Not many speeches are mighty deeds. When Ronald Reagan stood in front of the Berlin Wall at the Brandenburg Gate on June 12, 1987, he performed a mighty deed by giving the speech he gave. Our friend Peter Robinson was the man who wrote the speech. He tells the story behind the speech in his memoir How Ronald Reagan Changed My Life. On the occasion of the twentieth anniversary of the speech, Peter recalled the events leading to it for Power Line readers in a form condensed from his book. As we celebrate the fall of the Wall today, we remember:
In April 1987, when I was assigned to write the Brandenburg Gate address, I spent a day 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. In the evening, I broke away from the advance team to join a dozen Berliners for dinner. Our hosts were Dieter and Ingeborg Elz, who, after Dieter completed his career at the World Bank in Washington, had retired to Berlin. Although we had never met, 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 awhile. Then I explained that, earlier in the day, the ranking American diplomat in West Berlin had told me that over the years Berliners had made a kind of accommodation with the wall. “Is it true?” I asked. “Have you gotten used to it?”
The Elzes and their guests glanced at each other uneasily. Then one man raised an arm and pointed. “My sister lives twenty 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. As he walked to work each morning, he explained, a soldier in a guard tower peered 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, Ingeborg Elz had suddenly grown angry. Her face was red. She made a fist with one hand and 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.”
* * * * *
Back at the White House I adapted her comment, making “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” the central line in my draft. On Friday, May 15, the speeches for the President’s trip–he would be traveling to Rome and Venice before reaching Berlin–were forwarded to the President, and on Monday, May 18, the speechwriters joined him in the Oval Office. My speech was the last we discussed. “Mr. President,” I said, “I learned on the advance trip that this speech will be heard not only in West Berlin but throughout East Germany. 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.”
* * * * *
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 suppress it. 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. In each, the call to tear down the wall was missing.
When in early June the President and his party reached Italy (I remained in Washington), Ken Duberstein, the deputy chief of staff, sat the President down in the garden of the palazzo in which he was staying, then briefed him on the objections to my draft. 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 recalls, “he got that wonderful, knowing smile on his face, and he said, ‘Let’s leave it in.'”
The day the President arrived in Berlin, State and NSC submitted yet another alternate draft. 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.”
The Bible instructs us that a word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in pictures of silver. Something of the meaning of that simile is brought home to us in Reagan’s great speech of June 12, 1987.
The photo above from the Reagan Library depicts President Reagan and his speechwriters meeting on May 18, 1987, to discuss the speech. Peter is in the middle of the sofa on the left side of the photo.