few bits of the conversation, and then offer the whole interview.
Here’s the story of how a 25-year-old who had never written a speech got a job as a White House speech writer:
Peter Robinson: This is not a story that reflects well on me or on a couple of people we know or on the federal government. After college, I studied at Oxford, you mentioned I got a degree from Oxford. I stayed in Oxford an extra year to try to write a novel. At the end of the year I had a novel so bad that I couldn't stand reading it, and William F. Buckley Jr, the late and great conservative journalist who much to his credit encouraged young conservatives, suggested that I try to go to Washington and become a speechwriter.
It was 1982 and Bill said get in touch with my son Christopher who was then writing speeches for Vice President Bush. So, I flew from Oxford to Washington, presented myself to Christopher Buckley, hoping he might have a lead on a job writing for a member of Congress or for the Postmaster General. Christopher said, “Well, I'm about to leave this job in two weeks and my replacement just fell through. I don't see any good reason you shouldn't write speeches for the vice president of the United States, and while you're here, go downstairs, downstairs in the old executive office building and talk to Tony Dolan who's the president's chief speechwriter.” I did that. While I was talking to Tony, the phone rang. It was the gubernatorial campaign of a man called Lou Lehrman who was running against Mario Cuomo for governor of New York. Tony Dolan, and they needed a speechwriter. Tony said, “Ah, I have just the man.”
Christopher the next day told the Bush people that he found the perfect replacement for himself, yours truly, but that they'd better move fast because Lou Lehrman wanted me. Tony told Lehrman’s people, “I found the perfect guy for you, Robinson, but move fast because the Bush people want him.” So I went back and forth from interview to interview, New York to Washington, and at the end of two weeks they both offered me a job and nobody asked if I had ever written a speech before.
He worked for the Vice-President for a year and a half, and then joined President Reagan’s staff, so he had five years of speech writing under his belt by 1987. And he knew the President’s mind and voice thoroughly by then.
I was looking at the timeline, to see where I was back then, because I'm only a year or two younger. In 1982 I was married and working as a contract writer for a university, writing curriculum. My academic career wasn’t as impressive as Peter Robinson’s, but I was a working writer, which I thought, maybe rightly so, that I was very fortunate. So I can see how fortuitous his situation was. I suspect he had some writing credentials that he underplays here, or he wouldn’t have been so successful once he got the job.
Robinson explains that the practice was for speech writers to be anonymous, so he never made any claims about the speech—or the famous line—for a good decade. But then he had to:
PR: It was Ronald Reagan from beginning to end, and if we get a chance to discuss how it came to be, you'll see that only he would’ve delivered it. In any event, for the first 10 years I didn't say a peep about it. I didn't associate myself with it in any way. Then I discovered that one of the diplomats who in fact had tried to stop it was in Germany where he was then making, he'd been nominated to a high position in Germany and a friend of mine in Germany sent me a German, I had to have a translator, this guy was taking credit for it. I thought, “That's not right. That's just not right.” It was Ronald Reagan and we speechwriters were, it was our job, it was not, it was not an apparatchik at the State Department. I wrote a piece about it then and it turns out that it's all right, it's easy to live with because people only become interested in it about once every five years. I have the feeling that on this, the 30th anniversary, you and I, I’m discussing it now for the last time. I don't think anybody will be all that interested 35 years from now.
Here’s the story of the research that went into the famous speech.
PR: I was there for research. I was only there for about a day and a half. I went around to various sites in Berlin beginning with where the president would speak, and then that evening I broke away from the American party. That is to say the advance men, the press people and the security and so forth, and got into a cab and went out to a suburban home in West Berlin where the Elz-es, Dieter Elz and Ingeborg Elz, whom I had never met before but we had friends in common in Washington put on a dinner party for me of West Berliners, simply so I could get to know some West Berliners.
We chat a little bit and then I said, “I have to tell you that the ranking American diplomat in Berlin earlier today told me, President Reagan's speechwriter, don't make a big deal out of the Wall. They've gotten used to it by now.” I had been flown over the Wall in a US Army helicopter. So I said, “It looks to me as though it would be the kind of thing it would be hard to get used to. Is it true? Have you gotten used to it?”
And there was a silence, and then one man raised his arm and pointed and he said, “My sister lives just a few kilometers in that direction, but I haven't seen her in more than 20 years. You think we can get used to that?” They had stopped talking about it but they hadn't gotten used to it. We went around the room. Another fellow said, “I walk to work by the same route each day. I pass under a guard tower and there's a young man on that tower with a rifle over his shoulder who looks down at me with binoculars. We share the same history. We speak the same language. But one of us is a zoo keeper and the other is an animal. And I've never been able to decide which was which.”
Then our host is a lovely woman called Ingeborg Elz who just died a couple of years ago. She was a lovely woman. She was a gracious hostess, but she became angry and she said, “If this man Gorbachev means this talk, this perestroika, this glasnost, he can prove it by coming here and getting rid of that wall,” and that was—.
Now by this point I'd been in the White House for five years. I knew Ronald Reagan. I don't mean to say that I played cards with Ronald Reagan or that I was a guest at the ranch. Nothing of that kind. The relationship was entirely professional, but we speechwriters, it was our job to know the mind of the president, to watch which material he liked, to understand how he thought, and I just knew the moment she said that, that if Ronald Reagan had been there, he would have responded to that. The simplicity but the power of that remark. So, I put it into my notebook and went back to the White House and that did become the basis for “Tear down this Wall”.
The famous line was controversial. Reagan and his speechwriters liked it, but the other reviewers of the speech especially wanted that line out—too controversial. But Reagan, Robinson reminds us, besides being a genial and lovely man, was also boldly aggressive, and he saw this as an opportunity to press his advantage. He wanted the line. Robinson knew it he wanted it. And so it stayed. And now it is historic.
It’s history we should remember. There’s something really wrong with a government that must wall in its citizens to keep them from escaping. Tearing down that wall—which happened two years after the speech—was a symbol for freedom for all people. If you don't know this piece of history, you really need to hear him tell the story.
I hope you’ll enjoy watching the whole conversation.