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"Mr. Gorbachev, Tear Down This Wall!”

Washington, Jun 15, 2011 - Through my years in public service, there are few stories I am asked to tell more than that of arguably Reagan’s finest speech. As it were in the Reagan Administration, there was a prevalent dichotomy of the true believers vs. the pragmatists. Put another way: Reagan’s speechwriters vs. everybody else. Our small tight-knit group of wordsmiths were affectionately dubbed The Musketeers, for it was our duty to protect the crown jewels—President Reagan’s ideology. There was no better example of this than the time our beloved president was urged by all senior staff to let Mr. Gorbachev keep his wall, and his communism. All but the Musketeers.

    A humid DC summer had begun, and the speechwriting team was hard at work on a full docket of foreign policy speeches President Reagan was set to deliver on a swing through Europe. Our typical routine began with an initial draft fresh off our typewriters, then the speech was passed across the desks of several policy wonks to review the significance of every comma and period, stripping it of all heart and soul. Once the pragmatists achieved a vanilla plain text, it was sent to the president for review one week before delivery. The DC heat may have applied greater pressure to the small workspace the Musketeers occupied in the Eisenhower Building, but it was more likely the fact we worked double-time that week to produce the speech that would define his legacy. The Musketeers hatched a plan to keep at least one speech in the authentic voice of the president we all knew and loved.

    Reagan needed to use this opportunity overseas to stand boldly against the red tide of Eastern European history. We knew it, Reagan knew it, but the pragmatists wouldn’t dare let the president speak with fervor…it might offend some spineless reporter in the states. “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” That was the message Reagan would send to communist Europe, but we had to figure a way to bypass the editing pen of the naysayers in the White House. So, we worked double time, and found a way to get the speech into the president’s hands without the blessing of our superiors. If they had realized our small coup, I had a few empty boxes at my desk ready to fill.

    Only required to submit our speeches for review one week prior to delivery, our team produced drafts of the European tour speeches two weeks in advance. And instead of handing them off to our policy advisors for review, one of us ran to the White House lawn while Reagan was walking alone to Marine One for a flight to Camp David, gave the President his speeches for Europe explaining he may want some extra time for review. We knew if Reagan approved the line, no pragmatist was going to rip it from his lips. And that’s exactly what happened.

    That one sentence in our draft set off a firestorm of disapproval within the confines of the White House complex. Policy advisors, State Department officials, even the White House Chief of Staff were infuriated their esteemed opinions were surpassed by a team of ideological speechwriters. I recall one State Department official was so infuriated with our small coup he yelled at me from across the street which divides the West Wing from the Eisenhower Building: “Rohrabacher—you only went to state school…I went to Harvard!”

    Offstage at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, Reagan stood ready with speech in hand. He knew which part of the speech would stir headlines across the globe. In one final maneuver by the pragmatists to divert the President off his projected speech, a State Department official handed Reagan a binder, “here’s your speech, Mr. President.” Reagan flipped through the pages, noticed the missing line, and said “No, that won’t be necessary. I’ll keep the one I’ve got, thank you.”

    Twenty-four years ago this week, President Reagan stood boldly behind enemy lines and urged the liberation of a divided Europe. The Musketeers may have provided President Reagan with the line, but it was his steadfast conviction that breathed life into this declaration. This speech is easily one of Reagan’s greatest hits, and I was proud to play a role in its unconventional production.


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