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.
Pat Sajak: So, what would happen if a highly-respected author and Hoover Institution research fellow allowed his long-running and prestigious public affairs interview program to be taken over by a TV game show host? An even bigger question is, why did our guest, Peter Robinson, allow this to happen? It will all become clear very shortly. Uncommon Knowledge now. Welcome to Uncommon Knowledge. Do not adjust whatever you're watching this on. I am Pat Sajak and today we are at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in Simi Valley, California. We want to thank the good folks here for opening their doors to us for this event. If you haven't been here, it is a fabulous place and you really should come. It's not only historically fascinating, but it's a moving experience as well, and I would recommend it highly. Peter Robinson is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution where he writes about politics and business, and he more often than not is the host of the show. He has degrees from Dartmouth College and Oxford University. He spent six years at the White House, first as chief speechwriter to Vice President George Bush, and then as a special assistant and speechwriter to President Ronald Reagan. On this, the 30th anniversary year of Reagan's famous Mr. Gorbachev tear down this wall speech at Brandenburg Gate, a speech written by Mr. Robinson. We thought we'd turn the tables on Peter and talk about that historic address and the events surrounding it and leading to it and following it. We might even dwell into a few other areas with our guest Mr. Peter Robinson.
Peter Robinson: Thank you Pat.
Pat Sajak: Are you nervous?
Peter Robinson: I'm extremely nervous remarkably enough.
Pat Sajak: I will be gentle. We're going to talk a lot about the speech because that's why we're here after all. But let's talk about what got you into the position where you could write that speech. I mention this because I want to show you a picture folks. This is Peter with the President of the United States. You'll notice that one, one of them looks more comfortable with the camera than the other. I won't say which is which. How old were you in that picture?
Peter Robinson: In that picture I was 25, 25.
Pat Sajak: I mean this is a big deal. You're going to be writing speeches for the President of the United States. How does a 25 year old get into that position?
Peter Robinson: This is not a story that reflects well on me or on a couple of people we know or on the federal government. After college, I studied at Oxford, you mentioned I got a degree from Oxford. I stayed in Oxford an extra year to try to write a novel. At the end of the year I had a novel so bad that I couldn't stand reading it, and William F. Buckley Jr, the late and great conservative journalist who much to his credit encouraged young conservatives, suggested that I try to go to Washington and become a speechwriter. It was 1982 and Bill said get in touch with my son Christopher who was then writing speeches for Vice President Bush. So, I flew from Oxford to Washington, presented myself to Christopher Buckley, hoping he might have a lead on a job writing for a member of Congress or for the Postmaster General. Christopher said, “Well, I'm about to leave this job in two weeks and my replacement just fell through. I don't see any good reason you shouldn't write speeches for the vice president of the United States, and while you're here, go downstairs, downstairs in the old executive office building and talk to Tony Dolan who's the president's chief speechwriter.” I did that. While I was talking to Tony, the phone rang. It was the gubernatorial campaign of a man called Lou Lehrman who was running against Mario Cuomo for governor of New York. Tony Dolan, and they needed a speechwriter. Tony said, “Ah, I have just the man.” Christopher the next day told the Bush people that he found the perfect replacement for himself, yours truly, but that they'd better move fast because Lou Lehrman wanted me. Tony told Lehrman’s people, “I found the perfect guy for you, Robinson, but move fast because the Bush people want him.” So I went back and forth from interview to interview, New York to Washington, and at the end of two weeks they both offered me a job and nobody asked if I had ever written a speech before.
Pat Sajak: Your government in action ladies and gentlemen.
Peter Robinson: Your government in action. And it was a very good thing that nobody asked because I had never written a speech before.
Pat Sajak: Is that true, you had actually never put words on paper that someone else had to say?
Peter Robinson: Never written a speech before, no. That is literally true. I then spent six years in the White House waiting at any moment to be discovered. I mean found out is what I really mean.
Pat Sajak: So, you joined the vice president.
Peter Robinson: Vice president’s staff. I worked for George H. W. Bush for not quite a year and a half and then joined the president's staff. The vice president’s staff was small and informal, which is how I survived. It turned out two things happened that couldn't have been predicted but just worked. One was that George H. W. Bush and I just got along well together. I think I amused him. When his press secretary, I made it all the way through the interviews and the press secretary took me in to introduce me to the then vice president, and the vice president, I was standing and he looked at my shoes and let his gaze go up to my eyes and then he turned to the press secretary and said, “Well, he looks about the right height. Let's hope it works out.”
Pat Sajak: This apparently was before something called vetting.
Peter Robinson: Yes. And it did work out. He and I got along, and then it turned out speech writing, speech writing is not a high art really. It's more of a knack. You can imitate Jack Benny. I can imitate Jimmy Stewart. That means I can write speeches and you could too. Just some people can do it. It's really a question of being able to hear someone else's voice in your head while you write, and it turned out I just, I had a knack for it. I could do it.
Pat Sajak: And what a great voice you had to hear when you moved over to the president’s team, yeah.
Peter Robinson: The president's, the president's team exactly.
Pat Sajak: Presidents speak a lot, some incessantly, and particularly since the radio and television age and now in the Internet age you can't escape the words that are pouring from their mouths. Yet, these millions of words, it's amazing how few have endured. I mean John Kennedy, think not what your country can do for you, et cetera, a date that will live in infamy, the Gettysburg Address. I mean your speech, that line has joined that pantheon. That's pretty cool stuff.
Peter Robinson: It is cool stuff and I have a child of mine right here. Are you listening to this? A little respectfully.
Pat Sajak: It's become … This is not the time to air your dirty laundry.
Peter Robinson: All right.
Pat Sajak: It's become part of the popular culture. Monday Night Football, which has been on forever has a little opening montage where they show historical moments over the time they've been on the air and things that define the era, and something familiar is a part of that. And here's a clip talk about the popular culture-
Video: Ignition. We have liftoff. William Perry fights the football. Tear down this wall. And nobody catches Bo. Sunday night-
Pat Sajak: There you go. There you go. It's Howard Cosell, it's Dandy Don, and it's Peter. That's it together again. Some people in the public eye when they get associated with something closely, whether it's a role, a remark, an incident, another person, sometimes it begins to grate on them. They don't, they don't want to talk about it. They roll their eyes. “Do I have to talk about that again? You know I've done other things.” You appear to have embraced this and understand the historical significance. Did you have a time when you said, “Oh, well, I, you know, I don't want to talk about that again”?
Peter Robinson: I the answer is slightly complicated but I'll try not to go on and on. In the old days, the old days being the days when I was a speechwriter, the rule was that the speech writers were anonymous. By the way, I hope we get a chance to get to this, but if you ask me, that speech, thank you for it, I am associated with it, but the speech was Ronald Reagan. It was Ronald Reagan from beginning to end, and if we get a chance to discuss how it came to be, you'll see that only he would’ve delivered it. In any event, for the first 10 years I didn't say a peep about it. I didn't associate myself with it in any way. Then I discovered that one of the diplomats who in fact had tried to stop it was in Germany where he was then making, he'd been nominated to a high position in Germany and a friend of mine in Germany sent me a German, I had to have a translator, this guy was taking credit for it. I thought, “That's not right. That's just not right.” It was Ronald Reagan and we speechwriters were, it was our job, it was not, it was not an apparatchik at the State Department. I wrote a piece about it then and it turns out that it's all right, it's easy to live with because people only become interested in it about once every five years. I have the feeling that on this, the 30th anniversary, you and I, I’m discussing it now for the last time. I don't think anybody will be all that interested 35 years from now.
Pat Sajak: Well, it’s interesting-
Peter Robinson: And who knows, my memory may go.
Pat Sajak: It's interesting to talk about timelines because it seems strange but we're now into the second generation of people to whom the Cold War, the Wall, the Soviet Union are notes in their history books.
Peter Robinson: This year being the 30th anniversary three or four times I've talked about this speech and three or four times you wouldn't do this because you're a professional. But if I have a laugh line that works, I'll just use it over and over again because good laugh lines are hard to come by. So I learned a long time ago that if you said, if I begin speaking by saying, I had a special job, I was the well man in the speech writing shop, speech would go, get written, go to the president, come back, and then it would come to me, the well man, and I would go through and I would insert here and there. Well. So, with this audience it worked. Then I spoke to some kids at Dartmouth College, my alma mater, and I said, “Well.” Nothing. Then I had to back way up and figure out, do you know who Ronald Reagan was? He was … It took me 10 minutes. Oh. But it's gone. It's gone.
Pat Sajak: So, the wall itself, just to do, put it a little historical context here, it was, I mean it was a physical barrier, but it was much more than that. I mean it's really representative of a generation really. Talk about that.
Peter Robinson: All right. The end of World War Two Germany is divided into two pieces. The Soviets control the eastern part, which quickly becomes Eastern Germany, and the Americans, British, and French control the rest, which quickly becomes West Germany. Then Berlin itself is divided into two parts. The Soviets control one bit and we control the other, but, and this is the bit that kids these days don't know, West Germany … I beg your pardon, Berlin lies deep inside East Germany, so even West Berlin is completely surrounded by East Germany. What happened is that after the war as West Germany began to rebuild and it became clear that East Germany was going to become communist, millions of people, literally millions escaped East Germany simply by walking into West Berlin. Once they were in West Berlin they could get on a train and go to West Germany and they were free. By 1961 one fifth of the population of East Germany had done just that. They were bleeding population. So overnight one night you woke up one morning in West Berlin and West Berlin was completely surrounded by barbed wire, and in the course of days and weeks they replaced the barbed wire with brick and then by the mid ‘70s they replaced the brick with tall concrete slabs. What you had in the Berlin Wall was this little pocket of the West, West Berlin, literally surrounded by a 13-foot wall in the middle of the communist world.
Pat Sajak: And unlike some of the walls we're talking about now, it's not, it wasn't to keep people out. It was to keep people in.
Peter Robinson: It was to keep people in East Germany. That is exactly correct. That is exactly correct. When I went there to do research for this, one of the most striking things, in fact there’s still, the wall is gone, but there is still if you know what you're looking for there are still memorials to people who were killed trying to escape over the wall. That's the background that it was as brutal, a reminder of what the bad guys were up to as you could possibly imagine. They created such a bad society that their own people were desperate to get out and they had to wall them in.
Pat Sajak: You mentioned going there for research.
Peter Robinson: Yes.
Pat Sajak: Is the story true about a lady who may have sparked the well-known line to you?
Peter Robinson: It is true indeed. It is true indeed. I was there for research. I was only there for about a day and a half. I went around to various sites in Berlin beginning with where the president would speak, and then that evening I broke away from the American party. That is to say the advance men, the press people and the security and so forth, and got into a cab and went out to a suburban home in West Berlin where the Elz-es, Dieter Elz and Ingeborg Elz, whom I had never met before but we had friends in common in Washington put on a dinner party for me of West Berliners, simply so I could get to know some West Berliners. We chat a little bit and then I said, “I have to tell you that the ranking American diplomat in Berlin earlier today told me, President Reagan's speechwriter, don't make a big deal out of the Wall. They've gotten used to it by now.” I had been flown over the Wall in a US Army helicopter. So I said, “It looks to me as though it would be the kind of thing it would be hard to get used to. Is it true? Have you gotten used to it?” And there was a silence, and then 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. You think we can get used to that?” They had stopped talking about it but they hadn't gotten used to it. We went around the room. Another fellow said, “I walk to work by the same route each day. I pass under a guard tower and there's a young man on that tower with a rifle over his shoulder who looks down at me with binoculars. We share the same history. We speak the same language. But one of us is a zoo keeper and the other is an animal. And I've never been able to decide which was which.” Then our host is a lovely woman called Ingeborg Elz who just died a couple of years ago. She was a lovely woman. She was a gracious hostess, but she became angry and she said, “If this man Gorbachev means this talk, this perestroika, this glasnost, he can prove it by coming here and getting rid of that wall,” and that was … Now by this point I'd been in the White House for five years. I knew Ronald Reagan. I don't mean to say that I played cards with Ronald Reagan or that I was a guest at the ranch. Nothing of that kind. The relationship was entirely professional, but we speechwriters, it was our job to know the mind of the president, to watch which material he liked, to understand how he thought, and I just knew the moment she said that, that if Ronald Reagan had been there, he would have responded to that. The simplicity but the power of that remark. So, I put it into my notebook and went back to the White House and that did become the basis for “Tear down this Wall”.
Pat Sajak: So, it's decided the president's going to speak.
Peter Robinson: Yes.
Pat Sajak: Brandenburg Gate. He's got to say something. And the wheels are set in motion.
Peter Robinson: Yes.
Pat Sajak: Take us through the process.
Peter Robinson: Process is that Robinson gets these … By the way, there would be about half a dozen speeches each year that we knew were going to be big-ish speeches, and then there’s also a lot of remarks in the Rose Garden and so forth. We tried to share those out relatively evenly, so it was just my turn for a big speech, so that's why I got the assignment.
Pat Sajak: Wait, literally that was …
Peter Robinson: Yeah, no, it was just about-
Pat Sajak: You were next in line-
Peter Robinson: I was next in line. That's right. See, the White House staff guidance was he's going to stand in front of … Here’s where he’s standing, and we'll have about 10,000 people in front of him. Turned out to be about 40,000. Talk for half an hour, probably got to talk about foreign policy, given the site. That was it. The rest was up to me to figure out to do the first draft thinking so to speak as well as the first draft writing. The process was I flew to Berlin. I spent a day and a half getting research. It was a very moving day and a half, partly because it was so frightening to me. I went to the site where the president would speak, and I don't know. This is a problem. I don't know how to convey to kids of my own, my own son's generation, what it felt like to stand at the Berlin Wall. Here's the Reichstag which is still pockmarked from shelling during the Second World War and behind you, you have a modern city. People are well-dressed. There are neon lights. They're driving beautiful Mercedes-Benz. It's a modern city. There's life. And you look over on the other side and you see guards walking back and forth, a few pedestrians, dilapidated buildings. This is in color and this is just in black and white. The felt sense of history there, there is really something close to evil and here we have freedom. Now all I have to do is write a speech for Ronald Reagan that lives up to that sense of moment, that sense of place, and then I went in saw the ranking American diplomat who was full of things, full of ideas about what the president shouldn't say, and then I went to this dinner party. I was taking notes madly all day long. Back we went to the White House. I wrote a couple of really bad drafts. In one draft, I thought audience is going to be German so the key line was Herr Gorbachev [German 00:18:45]. My boss Tony Dolan said, “Peter, when your client is the President of the United States, give him his best lines in English.” Tony Dolan, chief speechwriter at the time, plays a central role here. The president was also going to Italy to talk at the Venice economic summit. He'd visit Rome. He'd see the Pope. He'd see the president of Italy. There'd be speeches involved in the Venice economic summit and then he'd go to Berlin. Tony had the whole speech writing shop produce all of this stuff at once, and then he waited until a Friday afternoon in May until you could hear the sound of the helicopter landing on the South Lawn to take the president to Camp David. I'm not making this up. Tony took this sheaf of speeches over to the West Wing and said to the staff secretary who was new, you know ordinarily these things would go out to staffing before they went to the president, but look how much, you'd better send him this to Camp David this weekend so he can get a little ahead with this workload, and the staff secretary did. So, the president saw the draft before the staff saw it. Then the following Monday we had a meeting in the Oval Office with the president. Very eerie experience to go into the mock-up Oval Office here because it is exactly right in every detail. In any event, talk about this speech, that speech, and then we got to my speech, and the president just said, “Well, that was a good draft. That's a fine speech.” Then I said. You’d go in with questions. You might have time for one question, maybe two. You'd go in with questions that you would hope it’d elicit more from Ronald Reagan. I said, “I’ve heard, I learned when I was in Berlin that depending on weather conditions people will be able to hear your speech on the other side, the communist side, maybe even as far east as Moscow. Mr. President is there anything in particular you want to say to the people on the Communist side of the wall?” Ronald Reagan thought for a moment and then he said, “Well, there's that passage about tearing down the wall. That's what I want to say to them. That wall has to come down.” And that was all. But then the speech went out to staffing and for three weeks the National Security Council, the State Department, everybody fought it, and, but they couldn't get over it because-
Pat Sajak: Let me-
Peter Robinson: Yes, yes, go ahead, go ahead.
Pat Sajak: I want to show. May we show that, see how the system works. Here's a draft of the speech with a marks on it. I want to highlight one maybe on another page, but it's a note written apparently in a later draft by Colin Powell. I’m sure you're familiar with this.
Peter Robinson: Oh yes.
Pat Sajak: It was his summation. The Brandenburg Gate speech is better than before, but the staff is still unanimous that it's a mediocre speech and a missed opportunity. Where do you go from there?
Peter Robinson: To think what might have been.
Pat Sajak: Was there near unanimity on that line particularly that needed to go?
Peter Robinson: Yes.
Pat Sajak: Who was in your corner on that?
Peter Robinson: Ronald Reagan.
Pat Sajak: That's it.
Peter Robinson: Full stop.
Pat Sajak: Well, if you have to have someone in your corner, that's who-
Peter Robinson: His speech it turned out to be the correct, yes, the full-stop the speech writers. The way this … The essential point is if the State Department and NSC had gotten me to change my mind because I was the speechwriter who'd gone and done the research, if I'd written a cover memo dear, “Mr. President on second thoughts I got part of this wrong and I recommend that we rewrite the speech as follows,” there's a strong chance he would have deferred to the writer who had done the research. Ronald Reagan was never personally close to almost anybody, but he liked his writers and that your other chance was Ronald Reagan himself. But the president, this is why that meeting in the Oval Office was so important, because the president had already said he particularly liked to deliver that passage, and that meant their only recourse was me. So I got yanked into meeting after meeting after meeting and I just was stubborn about it.
Pat Sajak: So, your argument was, “Hey, the chief likes this”?
Peter Robinson: My argument was, first of all, Ronald Reagan likes it, and frankly the other argument was, the other, they submitted different drafts, alternative drafts, and they were bureaucratic. You just can't, you can't put Ronald Reagan in front of the Berlin Wall and have him read bureaucratic dreck, and by the way … So, the decision they went to Italy. Now this I didn't, I wasn't, I don't have this firsthand because I was not part of the traveling party, but they went to Italy and the deputy chief of staff, a man called Ken Duberstein, the fight is going on and on and on and Ken Duberstein said, “”We have to take this back to the president.” Ken Duberstein told me what happened. He sat Ronald Reagan down in the garden of some Italian Palazzo. He explained the arguments against this passage. It would put Gorbachev in a tight spot. It was unrealistic. It would raise false hope, so forth, and then he had the president reread it. Then Ken said they talked about it for a moment and then the twinkle came on and the president said, “Now, I'm the president, aren't I?” “Yes sir, we're clear about that much.” “So I get to decide if that line stays in?” “Yes sir. It is your decision.” “Well then, it stays in.”
Pat Sajak: Wow. Wow. If you don't mind my sharing a little personal email that you sent to me. You talked about how you revisit the speech every few years, people don't talk about it for a while, and I assume you hadn't read the full speech in a good while.
Peter Robinson: I hadn’t read it in years.
Pat Sajak: Well, Peter, read it recently and he said to me. I want to get it right. He said, “You know, I had an occasion to reread the speech. It's pretty good.” You know what else was interesting about the speech to me, is there was a lot in it that was political. I mean Ronald Reagan was not shy about making the point that the Soviet Union was crumbling in large measure because of his policies confronting the missile defense brouhaha. Basically he said to all of you who’ve been demonstrating against this, it was that policy that is making this all happen. So there was certainly a political element.
Peter Robinson: It is. It is.
Pat Sajak: Domestic political.
Peter Robinson: Exactly so, yes. For sure we tend to remember Ronald Reagan correctly as the most genial, the warmest, the loveliest of men. What we sometimes forget is how aggressive he was. So here we have, this is June of 1987. Gorbachev is in power. They've had the summit in Reykjavik and the State Department argument is, “Wait a minute, everything's coming our way. Lay off the guy.” Ronald Reagan said, “No, no, no. The Berlin Wall is still there. That system is still evil. I'm pressing my advantage. You're serious about perestroika? Tear down this wall. There's only one way out of this for you.” That was Ronald Reagan. He wasn't going to go all sweet on the Soviet.
Pat Sajak: Another thing that struck me in reading it is there's some other wonderful passages that people have forgotten about it. I've asked you about some of your favorites. I know there's one I guess near the end of the speech.
Peter Robinson: That's right.
Pat Sajak: I think it might be good to look at what the president says because it's beautiful passage and then we'll talk a little bit about some of the circumstances around, because that’s an interesting story too. This is near the end of the Brandenburg Gate-
Ronald Reagan: The totalitarian world finds even symbols of love and of worship and affront. Years ago before the East Germans began rebuilding their churches, they erected a secular structure, the television tower at Alexanderplatz. Virtually ever since the authorities have been working to correct what they view as the tower’s one major flaw, treating the glass sphere at the top with paints and chemicals of every kind. Yet, even today, when the sun strikes that sphere, that sphere that towers over all Berlin, the light makes the sign of the cross. There in Berlin like the city itself symbols of love, symbols of worship cannot be suppressed.
Pat Sajak: Something happened during that speech, it was fascinating.
Peter Robinson: Again, this is, this almost sounds like Disney. It's almost sounds too much, but it happened. It was a gray overcast day. Again, I wasn't there but I could see it on television and the people who were there came back and I actually got a phone call from Tony Dolan while he was still there. It was a gray overcast day and there's this ball at this tower in East Berlin.
Pat Sajak: The one he referred.
Peter Robinson: The one he's referring to, and he's talking about the sun coming out and so forth, and you couldn't see it because there was no sign of the cross. It was just this gray ball and a gray sky. Then he got to the passage, and the clouds opened up, and the sun came out, and the sign of the cross appeared on that thing. My conclusion there is that God probably could do all right at Disney.
Pat Sajak: You know seeing the clip, there's something emotional about it to me. He was such an extraordinary-
Peter Robinson: There is … I listen to this. Once every five years I listen to it a few times, but there is … I know you don't want me doing any of the asking of questions here, but just as a pure performer, just as a guy who could connect …
Pat Sajak: Oh yeah.
Peter Robinson: He was one of the greats, wasn’t he?
Pat Sajak: Yeah, on a real visceral kind of level. I mean he … But I wonder about this. Sometimes I think that the Republican Party in general and specifically the conservative movement have not wounded themselves in a strange way searching for the next Reagan. When you look at that clip, you see what an extraordinarily unique individual he was. When you start saying we got to have another Reagan, then you're dissatisfied with everything that comes along. There is no other Reagan. I mean would you agree with that? It hasn’t helped the party, it hasn't helped the conservative movement to … I mean it's great to have that to build on, but you can't replicate that.
Peter Robinson: You can't replicate it. I got a little lesson of this. This will sound … Well I was about to say it sounds self-referential. It is self-referential.
Pat Sajak: But if you acknowledge it, it's funny.
Peter Robinson: Why thank you Pat. When this little program, Uncommon Knowledge, which, well, and now it's a big program now that you're hosting it.
Pat Sajak: Of course.
Peter Robinson: But when Uncommon Knowledge-
Pat Sajak: We've taken it to the next level.
Peter Robinson: We started with just a couple of stations up north near Stanford, a couple of PBS stations, and when Bill Buckley took his show Firing Line off the air at the end of 1999 he called me and said, “Peter, I'm going to recommend you to the PBS system as my replacement.” I, my response was immediate. I said, “Bill, I can't be you,” and Bill got cross. Bill became cross. He said, “Don't you ever attempt to be me. Just be you, and do that as well as you can.” It's that kind of thing. We get these large figures. Bill Buckley's still is a hero. Milton Friedman, Ronald Reagan, those are sort of the three heroes of my young manhood, and all three of them would say, “Stop it. You have to be who you … yourselves."
Pat Sajak: Yeah. You can always tell when Bill Buckley was angry because he would speak monosyllabically. This is an unfair question because it calls for … You're trying to get in someone else's shoes and someone else's head for that matter, but just it might be fun to speculate. What do you think Ronald Reagan would make of Donald Trump? Seriously. As a man, politician-
Peter Robinson: Okay, so, there are … Well the obvious, the immediate response is there's a lot about Donald Trump that Ronald Reagan would find pretty hard to take. The comments about … Ronald Reagan was a Midwestern gentleman. I add Midwestern because there's a kind of sense of solidness about his character, simplicity about his character, and Donald Trump is a loudmouth from Queens.
Pat Sajak: I believe that was his slogan in the race.
Peter Robinson: That's right. You have to correct for the difference in background, but even for correcting for that, the tape about Donald Trump's, what he said about women, it may have been 10 years old. Such words would never have formed themselves in Ronald Reagan's mind.
Pat Sajak: So, on that level he’s-
Peter Robinson: On that level for sure.
Pat Sajak: Politically.
Peter Robinson: Politically I have to say that, and I think that Reagan would have appreciated certain of Trump's impulses or his instincts. Now Reagan could actually think things through. He was always writing, he was always thinking. Donald Trump as best I can tell isn't a reader or a writer, either one particularly, but-
Pat Sajak: At arithmetic, he's very good.
Peter Robinson: Arithmetic, he knows ratings, he follows ratings. But the fundamental impulse that somehow or other the country needs to be made great again, that you need defense spending, you need tax cuts, these fundamental impulses I think that President Reagan would have approved of, but he would have liked to have slapped Donald Trump himself a few times I think.
Pat Sajak: Let's talk about this show, which began on PBS in the ‘90s, ‘90s?
Peter Robinson: ‘90s or 2000s. Actually the ‘90s, ‘98 I think with two stations.
Pat Sajak: And grew and ran for several years on PBS.
Peter Robinson: Correct, and now it's just a vidcast. It turns out when we took the show off PBS our audience dropped dramatically, but the responses went way up. You're actually finding people on … My feeling is that on the internet it finds people, the show finds people who are actually interested in it.
Pat Sajak: Sure. Not just waiting for Elmo.
Peter Robinson: Not just waiting for Elmo.
Pat Sajak: So, taken as a whole how has this experience affected you? I mean you've talked to politicians. You've talked to philosophers. You've talked to scientists. Has it changed your worldview in meeting all these people and in hearing what they have to say? I mean do you feel better about this? Has it changed your attitudes about this country, about yourself?
Peter Robinson: Sure. Well, I mean one thing, it’s taught me certain humility. There are a lot of people on this world who know more than I do. Not you necessary but …
Pat Sajak: You saved me the trouble.
Peter Robinson: I could see it coming. I could see. It's just been, it's been a kind of graduate seminar in America. The number of people who, and even people I disagree with, people care about the United States of America in a way that I'm not sure is quite parallel with the way Germans care about Germany. There's something about this experiment that people from Tom Wolfe who’s a literary figure of course, but if you ask him, “What's your deepest love,” he'll answer America, or Christopher Hitchens, the late Christopher Hitchens who was wrong about almost everything. It was just amazing how wrong Christopher was.
Pat Sajak: But a fascinating guy.
Peter Robinson: Christopher cared about the United States of America. The argument was taking place right here. I suppose that talking to all of these people no matter who the guest is and no matter what the subject in one way or another the text is the United States.
Pat Sajak: Who surprised you as a guest? In a bad way. In a good way. They were smarter than you thought. They were different than you thought. They threw you for a loop in one way or another.
Peter Robinson: Milton Friedman. There was one exchange I had with Milton Friedman that stayed with me ever since, the late Milton Friedman, and there was … I can't even remember the argument. It was some economic argument and I stopped him and I said, “Well, wait Milton, what you just said doesn't sound like a technical economic argument. That sounds like a moral argument. You're arguing about what's right and what's wrong.” Milton Friedman, the greatest economist of the 20th century just looked at me and said, “Peter, of course it's a moral argument. What other kind of argument is there?” Ah, that's very deep. The ground of all argument is what's right, what's wrong, but what's right. That was tremendous.
Pat Sajak: You must have had among the many shows, and I've seen so many of them, they’re virtually all of them brilliant, but …
Peter Robinson: Virtually?
Pat Sajak: What is that? Was it you doing Jack Benny?
Peter Robinson: I was. I had to get it in once on the show with you. You do yours. Shall we do it together?
Pat Sajak: Dennis.
Peter Robinson: Three, two, one. Rochester.
Pat Sajak: But there must have been a time or two when … There's a little clock you have up here that tells you how much time has gone and you must be thinking, “Well, that's been about a half-hour,” and you look and you've been on for four minutes because it's been excruciating. I won't ask for any names, but do you have any trick to get through those?
Peter Robinson: I do more talking myself to get through those. I did … there …
Pat Sajak: If you want to mention a name.
Peter Robinson: I will mention. We've had very successful shows since, but one of the very first, I think it was the second show that I taped, was with George Shultz, former Secretary of State, and I asked him a question that he didn't want to answer. There's television and there was a big long wind-up, and it was when the war in the Balkans was taking place. I made this historical parallel about the Reconquista in Spain where the Christian kingdoms took seven centuries to drive back the Muslims, and isn't there an argument they would make it themselves. The Serbians argue that they're simply trying to recapture their own country in just the same way as the Spanish recaptured Spain. And Mr. Secretary, what do you make of that argument? And here was George Shultz's answer in full. This taught me how a great diplomat operates.
Pat Sajak: Yeah.
Peter Robinson: On to the next question.
Pat Sajak: In a big hurry. Speaking of people who don't want to answer questions, politicians are often known for that, and they go to their talking points, they answer the question sometime that they want to answer rather than the one you ask.
Peter Robinson: That’s right.
Pat Sajak: Have you learned to finish your way around that, to get to the crux of the matter when someone doesn't want you to get there?
Peter Robinson: I don't know that I've learned it. I mean it's a permanent frustration, but my judgment is that if I ask a question a second time and they, they still won't answer it, it's not up to me to reach across and grab their time, pull them in and slap them, the way, which is the treatment they get on certain networks and certain talk shows. But my judgment is that my audience, which is smaller and they're people who find their way to the show themselves, my audience knows what just happened, and I don't have to point it out. These guys … By the way. One thing that has changed in my thinking when I interview politicians, governors, senators, these are all impressive people, and getting elected we forget this. All the Congress, what idiots they all are. You know what? I have yet to discover an idiot in Congress. Getting elected is hard work. These guys are by and large very impressive and surprisingly enough, at least it surprised me maybe because I was so naive, every single one of them that I've encountered is in one way or another a real believer. These guys, I'm thinking of Mitch McConnell, I did an interview with Mitch McConnell. Mitch McConnell, the take on Mitch McConnell would be that he's a technician, he's a master of the rules of the Senate and all he cares about is power. You ask Mitch McConnell a couple of questions about what he would do if he had more votes, if he had more power, if he weren't calculating on the margins so closely all the time and every single answer is very conservative. Mitch McConnell is a conservative in any event. My judgment is to let these guys if they don't want to answer a question, make that clear to the audience that they're evading a question and then move on. Maybe that's too sweet. I don't know.
Pat Sajak: No, no. You're not the tie grabber type. It's all right. May we talk about your family a little bit?
Peter Robinson: You may.
Pat Sajak: You have by today's standards a rather large one.
Peter Robinson: Yes, it's a large Catholic family from the 1950s as corrected for inflation.
Pat Sajak: Numerically.
Peter Robinson: Five.
Pat Sajak: Five. It’s three boys and two girls.
Peter Robinson: Three boys and two girls yes.
Pat Sajak: And your wife?
Peter Robinson: Only one wife.
Pat Sajak: Yes. Edita.
Peter Robinson: Edita, E-D-I-T-A. Her parents left Cuba in 1959 and she was born about 18 months later. She has three older brothers, all of whom were born in Havana. My father-in-law is the only man I know of who served in the administrations of both Fidel Castro and Ronald Reagan.
Pat Sajak: Wow.
Peter Robinson: He was given no choice but to serve for Fidel, and it took him three months to figure out how to get out of the country.
Pat Sajak: As a father of two I understand fatherly pride. One of Peter’s sons-
Peter Robinson: Your two are so good that really you don't need anymore. We had to keep at it.
Pat Sajak: That's why we stopped. That and my wife said we're stopping. No, I just said that for the cheap laugh. Where was I going with this? I have no idea. Now my … Oh Nico. So a track-and-field guy and particularly pole-vaulting.
Peter Robinson: Yes.
Pat Sajak: And I understand fatherly pride. I can't tell you how many pole vaulting videos I've received from Peter Robinson. He's a very impressive pole vaulter.
Peter Robinson: Would it kill you to say like father like son?
Pat Sajak: Have you ever pole vaulted?
Peter Robinson: Never, no, but I never get any … They all say, “Oh, yes, yes, must get it all from his mother.”
Pat Sajak: So, as you look ahead here, now you continue to look right-
Peter Robinson: Look ahead?
Pat Sajak: You continue to-
Peter Robinson: What kind of show is this?
Pat Sajak: You continue to write.
Peter Robinson: I do.
Pat Sajak: Yes. Do you have another book in you?
Peter Robinson: You know I had a book in me. The answer is I hope so, but I'm not working on a book right now. I worked for years on a book on the beginnings of the Cold War and I just, it, I couldn't quite get it done. History it turns out … I'll give you an example. Just yesterday or the day before there appeared in The Wall Street Journal a column on how Trump should learn from it the way Harry Truman handled the beginnings of the Cold War. Trump should understand that Harry Truman ginned up public indignation and addressed the populist impulse in the country, and this column quoted senator Vandenberg. You see you're already falling asleep. This is exactly what this is. Quoted senator Vandenberg is telling Harry Truman that you're going to have to give a speech in which you scare the hell out of the American people. I spent a week of my life trying to track down the citation for that quotation, this is years ago, and it turns out as best I can tell that senator Vandenberg never said any such thing. That quotation doesn't pop up until about three years later, but it took me a week of my life to find out something that wasn't actually there, and that's what writing history is like. I'm saving that. I intend to live to about the age of 120 and I'll take up this book again at 118.
Pat Sajak: Why don't you write a fake history book? Just a thought. I don't know. When you come here to the library museum it is a great place.
Peter Robinson: It is.
Pat Sajak: But it must be, you must have all kinds of emotions that run through you when you walk into the Oval Office, which is as you said earlier is perfect in terms of how it’s laid out here. What goes through Peter Robinson's head?
Peter Robinson: Here I am with the most cheerful and lighthearted of men. This is a kind of a d … For me it's a little bit of a, it's kind of disconcerting or disorienting for me. Frankly it’s rather sad because when I walk into this Oval Office replica, which is exact in every way, my friends aren't there, and Ronald Reagan isn't there, and that's, at some level that's just a, it's disappointing to me. It's like going back to your college campus and saying, “Wait a minute? Where is everybody? Oh, that was decades ago.” I won't say that I knew Ronald Reagan well. I mean I did know him very well in some sense, I understood his mind I think. As I said, I didn't play hearts with him up at the ranch but I knew him. He was a big part … I'll tell you. Okay, so here's … This is a little bit off but it'll get to the point. It'll help you understand what I feel I think.
Pat Sajak: I'll get a road map.
Peter Robinson: Okay.
Pat Sajak: Go ahead.
Peter Robinson: Please do. Feel free to take notes. Bill Safire started a club for presidential speechwriters. Bill Safire, the late columnist for The New York Times who was a speechwriter for Richard Nixon. For a number of years we'd get together. Jack Valenti hosted us at the motion-picture of association. He had a big dining room in Washington and we’d get together there. There were two tables of writers whose politics were very different but who understood each other just instinctively, and that was the Kennedy table and the Reagan table, and that was because we both just loved our presidents. John Kennedy was the biggest thing that had ever happened to Ted Sorensen, and Ronald Reagan was a pretty big thing in our lives as well. I don't like to say this because it sounds sappy and because it's not useful, it's not useful. It's a little too close to this notion of searching for another Ronald Reagan. But I miss him. I miss him.
Pat Sajak: I think we all do. You know you're a terrific host, but you're also a terrific guest Peter Robinson. Thank you very much for doing this. Thank you for letting me turn the tables. You can switch chairs next week if you'd like. Is there anything you'd like to, is there anything you'd like to add as you end this, your first guest shot on your own show?
Peter Robinson: I'm dazzled by Patrick Sajak.
Pat Sajak: He's good.
Peter Robinson: I actually … How many people have Americans invited into their homes for year after year after year? Johnny Carson? It's single digits. We are in the presence of one of the greatest broadcasters and entertainers in the country's history. Thank you Pat.
Pat Sajak: Wow. Well thank you. Now if I were really a true great broadcaster I would have ended it on I miss Ronald Reagan, but I wanted to go on so he'd say something nice about me. Thank you Peter, it was a privilege to sit in your chair. Thank you so much. Our thanks again to all the good folks here at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum for their hospitality. Again, it's a wonderful place. You really should come. It's worth a trip to California. For Peter Robinson, for Uncommon Knowledge, and the Hoover Institution, I'm Pat Sajak.
- Post Credits -
Peter Robinson: Just to soften you up, I really don’t know what questions he has, but just to soften you up, may I thank you right now?
Pat Sajak: If you’d like.
Peter Robinson: I think so. I think.
Pat Sajak: Is there? Is there money involved?
Peter Robinson: No, no. Nothing that you would find interesting. But I thought I might try to make you feel a little bit indebted right from the get go. Pat, thank you for doing this. Pat Sajak will tell you. He’s told me. Actually, he’s told me so many times I think he needs a new line, that all he does is play Hangman on television. Now in the first place that’s not true. He is a very serious well-read man. He’s the vice chairman of the board of Hillsdale College. He served on the board of Claremont. I don’t want to overshoot. Let's not get carried away here. Pat has funded a cancer research center at a Anne Arundel Medical Center back in Lesly Sajak’s home state of Maryland. But even if it were true, even if all that Pat had ever accomplished was persuading millions of Americans to invite him into their home for these several decades now, consider this. I did a little work on this Pat.
Pat Sajak: Wow.
Peter Robinson: I really want you to feel-
Pat Sajak: So much for the one host rule.
Peter Robinson: Here’s a passage from Boswell’s Life of Johnson and you need, one, the set-up is that Dr. Johnson had just remarked that their friend David Garrick, the theater producer and actor had augmented the public stock of harmless pleasure. Boswell, “Is not harmless pleasure very tame?” Johnson, “Nay, sir. Nay, sir. Harmless pleasure is the highest praise, to be able to furnish pleasure that is harmless. Pleasure pure and unalloyed, is as great a power as a man can possess.” So to the all-powerful Pat Sajak, my thanks.
Pat Sajak: Thank you. Thank you. I appreciate it. You didn’t tell me this was going to be so highfalutin.