Seizing the Moment
Memorable presidential speeches are few and far between. But Ronald Reagan's words in Berlin two decades ago will live on
But Robinson learned otherwise. He traveled to West Berlin to inspect the potential venues and found deep resentment toward the wall. At a dinner party in the divided city, his hostess said that if Gorbachev was serious about reform, he would remove the wall. Another Berliner said his sister lived about a mile away, and he hadn't seen her in 20 years. "How do you think I feel about the wall?" he asked sadly. Robinson concluded from this and other conversations, and his gut feeling, that "just beneath the surface they hated it every day of their lives." Robinson saw something elsethe potential for a powerful moment. "I knew it was a big speech," he recalled, after walking along the wall, seeing the Brandenburg Gate and the nearby Reichstag, former site of the German Parliament, and sensing "the drama of the place."
But when he got back to Washington, at first he got little support for his suggestion that Reagan demand the wall's removal. He knew that, with Reagan's history of opposing what he called the "evil empire" of communism and his belief in standing up to the Soviets, Reagan would want to say something meaningful. Robinson also knew that Reagan, as a former actor, loved dramatic moments. The president would think through every step of his upcoming visitknowing he would stand in front of the wall, with crosses nearby marking where people were killed trying to escape to freedom, and feel deeply moved. "I knew he couldn't come here and mouth platitudes," Robinson says. "That's the kind of man he was. He would feel the affront to human dignity, and he'd want to say something powerful."
On May 18, less than a month before the trip, the president met with his speechwriters to discuss the speech. Tom Griscom, the White House communications director, asked the president his thoughts on the text. "I thought that was a good, solid draft," Reagan said.
Told that people would be able to tune in to the speech on their radios throughout Eastern Europe and perhaps all the way to Moscow, Robinson asked what he wanted to say to the captive peoples.
"There's that passage about tearing down the wall," Reagan replied. "That's what I want to say to them."
Chief of Staff Howard Baker objected, arguing that the passage sounded "unpresidential" and extreme. Deputy National Security Adviser Colin Powell agreed. Other senior advisers argued that it would put Gorbachev on the spot and perhaps increase pressure on him.
But Griscom disagreed, arguing that Reagan needed to say something big, and the "tear down this wall" line would do the job very well.
But the issue remained up in the air.
Reagan settled it all in Italy, where he was attending an economic summit just prior to the Berlin stop. Robinson had given Reagan the controversial draft with a batch of other speeches and remarks to be delivered on the trip. Deputy White House Chief of Staff Ken Duberstein sat the president down and handed him the Berlin speech open to the key passage, and he asked Reagan to re-read it, with the reminder that some of the administration's senior officials objected to the language.