The Speech That Defined a Presidency

interview with Peter M. Robinson
via Uncommon Knowledge
Wednesday, August 23, 2017
Uncommon Knowledge 130x130

Recorded on July 23, 2017

Thirty years after Ronald Reagan’s famous denouncement of the Berlin Wall, Peter Robinson reflects on writing the Brandenburg Gate speech and why it was so important to include the now memorable words, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” Pat Sajak, host of Wheel of Fortune, turns the tables on Uncommon Knowledge’s host, Peter Robinson, sitting him down in the interview chair to discuss that famous speech and his journey to becoming Ronald Reagan’s speechwriter.

Peter Robinson's journey to becoming Ronald Reagan's speechwriter began in Oxford as he was trying his hand at becoming a novelist. After a year of writing a book Peter wasn't thrilled with, William H. Buckley advised him to try to become a speechwriter in Washington, DC. Peter left Oxford and. after a series of interviews, was given the task of speechwriting for then vice president George H. W. Bush and eventually became a speechwriter for President Ronald Reagan.

Five years after Peter Robinson became President Reagan's speechwriter it was Peter's turn to write one of the president's important speeches of the year to be delivered in Berlin during the height of the Cold War. To get the speech right, Peter spent a day and half in West Berlin researching the points of view of diplomats and politicians, all of whom all made it seem as though the Berlin Wall was something people hardly noticed any more. This view turned out to not be shared by the citizens of West Berlin, as Peter discovered later that evening when he sat down to dinner with citizens of West Berlin, where the dinner host said if Mr. Gorbachev is serious about perestroika he'd get rid of this wall. Peter’s dinner hosts went on to talk about how much they missed their families whom they hadn’t seen in decades because, though they lived just a mile away, the wall stood between them. That statement and the sentiments of the people of West Berlin struck Peter; after a series of drafts he came up with the now well-known line, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!"  That line, however, almost didn’t make it into the final draft of the speech as various advisers counseled against it and tried to persuade Peter and President Reagan to remove it. In the end, though, President Reagan insisted, and the line was kept in and remains to this day one of his most famous statements.