Ronald Reagan was famously known as The Great Communicator. But who helped the Great Communicator communicate? One of them was Hoover Institution Research Fellow Peter Robinson, who wrote Reagan's “Tear Down This Wall” speech — one of the most famous speeches of the twentieth century. If you have ever been asked to deliver a speech in public (or even if you haven’t), listen to a master of the genre Peter Robinson speak of the humor, honesty, and honing involved in writing over 150 speeches for a U.S. President. 

To view the full transcript of this episode, read below:

Andrew Roberts: Peter Robinson was a speech writer for Ronald Reagan, but he's also the author of How Ronald Reagan Changed My Life. Peter's a fellow of the Hoover Institution and the presenter of uncommon knowledge. He understands more than almost anyone else alive today Ronald Reagan's secrets of statecraft. Peter, you say in your book, How Ronald Reagan Changed My Life, that speech writing is one third research, one third writing, and one third staffing. Please can you tell us a little about each of those stages in the process?

Peter Robinson: Oh, sure. Speech writing in the Reagan administration, it varies from White House to White House of course. But so what I learned very... The first third, research, I joined the staff of vice president as he was then George H.W. Bush before going to work for president Reagan. 25 years old I was, and they hired me only because they needed somebody really fast. They were going to hire someone more senior to me eventually. As it happened, they never did because the vice president and I hit it off. But in my first speech meeting with him, I walked in, sat down across the desk from him. As he would do, never when there was a woman present, he was a kind of old fashioned gent, but as he would do when it was only men, and it was just him and me, he'd lean back in his chair and put his feet up on his desk, and he said, "Okay, what have we got?" And I went down. I said, "Next week, you're speaking to such and such a group, and the week after that, the National Association of Manufacturers, and the week after that such and such." And so I sat there with my legal pad and my pen poised over my legal pad, and he said, "Okay, the first, National Association of Manufacturers," and I said to him, "Well sir, what would you like to say?" And the vice president looked at me and said, "I don't know. What do you think?" And I saw, of course emergency thinking, because it had never crossed my mind. I happened to go through a very unusual sort of, it was a kind of emergency interview process. They needed somebody fast, and your former guest, Christopher Buckley, recommended me, and they leaned on that recommendation. In any event, I hadn't been told what it was to write speeches for him, and it never crossed my mind that he'd ask my advice. I thought I'd go in and take notes. Well, that was typical of him to be rye and humorous and gentle all at once. That was his way of saying I'm busy. You're the speech writer. You take the first draft. You take a shot, not only at the first draft language but at the first draft thinking. What's the group? Get in touch with the... Fast forward. This is what I learned of course quickly, get in touch with the representatives of the group to which the, then the vice president or president would be speaking. Think through what policy. Is there news that anybody wants to make here, talk to some policy people, and you do some... Or I'll give you one other example. 1984, we're getting ready for the president's reelection campaign, and the polls indicated, partly because the Reagan Economic Program had kicked in by then, in 1980, when he ran in 1980, the economy was the top issue, double digit inflation. By 1984, the economy is falling as an issue because it's booming, and inflation is down into low single digits, and one issue that was rising was education, and I got assigned to write the big education speech for the president to deliver in Indianapolis. It was some sort of association of school principles. So, I telephoned a man called Terrel Bell, who was the secretary of education, and I couldn't get through to him, and the assistant said, "Well he's on vacation now, but he'll draft something from the beach." So I waited a couple of days and I got this semi-literate, he just, clearly he had just dictated it, and it was mush. He talked about this program, that program, spending more here, spending less there, and I made a kind of emergency telephone call to a man called Dick Darman who was then the communications director, and Darman's very busy and very curt and I described what had happened and he said, "So you're telling me we don't have an education policy?" And I thought for a moment and I said, "Well yes, that's right," and then Dick Darman said, "Then make one up," and he hung up on the phone. He hung up on me. Okay.

Andrew Roberts: So, you're 25 years old and you've been given the job of making up America's education policy.

Peter Robinson: Right. Yes. Yes. Welcome to American politics Andrew. By then I was 27-ish. But, so I then, I went into emergency. I called around friends of mine who paid attention to education and I discovered this man called William Bennett who was then at the National Endowment for the Humanities, and he and I had two or three lunches and working sessions, and lo and behold I did sort of devise a six or seven point education policy. Education did not actually play as dominant a role in that campaign as people thought for a moment or two it might, and thank goodness because in some ways I had pulled together the education policy. But that was quite typical, that the speech writer... It's not quite as wild as it sounds because there's staff who look at the... Oh, we come to staffing next. Then of course you write the darned thing, and that takes a while. For me, not for you of course. You'd have knocked these... You're a man who [inaudible]-

Andrew Roberts: I don't know about that. But how did you feel, how did you get into Ronald Reagan's sort of speechifying techniques? Because if you're writing for somebody, you have to sort of almost be them, don't you?

Peter Robinson: Yes, you do, and you have asked the question of questions. There's this terrible paradox, and I always get hung up on it when I'm trying to explain speech writing in those days to anyone because we speech writers did write most of the speeches. The most I ever saw the president rewrite a speech was the Westminster Address in 1982, the Houses of Parliament, which was a very important speech, and there he rewrote, the documents in the Reagan library show he rewrote about a third of that speech in his own hand, but only a third of the speech. Even at that, only a third of the speech. So-

Andrew Roberts: So were there some speeches which he didn't change a word of? Or-

Peter Robinson: He changed almost nothing on the Berlin Wall Address for example. Now, and yet these were all his speeches. That is the truer statement. That we wrote them is incidental. That they were his is the true and important point. Now, how could this possibly be? One clue is that over the course of eight years, there were 14 of us who at one point or another, couple served for all eight years, many for fewer than that, 14 people who held the role of speech writer to the president, and yet every Ronald Reagan speech sounds like Ronald Reagan. How can this possibly be? Well, we read up, we read the speeches he'd written before he became president. We looked at his 60... Every piece of film we could. It was the rule in the Reagan White House that if you wrote the speech, you would go see the president deliver it. So you'd go to the east room or you'd get in the motorcade and go to the hotel ballroom, and so you could see what he did with your material. We studied this man, and it is furthermore very important, very important, A, that all of us agreed with him. I'm sometimes asked, "Well, could you write a speech for a Democrat?" And I suppose maybe. The notion is this like being a lawyer? Could you take on a defendant without concern for, just to make the best case you could, whatever the case might be, whether you believed in it or not? That never arose in the Reagan White House. Every single one of us was conservative, and this in some way may be the most important point of all although it sounds, I don't know, you tell me how it sounds, we all loved him. Now-

Andrew Roberts: I tell you, I think that sounds like an absolute prerequisite for the job, frankly.

Peter Robinson: Yeah. Does it? Good.

Andrew Roberts: The idea of not- Oh, yeah.

Peter Robinson: All right. All right.

Andrew Roberts: If despised him or didn't like him, you would not have been able to have done such a job.

Peter Robinson: Bill Sapphire, you remember William Sapphire?

Andrew Roberts: I do. Yeah. Great man.

Peter Robinson: All right. So Bill founded a club for presidential speech writers during the '80s, and for a number of years we met and he gathered up all former presidential speech writers. When the club started, there were even two writers from the Truman years, two or three writers from the Truman years-

Andrew Roberts: Wow.

Peter Robinson: ... who were joining us? Clark Clifford came. George Elsey, who was a Truman aid, attended in the early days, and we Reagan speech writers quickly discovered a strange and totally unexpected, by me at least, affinity with another table of speech writers, and that was the Kennedy writers. We had almost, the Kennedy writers, the whole Democratic party had moved left since the administration of John Kennedy. None of them voted for Reagan. They all disagreed with him on policy, but here's what we had in common. The Kennedy writers and the Reagan writers both loved their president. John Kennedy was the biggest thing that had ever happened to Ted Sorensen, and Ronald Reagan was the biggest thing that had ever happened to me. That kind of thing. So we really tried to inhabit his mind in some way.

Andrew Roberts: And you read out his speeches in his voice, in-

Peter Robinson: In his voice.

Andrew Roberts: Yeah.

Peter Robinson: We had to. We all, Reagan... I'll draw one contrast. As I said, I wrote for the vice president for about a year, George Bush, George H.W. Bush, for about a year and a half before joining the president's staff, and although the vice president was much more accessible and he and I became quite good friends and all I would have to do to his, I'd say to his secretary, "I need to see him." No questions asked, I never had to wait more than one day to see the vice president, talk things over with him face to face. Still in all, he was harder to write for than Reagan, because with Reagan you had your voice that was so distinctive. You knew what he sounded like, and so you could read a speech and we would all, "Ladies and gentlemen, good afternoon and welcome to the White House. Nancy and I..." So you read a speech and you could tell whether it would work for Reagan. George H.W. Bush as a speech giver, he was a wonderful man in all kinds of ways, but he didn't have a distinctive voice. You couldn't hear him in your mind's ears so to speak as you were writing. Reagan you could

Andrew Roberts: Tell us about the staffing third of the job. I found that absolutely fascinating in your book.

Peter Robinson: Did you find it fascinating? I found it infuriating. Almost-

Andrew Roberts: No, but it was fascinating how infuriating it must have been.

Peter Robinson: Every single time. So here's what's... This was the typical staffing process. Typical staffing process runs as follows. Head speech writer, there were always five or six of us on staff. Chief speech writer makes the assignments. Speech writer gets the assignment. In the Reagan White House, one speech writer would write one speech. The only exception to that was the State of the Union Address, which it was a kind of quilt. I'd write education, somebody else would write another, and it would get stitched together. But aside from that, the notion here was unity of voice, one writer to one speech, as distinct, for example, from George W. Bush's White House, where typically three speech writers would work on a piece altogether in one room, shouting, trying out phrases on each other. I can't imagine working that way. They did. All right. Speech gets written by speech writer, goes to the chief speech writer. He marks it up. The speech writer whines and says, "You can't change this, you can't..." And the chief speech writer, there's a little negotiation that takes place, and then it goes out to staffing, and there's a piece of paper that's stapled, and it has names, and the staff secretary, this is an individual, a human being, barely human as far as we speech writers were concerned but a human being all the same, a specific human being, and he would tick this speech goes to the vice president, this speech touches on foreign affairs. He goes, "Secretary of defense, secretary of state," and so there would be at least half a dozen, and in some speeches more than that, offices, or they were individuals, but the secretary of defense did not read a speech. The secretary of state didn't read a speech. They'd hand it to staff and the staff would mark these things up, and then they would come back to us speech writers, and then things became quite... I can remember you'd spread these things, or I would, I'd spread these things out across my desk and often enough they would disagree with each other, state would-

Andrew Roberts: And this would be on policy? I mean, the state would say, "This is going against state policy." Defense would say, "This is not defense policy."

Peter Robinson: It was trickier than that. It was trickier than that because we speech writers, we were, A, anonymous, and B, really quite assertive. Now that I look back on it, and I think how young I was and how little I knew, now I'm old and still ignorant but then I was young and ignorant, and so they'd say this isn't policy and we speech writers would say, "Well, but we represent the president," and you could sometimes... Fundamentally what it came down to was that as a speech writer you learned quickly who had to be listened to, whom you could ignore, and then that tricky and time consuming bit of where negotiations could take place, and here's why you wanted to negotiate, because it is then in the nature of writing, as you know better than almost anyone else on the planet, that one wants to make the argument tight and...

Peter Robinson: One wants to make the argument tight and persuasive and in politics quite often... So the speech writers want something, they want vivid language, they want persuasive tight arguments, and they want consistency of policy because that's the way writers think. If you're Jim Baker and you're trying to get deals done on the Hill, sometimes you don't even want an argument made because you think you can stitch together a coalition. They'll all vote the same way, but for 25 different reasons. So you'd really rather not...If you're the State Department, almost never. Excuse me, I take that back. Never, not once did the State Department strengthen any language. Not once did it take something that was colorful and make it still more vivid. Always the bureaucratic mind, always without exception was to water down, to turn wine into water, if I may. It's an almost blasphemous image.

Andrew Roberts: Could we take as a case study the famous, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall," speech that you wrote because... And actually, and you must tell us also about how it at one stage was "Führer Gorbachev, bring down the wall," which is fascinating. Let's take that as the case study for the staffing process. What happened to that speech after you'd written it between you writing it and Ronald Reagan delivering it in Berlin, so historically?

Peter Robinson: There are two exceptions to the usual staffing process on that speech. One... This won't go on and on, but one-

Andrew Roberts: I don't mind if it does. I'm totally fascinated. [inaudible] me as well. No, it's one of the great speeches in history.

Peter Robinson: The one exception was that we all recognized it was a big speech. Now, not a historic speech, but it would be in the top 10 speeches the president gave that year. UN address, big speech, State of the Union Address, big speech. And then we all recognized that because of setting moment, there would be half a dozen other big speeches. And I got it by the way. I was assigned that speech just because it was my turn to write the next big one. I've written a lot of little stuff. Okay.

Andrew Roberts: Not because you were a foreign policy expert or you were experts on Germany or communism or the Cold War.

Peter Robinson: No, no, no, no, no, no. Actually the speech-

Andrew Roberts: [inaudible] rank principle really.

Peter Robinson: That's exactly correct. That's exactly correct. And I'll steal that image next time I tell this story, that's a lovely image. Anyway, I went to West Berlin to research the speech. In a moment, I'll tell you why that turned out to be important. So I talked to the ranking American diplomat on the ground, a man called John Kornblum, who was full of ideas about what Ronald Reagan should not say. His main argument to me was, "Don't make him sound like an anti communist cowboy, and don't have him talk about the wall. They've all gotten used to it." And I went to the site where the president would speak. I flew over the wall in a US Army helicopter so I could see what I... And as you will know, from the air, the wall looked even worse than it did from inside West Berlin because from the air, you could see what lay on the other side, the dog runs guard towers and so forth. And then in the evening I broke away from the American party and went and had dinner in the home of some Berliners who'd put together... We hadn't met, but we had friends in common in Washington and they put together about 15 or so Berliners so I could chat with people. And that's where the hostess... I asked them about the wall. It was clear that they had stopped talking about it to each other every day, but if you asked them it was clear, they still hated it. They hadn't gotten used to it at all. And the hostess, lovely woman, Ingaberg Else said, "If this man Gorbachev is series with this talk, glasnost Perestroika, he can prove it by coming here and getting rid of that wall. Okay. That goes in my notebook. The second departure was from the usual staffing... Oh my goodness. I still feel sheepish describing this. This is now 1987. My boss, Tony Dolan, has been in the administration since Reagan took office in 1981, 6 years on. I, myself have been in the White House for five years. We'd learned a thing or two. And I went straight to Tony and I told him the story I just told you. I said, "I think I want to build this speech around a call to tear down the wall. And Tony liked that immediately, but immediately began thinking, we're going to need cup. So we marched... There and then we got up from his office and walked over to the West Wing and pitched this idea to Tommy Grissum, who is the director of communications and our boss. If you truly are interested in this, there's an important piece of this, of the staffing story, which is that Don Regan had been fired, oh, only weeks earlier. And former Senator Howard Baker had come in as chief of staff and Howard Baker had brought a number of his people with him, including Tommy Grissum, who was then in his thirties, I'm quite sure. I don't think he was older than 37 or 38, who'd been a newspaper reporter in Tennessee and then become Howard Baker's press secretary. The point of this is that Tommy Grissum knew a good line when he heard one and he wanted press for the president. So he said, "Yes." Okay. I write a bad draft in the first week and rewrite it in the second week. All Tony Dolan and I. We later realized was giving me cover for all this and preventing me from meeting the State Department... John Kornblum had produced a draft of his own and the State Department thought they'd somehow or other get their draft past us and have the president use that. Tony didn't even let me know this was going on. And then on a Friday afternoon, as the helicopter lands on the south lawn to take the president to Camp David for the weekend, and we send over a packet of speeches, including my draft of the Berlin Wall address and say to the new staff secretary who'd come over with Senator Bakers, we always called him, even though he's chief of staff. The president has a lot of speeches to get through. There's quite a few speeches on this trip to Europe. Why don't you give them to him now so he can look them over at Camp David and get a head start on it. And this new staff secretary was just that he was new, he wasn't quite certain about the procedure. I wasn't there when this handoff occurred, but I am told that he resisted a bit and said, "Wait, I think this should go to staffing first." And then the president walked in on his way to the helicopter. We're in the diplomatic reception room on the ground floor of the White House and the president looked and said, "Oh, well, what have you got for me?" And the staff secretary handed him this batch of speeches. What I'm saying, Andrew, is that we speech writers pulled a fast one to get the draft to Ronald Reagan before it went out to staffing. As far as I can recall, this happened on only three or four speeches in all eight years, but we did it. We pulled a fast one and it was important that the Baker staff weren't quite sure what they were doing. They were good people. They learned quickly. I don't mean to suggest incompetence, but they were brand new in the job. Okay. So we meet the president the following Monday. He's read the speech and singles out the passage in discussion in front of staff, singles out the passage about tearing down the wall as a passage he particularly wants to deliver.Then the speech goes out to staffing and it's three weeks from that moment in the Oval Office to the day the president delivers it. And for all three weeks, the National Security Council and the State Department fought the speech on a number of grounds. It was naive. It would raise false expectations. It might put Gorbachev in a difficult position with regard to the right-wingers in the Politburo, who would say to him, "You see, you try to do business with Ronald Reagan and he just insults you in public." Howard Baker... I give Howard Baker a lot of credit for this because years later he told... In any event, Howard Baker said he just didn't think it felt right. It sounded unpresidential. Years later I found myself in a conversation with him and he said, "I've never been so glad about being totally wrong before." Okay. And so this goes back and forth and back and forth and what Tommy Grissum keeps getting... My notes record that the state and the NSC submitted seven alternative drafts. Seven times they wrote a draft of their own on this, that or another pretext. But the passage to tear down the wall was missing from every one. And a new draft would get submitted. And Tommy Grissum would call me over. And he'd had me sitting right in front of him, have me look over their new draft. And then, "Are there any concessions you can make here?" "No, I want to stick with the original draft." And this is why it was important that I... I was 29 when the speech was assigned and 30 when it was delivered. So I'm still... And speech writing in the White House was the first full-time job I'd ever had. This is appalling in some way, but I thought to myself, "I was in Berlin. I saw the wall. It's horrible." I talked to people who have to live with it. That evening when I was talking to Berliners and I said, "I'm told you've forgotten about the wall." And 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. How do you think we feel about that wall?" So I had done... What is the... I had encountered, let's say first order reality, and the State Department and the National Security accounts, these were people who made up their opinions by talking to each other and talking to West German diplomats. So I just thought... But they came after me because Ronald Reagan had already... Had this gone out to staffing first, it would've been smothered. It was critical that it went to the president and that he singled it out because they all had second thoughts. Nobody really wanted to play the scene with Ronald Reagan himself in which they said, "We know you're the nation's leading anti-communist, but we sort of think this is too much." But if they could talk the speech writer into changing his mind... If I wrote a memo to the president saying, "On mature reflection, sir," blah, blah, blah, he might have backed down. Okay. So I didn't back down. And then I'm told that on the... So they took off... To finish the story, I was not part of the traveling party. And I learned afterwards what happened, that Ken Duberstein who just died a couple of weeks ago, Deputy Chief of Staff Duberstein, the fighting goes on and on and on. It continues. Secretary of State, George Schultz, objects to the speech again in Italy, which is where they stopped first. And Duberstein thought he had no choice but to take it back to the president and Duberstein told me that he brought the central passage, he explained the state and NSC objections. And then he had the president read the central passage and they talked about it for a while. And then Reagan got that characteristic, little twinkle in his eye and he said, "Now I'm the president, aren't I?" "Yes, sir. We're clear about that much." "So, I get to decide whether that line stays in." "Yes, sir. It is your decision." "Well then, it stays in." Boom. So the day-

Andrew Roberts: Did George Schultz ever say to you that he was wrong and you were right?

Peter Robinson: He did not. He made it clear that he did not care to have the subject raised. We did not discuss it.

Andrew Roberts: [inaudible] just admitting it-

Peter Robinson: But I will, very much to his credit, Tommy Grissum told me. It had this weird quality. I do think it still strikes me as strange all these years later. They all fought the speech. Tom Grissum told me that after the president delivered it, the American party, George Schultz is up on the platform behind the president because he's a major dignitary, but there's staff milling around. The president then moves to the motorcade. They all begin to move to the motorcade to go onto the next event. And George Schultz scans the crowd and Tommy Grissum sees Schultz's big blue eyes, those laser beam eyes of George's settle on Tommy and George Schultz makes his way through the crowd to Tommy Grissum. And Tom said he had never been so frightened in his life. He was about to receive a dressing down from the Secretary of State about... Okay. George Schultz got to him and looked at him and said three words, "You were right."

Andrew Roberts: Ah.

Peter Robinson: You were right.

Andrew Roberts: Ah.

Peter Robinson: So it had this strange quality that it seemed that there were serious people, professionals to whom this seemed all wrong right up until the moment they heard it. And then it seemed right.

Andrew Roberts: There's something that you... I mean, it's a key moment in the Cold War, obviously. And there's something you have in the book, which I thought was fascinating. Was it Tony Dolan who said to you, "Actors get used to alternative endings?"

Peter Robinson: Yes, yes, yes.

Andrew Roberts: Now, go into that. Unpack that because I think it's very interesting your theory of Ronald Reagan and the Cold War with regard to alternative endings.

Peter Robinson: Yes. By the way, Andrew, I could yak on for days.

Andrew Roberts: Good, good.

Peter Robinson: And I'm conscious by the way that I'm following... I just listened to the podcast you recorded with Victor Davis Hanson and I feel as though I'm coming on stage to tap dance after a performance by Pavarotti. I'm just conscious that... So, you just, you just move me along here as I-

Andrew Roberts: No, no, no, no, no. I'm enjoying this thing, but tell us about this actors get used to alternative endings.

Peter Robinson: Right. Tony's point was that when Ronald Reagan went to Hollywood in the thirties, I've forgotten the numbers now. I believe it was in his first three years he appeared in 17 movies and the president himself used to say of Hollywood, "They didn't want them good. They wanted them Thursday." In other words, in those days, they were just making product. And it was quite typical for the actors on the sound stage- For the actors on the soundstage, to get ahead of the screenwriters. So they'd finish a scene. There would still be an hour left. Everybody's under contract. The lights are up. They were in their makeup, they were in their costumes, but they just finished what the screenwriters had produced. And Reagan got a reputation for being quite good at ad-libbing, and trying out different scenes, so they'd lay down a few scenes. They couldn't get too far ahead of the script writers, but they'd try things out. It all struck me as very odd, but even in the '80s, even with Ronald Reagan in the White House, there's a kind of grimness about the conservative outlook. Whittaker Chambers writes, in his book Witness, that when he left the Communist party, he did so in the consciousness that he was leaving the winning side to join the losing side. Jean-François Revel, what year would that have been, '85 maybe? Jean-François Revel produces a book which turns into a bestseller, and it's called How Democracies Perish. Okay. So somehow, or the whole underlying premise of détente and coexistence, of the Nixon, Kissinger, Ford policy, is that the Soviet Union's going to be here essentially forever. It's a great power. We have to deal with it. All we can do is manage the relationship. This is just the way things are, and they're going to continue to be that way. That always struck me as very strange, because nobody really could say, when he woke up in the morning, what would happen that day. Isn't that right? Isn't that the way human life is? We understand, in our own lives, the open-endedness of life, but somehow, when people try to think through future history, so to speak, if they think forward in history, they think some strange way, it's predetermined.

Andrew Roberts: Well, and especially to do with communism, because essential to communism is this concept of the inevitability of the [inaudible]

Peter Robinson: Correct.

Andrew Roberts: ... of the proletariat, so we were, in a sense, even the conservative movement was sort of buying into the [inaudible]

Peter Robinson: Exactly so.

Andrew Roberts: ... what is essentially a Marxist concept.

Peter Robinson: That is exactly so. We had made an intellectual concession, it was a very serious concession, without even realizing what intellectual ground we had ceded. That's the way I read it now. And Ronald Reagan's mind just didn't work that way. There's a famous moment, told to me by Dick Allen, to whom it happened. The year is '73, I think. Reagan is now a... No, it's '77. Reagan's now a former governor of California. He's run for the Republican presidential nomination and lost to Gerald Ford. Ford in turn lost to Carter, so Reagan is, for all anybody knows, a washed-up politician. Carter's just been elected president, and Dick Allen stops by Reagan's place in Pacific Palisades to give him a... Dick Allen, foreign policy professional, who would later become Reagan's first national security advisor, and he spends the morning giving Reagan an overview of world affairs. Mrs. Reagan brings them sandwiches, and over lunch, the former governor says, "Well, this is all very interesting. Would you like to hear my view of the Cold War?" Dick Allen said, "Well, of course sir. I would, governor. I'd like to hear your view of the Cold War," and Reagan replies, "Well, some people call me simplistic, but there's a difference between being simplistic and being simple. My view of the Cold War is we win and they lose."

Andrew Roberts: Magnificent.

Peter Robinson: It is, isn't it? I mean, it is- Here they are over sandwiches and potato chips in Pacific Palisades, but he's making the most... Nobody thought that... Dick Allen's made the point that he'd trained under Kissinger, and there was just no one in American politics who could have uttered such a statement, except Ronald Reagan. So he had, with your... I know that you've just recorded a podcast with this person, and he is in all kinds of ways a genuinely great figure, Henry Kissinger. My impression of watching him, listening to him, reading his books is that he has a mind... He knows immense amounts of history, and he applies to that history very close calculations. You look at the pictures of Kissinger and Nixon in the Oval Office, and you can almost hear the tumblers turning in both of their minds, as they make constant calculations of power, correlation of forces, and so forth. And Reagan wasn't like that. Again, I don't mean to... I'm not denigrating that turn of mind. Reagan had a different turn of mind, and he had just a kind of moral imagination, what's right, what's wrong, and he could imagine, he could actually picture a world without the Soviet Union, at a time when no one else could do that.

Andrew Roberts: It was happening in England a bit with Margaret Thatcher in the late '70s as well, and the interaction between those two, intellectually, I think is something of great interest. You say in your book that after the assassination, after Hinckley's assassination attempt, Reagan emerged a larger man. What did you mean by that?

Peter Robinson: This is tricky territory, but it's very much a piece of the man, and in my judgment, it's impossible to describe him in whole without getting into this territory a bit, but it's religious in nature. He says this to a few people, and he records it in his diary. I have heard, from people who heard it themselves at second or third hand, that he said that Mother Teresa visited the White House a couple of times, and she said it to him and he said it to her, that he had the feeling... By the way, Reagan's religion, very, very difficult to get at. He's not a man who wears his religion on... Actually, he wears very little on his sleeve. He doesn't wear his religion on his sleeve. Doesn't even go to church all that often, but I had long talks with, among others, Bill Clark, Judge Clark, who did get to know Reagan extremely well, and told me how often Reagan was in prayer. All right, the notion is simply this, that he felt, after the assassination attempt, that in some basic way, he had been spared, for some higher purpose. Now, who else had a feeling, although he hadn't survived an assassination attempt? I might suggest to you the title of a recent book, called Walking with Destiny. Churchill felt... Is it not the case that the-

Andrew Roberts: In retrospect, the number of times that Winston Churchill escaped close brushes with death, and assassination attempts is almost a sort of oversight.

Peter Robinson: Yes. Yes, yes.

Andrew Roberts: It's extraordinary that he didn't... I mean, actually, one suffragette did try to push him in front of a railway, oncoming railway-

Peter Robinson: Oh, is that so?

Andrew Roberts: ... train. Yeah, so under some circumstances, you might call that an assassination attempt. Nonetheless, yes, and he also very much felt that the almighty was saving him for a greater purpose, as a result of surviving all these close brushes with death. And what you're saying is that Ronald Reagan had that-

Peter Robinson: Yes. Yes, and what it meant was that from that moment on... Now, you could see this in the... You could sense it in him, but from that moment on, all kinds of things that matter a great deal to most of us just didn't matter to him anymore. They didn't matter. His reputation, this diplomatic maneuver, that diplomatic maneuver, somehow or other, he was just firmly focused... "Firmly focused," that's not the right way to put it, but the notion of freedom and liberty, and also, this doesn't get picked up on terribly much, I don't think, he really hated nuclear weapons. So the notion that he was a warmonger, like so many attacks on these great people... You and I have discussed this... It's so often the case that the press not only gets things wrong, but gets things exactly wrong. Not just a matter of nuance, but off by 180 degrees. For example, here's one of those moments, and I just don't know how he would have... if this moment would have taken place before the assassination attempt. There's a meeting in the... This is not in the book, oddly enough. I couldn't find a place to put it in. I don't know why. In any event. Speechwriters in the Oval Office, can't remember what speech we were discussing, but the big issue in Washington at the moment was the Strategic Defense Initiative, so-called Star Wars, and the question was, is Reagan serious about this, or is this, as all the calculating minds supposed, a bargaining chip? [inaudible]

Andrew Roberts: Or a gigantic bluff, of course.

Peter Robinson: Or a-

Andrew Roberts: That's the other thing-

Peter Robinson: Exactly. Does he mean it, or is it a bluff, or something to be dispensed with at the... All right. The president goes off, and he begins by telling us a story that we'd all heard before, that when he was in college, he got a job washing dishes in a sorority, and the punchline was, "It wasn't the worst job I've ever had, washing dishes in a girls' house," so we chuckled, but we'd all heard this joke before. And then he continued with something we'd never heard before, and actually, I've never heard anyplace else or seen anybody else write about. He said one evening, he and another fellow were... One of them was washing the dishes and the other was drying, and they were chatting as one would in that circumstance, and the other fellow said, "Well, airplanes mean that in the next war, we'll win it by just dropping bombs on the enemies' cities," and I can still picture this. Reagan said... He's describing a conversation that happened decades before, but you could still see his kind of look of shock and bewilderment on his face. "I told him, 'No. No, we could never do that. We were Americans.'" That was all he said, but of course, all of us were thinking Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Dresden, and at that moment-

Andrew Roberts: If he's-

Peter Robinson: Sorry.

Andrew Roberts: ... 17 or so, what year would that have taken-

Peter Robinson: This would have been-

Andrew Roberts: ... place?

Peter Robinson: He would have been 18, 19. Let's see, he was born in 1911, so this would have been 1911 plus 20, so we had 30, the early '30s, the early '30s.

Andrew Roberts: Well, exactly. Before the Nazis started bombing Rotterdam, before even Guernica was bombed, it was a very powerful moral concept, that it was a war crime to bomb innocent civilians in cities, so-

Peter Robinson: True. All that is true. My point is that here he is, repeating that concept in the 1980s, in the Oval Office, and at that moment, we understood the Strategic Defense Initiative is not a bargaining chip. He really wants to use our technological advantage to discover a way to protect the American people from nuclear weapons. That was my point there, Andrew, about the-

Andrew Roberts: You talk about him... It's very interesting in your book, where is he lucky? Is he unlucky? You put forward the ideas that he had been lucky, especially in a couple of moments in politics, but then you say his father was a drunk, his first wife divorced him, and when he was in his 40s, his acting career was ending. I mean, those are huge, all three of them, punches in the face to take.

Peter Robinson: Yes, they are.

Andrew Roberts: And yet, later on, you depict a man with immense serenity. He's calm before the state of the union. He didn't curse, or mope, or shout. He was a man of tremendous serenity. You've mentioned, of course, his religion, but where else does this come from, this serenity?

Peter Robinson: How do we describe these things, Andrew, without... You and I labor under this burden that in one way or another, we're situated in the world of academia and media, where one is never meant to talk about really deep things, because they're just not allowed. It's just against the rules in some way, right? But I just came to... It was a deep, deep faith, but it was beyond faith, it was almost a kind of just knowledge that this was a man who had encountered reality through suffering, and come to the conclusion that the whole Judeo-Christian, the base message, was true. Good is the primary reality. Evil is a distortion of that reality. History, in one way or another, it is not for us to know in our time, but history, in one way or the other, lies in the hands of a just and merciful providence, and in some basic way, things are going to come out all right. Honestly, this had become just a fundamental part of his outlook.

Andrew Roberts: And you say also his happy marriage is something that gave him-

Peter Robinson: Oh, yes.

Andrew Roberts: ... serenity as well.

Peter Robinson: Yes.

Andrew Roberts: Tell us a little bit about that, because she also... Nancy Reagan has been horribly ill-treated by people. Horribly ill-treated by people, commentators, especially on the left over the years. Tell us a bit about that.

Peter Robinson: She was difficult for us, Andrew, even at the time. I can tell, there was one moment of, I think it lasted about three weeks when, since I was the junior speech writer on the staff, I was told that I was now going to be writing speeches for Mrs. Reagan. It took me about three weeks to wriggle out of that and persuade Mrs. Reagan that they needed to go hire a full-time speech writer on their own. But I have in my files, I have, I think it was three pages. I don't think she ever gave anything longer than about three, but I have a speech for Mrs. Reagan in which Mrs. Reagan with a blue felt tip pen has drawn a line through every line on every page.

Andrew Roberts: The ultimate nightmare for a speech writer.

Peter Robinson: The ultimate. Every single word I wrote. And that came back to me. What, what, what?

Andrew Roberts: Did that ever happen to you at all your entire career?

Peter Robinson: Never.

Andrew Roberts: You wrote 150 speeches in your first year as a speech writer.

Peter Robinson: Nothing like that. Nothing like that ever happened. That was not just a rejection, that was a rejection in detail. She wanted me to know she'd considered every word and found it wanting. All right. So she was a difficult, tricky lady, but there's a moment in his life, a couple of people told me this, even one of them is still alive. Two people, when I was writing that book, I went to major people, people who'd known the president longest. And a couple of people told me using almost exactly the same words, which suggested to me that they had heard it in those words from Ronald Reagan himself, but they both said that the breakup of his first marriage was the worst event in his life.

Peter Robinson: He told them that, and they did not want to go on the record saying so, out of respect for him-

Andrew Roberts: And her perhaps.

Peter Robinson: And her as well. He starts dating one starlet after another. There's a moment for the first and only time in his life where there's a kind of recklessness that enters in. He's showing up at nightclubs. He's drinking. He's dating one starlet after another. His career is not going terribly well. It isn't over the way it would be after the ... I beg your pardon, his career is already beginning to fade. Career as an actor. You can see this, the way we thought about it in the White House, there were two people ... Reagan was the older of the two, but Peter Lawford this genial Englishman who married one of the Kennedy sisters and had a quick rise, quick early rise in his career, and then it stalled out and he got divorced and he was a lovely man known around Hollywood. He lived in Malibu and he would throw parties and he would be constantly drunk and high. It just threw away the second half of his life. You could see Ronald Reagan moving in that direction for a moment or two. Then he meets Nancy and she takes him in hand. She takes him in hand and she gives herself to him. She's not a nobody. She's a starlet. She has some standing in town, because her mother was an actress for many years. Nancy Reagan really knew Spencer Tracy. She knew major figures in Hollywood because her mother had been an actress. This is not a nobody. It just turns Ronald Reagan around. In later years, as I got to know Mrs. Reagan. I got to know Mrs. Reagan better after the White House. In fact, we had this conversation once. I took her to lunch at the Hotel Bel Air, where she had her own table and they knew without asking to bring her a very finely chopped Cobb salad of which she ate almost nothing. She ate like a bird. And we discussed, she wouldn't want this repeated, and I don't mean to make it sound as though it's denigrating anyone, but the difference between what she and Ronnie did in Washington and what George and Laura Bush were doing. She made the point that she got to Washington and she did in Washington, just what she did in Hollywood. She looked around and said, "Whom do I need to charm to help my husband?" She became very good friends with Katharine Graham. We speech writers always disliked this, that Mrs. Reagan was making friends with the liberal establishment. She was doing it because she understood the way people operate. She knew how towns worked. You get that. You get someone who loves him totally and unconditionally. You get someone, if Mrs. Reagan is the one who's tough on staff, never on a policy matter, but you had to prove to Mrs. Reagan, that you put his interest first. Her default position was you're here to take something from us or to use him. You had to prove, of course, for speech writers, we labor long years for not much money in those days. Eventually, we became all right. Although she was always worried that we put something in that would embarrass him. But all of this for the good of Ronald Reagan. I realized when you're president of the United States, everybody who walks through the door of the Oval Office wants something from you. We speechwriters wanted something. We wanted more of his time. Everybody wanted more of him. Nancy Reagan was the one. His children wanted more of his time and attention. And Nancy Reagan was the one who didn't want anything from him. She just wanted his own good. That was absolutely basic to him.

Andrew Roberts: I love that story of you being put in your place by her with the speech. There's also a lovely story of Michael Deaver, putting you very much in your place as a young speech writer.

Peter Robinson: Oh, yes.

Andrew Roberts: Why don't you tell our listeners that.

Peter Robinson: Well, as I say, the general rule was in the Reagan White House, that if you wrote the speech, you went to hear the president deliver it. I'd written a speech. I can't remember. But it was to be delivered in Washington in some big hotel ballroom, and the motorcade lines up. There's the armored limousine drawn up on the South Lawn Drive, just outside the Oval Office, and we're waiting for the president, and then behind the limousine, there's a secret service vehicle. Then there are six, seven sedans. I think they were Chryslers in those days or government vehicles. I was the lowest ranking member of the staff. I knew that without being told. I walked to the last sedan and climbed into that. The other sedans all filled up with staff who outranked me. I sat in this last sedan alone. I could see Deaver looking down the rank of sedans. We're waiting for the president. And Deaver's gaze comes to rest on me. Lowly speech writer. First of all, speech writers were lowly in his view. I was the most junior member of the speech writing staff. So I see Deaver motion to an aide of his and point to my car and say something to the aide. Then the aide comes over and says, "You're out of the motorcade. Mr. Deaver doesn't want to devote an entire vehicle just to a speech writer. You're out." I mean, the humiliation of getting out of my car and walking past all these staffers. I'm pretty sure that if one or two other staffers had joined that sedan, I would've been all right.

Andrew Roberts: Yeah.

Peter Robinson: But a speech writer by himself, with taxpayers money on gasoline? Not a chance. Get out of there.

Andrew Roberts: I've got a couple of Reagan stories that I think might amuse you. Both of them told me by Frank Johnson who was a great friend of mine. He was the Daily Telegraph-

Peter Robinson: Oh. Yes. I know. Yes, yes.

Andrew Roberts: Who a great journalist and a great friend. And he was [inaudible]

Peter Robinson: I took him to lunch once at the White House mess.

Andrew Roberts: Did you?

Peter Robinson: Yes, I did do.

Andrew Roberts: Oh, all right, you'll have heard both of these jokes, but some of our listeners might not have though. In 1976, he covered the run against Ford.

Peter Robinson: Yes.

Andrew Roberts: And he had a chance to speak to Ronald Reagan who said, "Is it true that in California, they're running all my old films?" And Frank said, "Yes, yes. I love them. I've been watching them last few days." And Ronald Reagan said, "Those Democrats they'll stop at nothing." And the other one he said to Frank was, he said, "I was never big in England. My movies. I put it down to your innate British good taste."

Peter Robinson: Notice, notice-

Andrew Roberts: That's the kind of charming, self-deprecation-

Peter Robinson: Yes. Yes. Yes.

Andrew Roberts: You'd never get a politician doing that kind of thing today.

Peter Robinson: No.

Andrew Roberts: It's just against the lexicon, essentially.

Peter Robinson: The humor was always-

Andrew Roberts: To use that self-deprecating humor.

Peter Robinson: The humor was always self-deprecating. Reagan signed a piece of legislation, I don't think there was money involved, but somehow or other, it was a recognition that the internment of Japanese during the Second World War was a terrible error. The audience is filled with old time Japanese-Americans who'd been interned, many of them. I'd done my research, and I had discovered, manna from heaven for a speech writer, that Reagan at the time, as an actor in Hollywood, had spoken out against the internment. All right. I have him, he's giving the speech and he quotes one Japanese figure, Japanese American, and mispronounces the name horribly. He realizes as he gets to the text. Now we put these things in phonetics, but for some reason he hadn't ... well he almost always went over a speech in his mind before delivering it, but he just butchered the name. Then there was another quotation from another Japanese American, and he gets that name, he pauses, and he's awkward on that name as well. Then he comes up to the quotation in which he's quoting himself. And he said, "And now a quotation from someone who was an actor in Hollywood at the time. "He reads the quotation and then he pauses and says, "And I hope I can pronounce this name correctly. Ronald Reagan."

Peter Robinson: And they all just ... it was a kind of apology and a moment of charm and humor all at the same time. You could just see the audience fall for him. Just fall for him.

Andrew Roberts: And what you call in your book, a certain lightness of touch.

Peter Robinson: Yes.

Andrew Roberts: Which obviously is true, both of Ronald Reagan and of speech writing. We have spoken for an hour.

Peter Robinson: Oh, Lord. I'll leave you alone.

Andrew Roberts: I rather feel we could have spoken for at least five, Peter, but thank you very much indeed, Peter Robinson for this truly fascinating insight into the process of speech writing for the person who I believe to be the greatest American peace time president of the 20th century.

Peter Robinson: Thank you, Andrew. You have a dinner party?

Andrew Roberts: Yes. I've got a dash now. Apologies. Exactly.

Peter Robinson: Okay. Dash.

Andrew Roberts: On the next edition of Secrets of Statecraft, I'll be talking to Bibi Netanyahu, presently leader of the opposition, and already the longest serving prime minister in Israel's history.

Speaker 1: This podcast is a production of the Hoover Institution, where we advance ideas that define a free society and improve the human condition. For more information about our work or to listen to more of our podcasts or watch our videos, please visit




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