Last night during the taping of a Fox television program, The Real Reagan, the host, Tony Snow, asked each member of the panel to sum up Reagan’s place in history. I found myself launching into a little peroration. "Ronald Reagan’s beliefs were as simple, unchanging, and American as the flat plain of the Midwest where he grew up. He placed his faith in a loving God, in the goodness of the country, and in the wisdom of the people. He applied those beliefs to the great challenges of his day. In doing so he became the largest and most magnificent American of the second half of the twentieth century."
If any of my friends see the program, I suppose they’ll take it for granted that I was overstating the case for public consumption—they’ve certainly never heard me talk that way over lunch on the Stanford campus or at dinner parties in Palo Alto, where we always lace our conversation with a knowing dose of cynicism.
The odd thing is, I meant every word.
Probably the best way for me to tell you about Ronald Reagan is to describe the events leading to his 1987 Berlin Wall address.
You may be familiar with the address. The president stood on a blue platform directly in front of the Berlin Wall. In recent months, the president explained, we had been hearing a great deal from the Soviet Union about a new policy of glasnost or openness. If General Secretary Gorbachev was serious about his new policy, the president said, he could prove it. The president set his jaw, then spoke with controlled but genuine anger (not long before, he had learned that a crowd had gathered in East Berlin to hear him, then been forcibly dispersed by the East German police). The last four words of his challenge, each just one syllable, sounded like blows. "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!"
Prelude to a Speech
In May 1987, when I was assigned to write the speech, the celebrations for the 750th anniversary of the founding of Berlin were already under way. Queen Elizabeth had visited the city. Mikhail Gorbachev was due in a matter of days. Although the president 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 attending an economic summit. At the request of the West German government, the president’s 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 that the president would be speaking in front of the Berlin Wall, that he was expected to draw an audience of around 10,000, and that, given the setting, he probably ought to talk about foreign policy.
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 always went to the site of a presidential visit to make arrangements. All that I myself had to do in Berlin was find material. When I first met John Kornblum, the ranking American diplomat in Berlin, I assumed that he would give me some.
John Kornblum had an anxious, distracted air. A stocky man with thick glasses, he kept glancing at the door while he was speaking with me, as if hoping for someone more important to walk in. Kornblum gave me quite specific instructions. Almost all of it was in the negative. He was full of ideas about what the president shouldn’t say.
West Berlin, Kornblum explained, was the most left-leaning of all West German cities. Its citizens were sophisticated. Reagan should avoid looking like a cowboy. He shouldn’t bash the Soviets. He certainly shouldn’t mention the Berlin Wall because the people of Berlin had long ago gotten used to it.
Kornblum offered only a couple of positive suggestions. Reagan should mention American efforts to obtain more air routes into West Berlin. He should play up American support for West Berlin’s bid to host the Olympics.
After I left Kornblum, several members of our party were given a flight over the city in a U.S. Air Force helicopter. I’m told that in Berlin these days it is all but impossible to imagine the wall ever existed. I cannot imagine Berlin without it. From the air, the wall seemed less to cut one city in two than to separate two different modes of existence. On one side of the wall lay movement, color, modern architecture, crowded sidewalks, traffic. On the other side, all was drab. Buildings still exhibited pockmarks from shelling during the war. There were few cars. Pedestrians were badly dressed. When we hovered over Spandau Prison, a rambling brick structure in which Rudolf Hess was still being detained, soldiers at East German guard posts peered up at us through binoculars, rifles over their shoulders. The wall itself, which from West Berlin had seemed a simple concrete structure, was instead revealed from the air to be an intricate complex, the East Berlin side lined with dog runs and row upon row of barbed wire.
That evening, I broke away from the advance team to join a dozen Berliners for dinner. Our hosts were Dieter and Ingeborg Elz, who had retired to their hometown of Berlin after Dieter completed his career at the World Bank in Washington. 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—businesspeople, academics, students, homemakers.
We chatted for a while about German wine and the cost of Berlin housing. Then I related what Kornblum had told me. "Is it true?" I asked. "Have you gotten used to the wall?"
There was a silence. The Elzes and their guests glanced at each other uneasily. I thought I had just proven myself the sort of brash, tactless American that John Kornblum was afraid the president might seem. Then one man raised an arm and pointed. "My sister lives 20 miles in that direction. I haven’t seen her in more than two decades. Do you think I can get used to that?" Another man spoke. Each morning on his way to work, he explained, he walked past a guard tower. Each morning, the same soldier gazed down at him through binoculars. "The soldier speaks the same language. He shares the same history. But one of us is a zookeeper and the other is an animal, and I am never certain which is which."
The wall seemed less to cut one city in two than to separate two different modes of existence. On one side of the wall lay movement, color, modern architecture, crowded sidewalks, traffic. On the other side, all was drab. Buildings still exhibited pockmarks from shelling during the war. There were few cars. Pedestrians were badly dressed.
Our hostess broke in. A gracious woman, she 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, he can prove it. He can get rid of this wall."
"The Line . . . Stays In"
Back at the White House, I adapted my hostess’s comment, making it the central passage of the speech I drafted. A week later, the speechwriters met the president in the Oval Office. My speech was the last one we discussed. Tom Griscom, the director of communications, asked the president for his comments on my draft. The president simply replied that he liked it. Griscom nodded to me.
"Mr. President," I said, "I learned in Germany that your speech will be heard not only in West Berlin but throughout East Germany." Depending on weather conditions, I explained, radios might be able to pick the speech up 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."
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. Rozanne Ridgeway, the assistant secretary of state for Eastern European affairs, challenged the speech by telephone. Peter Rodman of NSC protested the speech in memoranda. Weighing in from Berlin, John Kornblum objected to the speech by fax. The speech was naive. It would raise false hopes. It was clumsy. It was needlessly provocative. State and NSC submitted their own alternate drafts—as I recall, there were no fewer than seven, one written by Kornblum himself. In each, the call to tear down the wall was absent.
When he spoke of his beliefs—in God, in the goodness of the nation, in the wisdom of the people—he changed the very spirit and temper of the country, replacing the bitterness of Vietnam and Watergate with a buoyant, self-confident patriotism.
The week before the president left for Europe, Tom Griscom began summoning me into his office each time State or NSC came up with a new objection. Each time, Griscom had me tell him why I believed State and NSC were wrong and the speech, as I had written it, was right. (Once, I found Colin Powell, then national security adviser, in Griscom’s office waiting for me. I was a 30-year-old who had never held a job outside speechwriting. Powell was a decorated general. We went at it nose-to-nose.) Griscom was evidently waiting for an objection he thought Ronald Reagan himself would find compelling. He never heard one.
In Venice the day before the speech was to be given, the deputy chief of staff, Ken Duberstein, decided that the objections from State and NSC had become so strident that he had to present them to the president himself. When he finished briefing the president, Duberstein tells me, an exchange along the following lines took place.
REAGAN: (A twinkle in his eye) I’m the president, aren’t I?
DUBERSTEIN: Yes, sir, Mr. President. We’re clear about that.
REAGAN: So I get to decide whether the line about tearing down the wall stays in?
DUBERSTEIN: That’s right, sir. It’s your decision.
REAGAN: Then it stays in.
As Air Force One left Venice for Berlin the next morning, the fax machines on board began to whir. Making a final effort to squelch the speech, State and NSC were submitting yet another alternate draft. Tom Griscom never even took the fax to the forward cabin.
A Man of Conviction
The reasons I gave my heart to Ronald Reagan are all right there. The boldness. The clarity of vision. No one else would have given that speech—certainly not George Bush. I liked Bush, but I had worked with him long enough to know that his first reaction on seeing my draft would have been to ask, "What’s State say about this?" Reagan didn’t care what State said. He cared about tearing down the wall.
There is a school of thought that holds that Ronald Reagan managed to look good only 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 drafts were drab. They were bureaucratic. They lacked conviction. They had not stolen, as I had, from Frau Elz—and from Ronald Reagan.
In my judgment, Ronald Reagan was the greatest president of the last five decades and one of the half-dozen greatest in our history. When he gave the Soviet Union a few good kicks, causing it to fall in on itself, he drew the Cold War to a peaceful end. When he enacted his economic program, he set in place the conditions that have led to 19 years of almost uninterrupted economic growth. When he spoke of his beliefs—in God, in the goodness of the nation, in the wisdom of the people—he changed the very spirit and temper of the country, replacing the bitterness of Vietnam and Watergate with a buoyant, self-confident patriotism.
The worst that can be said against Reagan is that he allowed federal deficits to pile up. Although often repeated, the allegation is silly. Democrats controlled the House of Representatives during all eight years of the Reagan administration, making it impossible for Reagan to cut domestic spending as much as he wanted. Yet, while Reagan’s economic program added $1.4 trillion to the federal debt, it added $17 trillion to American asset values: the market value of land, stocks, houses, patents, and all other assets in the United States rose from $16 trillion in 1981 to $33 trillion in 1989—providing a return of 12 to 1.
Today the federal budget is no longer in deficit but in surplus. Why? For two reasons. The economy continues to boom—thanks to Ronald Reagan. And we have been able to scale back our military, saving tens of billions each year, because the Cold War is over—thanks to Ronald Reagan. Bill Clinton may take all the bows he wishes, but his principal contribution to the surplus was to stay out of the way as the budgetary implications of Reagan’s policies worked themselves out.
Reagan accomplished all that he did without ever losing his sense of proportion about life itself. He remained sane. For eight years he was the most powerful man in the world. Then he set it all down and went back to being as ordinary an American as a former president can be.