Peter Robinson had just turned 30 years old when, as Ronald Reagan’s speechwriter in 1987, he was tasked with crafting what would become one of the world’s most famous presidential speeches.
“I spent six years in the Reagan White House and I wrote tens of thousands of words, and nobody remembers anything except six of them — and one of them is ‘mister,’” said Robinson, referring to the memorable “tear down this wall” line that Reagan directed at Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev before a crowd of thousands at the Berlin Wall.
Robinson told St. Louis on the Air host Sarah Fenske on Tuesday’s program that the idea for “tear down this wall” came from a German woman at a dinner party. He had flown to Berlin a few months before the speech to gather material.
“It was up to [speechwriters] to know the president so well that we were writing for him and thinking through what he would have wanted to say had he had the time to do the research,” Robinson said.
There was plenty of material for Robinson, as the Cold War had moved into its fourth decade. Not only did the Berlin Wall serve as a physical barrier between East and West Berlin, it concreted an ideological barrier between democracy and communism.
Robinson said it was a challenge to write a speech that equaled the setting. Visible from the Brandenburg Gate were stark contrasts. Color, activity and prosperity were visible in West Berlin, Robinson said, while it looked as if the color had been drained from a photograph in East Berlin.
In commemoration of the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, Robinson will be at the National Churchill Museum at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri, this Thursday to deliver a lecture about the 1987 speech. The largest section of the Berlin Wall outside of Germany is in Fulton as a sculpture titled “Breakthrough,” by former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s granddaughter, artist Edwina Sandys.
Listen to the audio to hear more from Robinson about how he crafted the “tear down this wall” speech.
Ronald Reagan vs. Donald Trump
Robinson, a policy fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, has plenty of thoughts on the current president of the United States.
“It’s a vexed question,” he said, concerning the Republican Party under Donald Trump.
“With Ronald Reagan, even his enemies liked the guy,” Robinson said. “[Former Democratic House Speaker] Tip O’Neill was a bitter political enemy of Ronald Reagan’s, but Tip O’Neill visited him in the hospital. They couldn’t resist liking each other.
“Donald Trump, heaven help us, is the other way around. You sometimes get the feeling that even his best friends, whoever they may be, find him hard to take.”
Regarding presidential speeches, Robinson said that Trump has talented speechwriters, but the speeches of Reagan and Trump are vastly different.
“[Trump’s speeches] don’t bear the same relationship to the person of Donald Trump that Reagan’s speeches bore to him,” Robinson said. “The real Donald Trump is what he tweets, not his speeches.”
A Reagan successor?
Asked whether anybody today has some of Reagan’s gifts, Robinson mentioned Sens. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Marco Rubio, R-Fla.
“Your own Josh Hawley,” Robinson added.
“What strikes me about Josh Hawley is that same kind of moral imagination,” he said, adding that he became familiar with Missouri’s junior senator when he was an undergraduate at Stanford University.
“He’s been on my radar for a long time, and I have to say I’m very fond of him,” Robinson said. “That young senator has been immensely imaginative in policy terms, carving out a place for himself in the Senate and also advancing the policy agenda of privacy. He’s standing up to big tech in ways that, as far as I can tell, nobody else in the Senate is doing.
“He’s really adding something. He’s a distinctive voice. He’s working out a program, policy or approach of his own, which is what Ronald Reagan did when he was governor of California,” Robinson said. “Josh Hawley reminds me of those early years of Ronald Reagan.”
What: Ronald Reagan speechwriter Peter Robinson lecture and commemoration of the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall
When: 4:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 7, 2019
Where: Church of St. Mary the Virgin, Aldermanbury, on the Westminster College campus (West 7th Street, Fulton, MO 65251)
“St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill, Lara Hamdan and Tonina Saputo. The engineer is Aaron Doerr and production assistance is provided by Charlie McDonald.
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