President Reagan’s most famous line was almost deleted.
An insider’s story.
~ BY PETER ROBINSON
FROM “HOW RONALD REAGAN CHANGED MY LIFE.”
T HE CALL OF A TRUMPET.
Many of Ronald Reagan’s speeches sounded that way to me.
During his long political career he used simple, direct, forceful language to make his points, developing his own unique sound. So when I joined his speech- writing staff in 1983—at age 26, its youngest member—my goal was to help Mr. Reagan go on sounding like President Reagan. One big challenge was the speech at the Berlin Wall, which President Reagan would visit during a 1987 trip to Berlin to help commemorate the city’s 750th anniversary I was told only that he would speak at the wall, that he’d likely draw a crowd of about 10,000 and that, given the setting, he probably ought to talk about foreign policy.
One day in late April 1987, I met the ranking American diplomat in Berlin, hoping to get some good material. The diplomat knew what Reagan shouldn’t say. Since West Berliners were intellectually, as well as very politically sophisticated, he would have to watch himself. So, no chest-thumping. NO Soviet bashing. And no inflammatory statements about the wall. People who lived here, the diplomat said, had long ago become used to the structure that encircled them. After meeting the diplomat, I flew over Berlin in a U.S. Army helicopter. From the sky, the wall seemed less to cut Berlin in two than to separate two modes of daily existence. On one side I saw movement, color, crowded sidewalks. On the other, buildings were pockmarked from shelling during the war; pedestrians were poorly dressed. The East Berlin side was lined with guard posts, dog runs, rows of barbed wire.
That night, I went to a dinner party hosted by Dieter and Ingeborg Elz, native Germans who had retired to West Berlin after Dieter completed his career at the World Bank. We had friends in common, and they were hosting this party to help give me a feel for “their city.” They had invited Berliners of many walks of life —businessmen, academics, homemakers. We talked about the weather, about German wine. And then I related what the diplomat had told me. “Is it true?” I asked. “Have you gotten used to the wall?” The Elzes and their guests glanced at one another uneasily My heart sank. Had I come across as brash, tactless? Finally one man raised an arm and pointed. “My sister lives 20 miles in that direction,” he explained. “I haven’t seen her in more than two decades. Do you think I can get used to that?” Then, another man spoke up. Each morning on his way to work, he said, he walked past a guard tower. Each morning, the same soldier gazed down at him through binoculars. “That soldier and I speak the same language,” he said. “We share the same history. But one of us is a zookeeper and the other is an animal, and I’m never certain which one is which.” Our hostess now broke in. “If this man Gorbachev is serious with his talk of glasnost and perestroika,” she said angrily, pounding her fist, “he can prove it. He can get rid of this wall.”
B ACK IN WASHINGTON, I told Tony Dolan, who oversaw Presidential speech-writing, that I wanted to make Ingeborg Elz’s comment the central passage in Reagan’s speech. I thought the passion and decency it conveyed sounded a lot like Reagan-like that trumpet again. But when I sat down to write, the words didn’t exactly flow.
In one draft I wrote, “Herr Gorbachev, bring down this wall,” using “Herr” because I thought it would please the President’s German audience, and “bring” because it was the only verb I could think of. I also swapped “bring” for “take,” as if that were some sort of an improvement. By week’s end I’d produced nothing but a first draft that even I considered banal. I can still hear the clomp-clomp-clomp of Tony’s cowboy boots as he walked down the hallway from his office to toss that draft onto my desk. “It’s no good,” he said. “What’s wrong with it?” I asked. “I just told you. It’s no good.” “Which paragraphs, Tony?” “The whole thing is no good.”
The next week I wrote another draft. This time I framed the challenge to the Soviet leader in stronger language, urging Gorbachev to “tear down the wall.” On Friday, May 15, the speeches for the President’s trip to Rome Venice and Berlin were sent to him, and on Monday, May 18, the speech-writers joined him in the Oval Office. My speech was the last to be discussed. When Tom Griscom, the director of communications, asked Reagan for his comments, the Presi dent replied simply that he liked it. “Mr. President,” I said to him “I learned that your speech will not only be heard in West Berlin but throughout East Germany.” Radios might be able to pick up the speech as far east as Moscow. “Is there anything you’d like to say to people on the other side of the Berlin Wall?” I asked. “Well, there’s that passage about tearing down the wall,” he replied. “That wall has to come down. That’s what I’d like to say to them.”
WITH THREE WEEKS TO GO, the speech was circulated to the State Depart ment and the National Security Council. Both tried to squelch it. The draft was naive, they said. It was clumsy. It was provocative. State and the NSC submitted their own drafts—no fewer than seven in all. In each, the call to “tear down the wall” was missing. In principle, State and the NSC had no objection to a call for the wall’s destruction. One draft, for example, contained the line, “One day, this ugly wall will disappear.” I looked at that for a while. “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” was another line. What did that mean? The wall would disappear only when the Soviets knocked it down. What State and the NSC were saying was that Reagan could call for the wall’s demise, but only if he used language so vague and euphemistic everyone could see he didn’t mean it.
A few days before the President was to leave for Europe, Tom Griscom got a call from the chief of staff, Howard Baker, asking Griscom to step into his office. “It was Baker and the Secretary of State—just the two of them,” recalls Griscom. Secretary of State George Shultz objected to the speech. “He said, ‘I think that line about tearing down the wall is going to be an affront to Mr. Gorbachev.’ I said, ‘Mr. Secre tary, the President has commented on this line. He’s comfortable with it.’ When the traveling party reached Italy, Shultz objected again, to deputy chief of staff Ken Duberstein. So on June 5, Duberstein briefed Reagan on the many objections and asked him to reread the speech’s central passage. He did. Duberstein told Reagan that he thought the line about tearing down the wall sounded good. “Then,” says Duberstein, “he got that wonderful, knowing smile on his face and said, ‘Let’s leave it in.’”
WHEN PRESIDENT REAGAN ARRIVED in Berlin, State and the NSC submitted still another draft. Yet the President was determined to deliver the controversial line. “The boys at State are going to kill me,” he told Duberstein, smiling, “but it’s the right thing to do.” So at the end of this long, messy process —what? The President stood before the Berlin Wall on June 12,1987, the Brandenburg Gate behind him, the crowd hanging on his every word. Then came the line: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” There it was. No damn euphemisms. No wishful thinking. The absolute truth. Reagan sounding like President Reagan.
AND THAT’S MY POINT. Though I flailed around quite a bit as I composed the speech, I knew I simply had to write something with the same trumpet-like sound Reagan himself always made. We speech-writers weren’t attempting to fabricate an image. We were attempting to meet the standard Reagan himself had long ago established. After the President delivered the speech, people felt he’d been correct to do so. As Tom Griscom recalls, “The Secretary of State found me after the speech and said, ‘You were right.’”
February, 2004, (pgs. 169-174)
“HOW RONALD REAGAN CHANGED MY LIFE”
Copyright@2003 by PETER ROBINSON
Is published by: Regan Books, an imprint of
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