Aaron Sorkin, Berlin Wall, Book Review, Cold War, Family Guy, history, Mikhail Gorbachev, Nancy Reagan, Peter Robinson, Political Idealization, Remarks on East-West Relations at the Brandenburg Gate in West Berlin, Romesh Ratnesar, Ronald Reagan, speechwriting, Tear Down This Wall A City A President and the Speech that Ended the Cold War, Vladimir Putin
It’s been fascinating in the last few years to see President Regan’s poll numbers shoot up drastically despite the fact that there’s already a president in office. Not only that, Reagan himself would probably be thrilled with the current congress which not only sings his praises ad nauseum, but advocates a financial policy built upon a system of economics he championed while in office, despite the fact it’s been proven not to work. I think this bit has gone as long as it can. I’ll shoot straight: Ronald Reagan the cartoon character is nowhere near as interesting as Ronald Reagan the man.
I know that Ronald Reagan has become that cartoon character either on that cartoon show you watch on Adult Swim after your wife has gone to bed, the savior shaking hands with Jesus while both defecate red, white, and blue turds on Osama bin Laden’s underwater grave, or maybe you recognize him as that old dude Fox News brings out every now and then like the Eddie monster from iron Maiden to make sure people don’t get bored. You probably know this Reagan, and if you’re anything like me when it comes to history, idealization, and facts, this Reagan gives you the worst case of the runs.
Did you know that when Regan was inaugurated, the very day he was sworn in as President, Iran released American hostages that had been kidnapped from the embassy in Tehran. You probably do, because you’ve been forced to listen to this story because it’s about Reagan’s idealism and how the Aytotallah was so scared of Reagan that he let them go that day.
Well…sorry to be a turd in the punchbowl, but this story is bullshit.
A few nights back my brother-in-law, my wife, and I went to Hastings, an experience I regret day by day, my god what’s happening to that chain, and while I was searching the history section I found two books on Reagan. Now my little sister in the Spring semester was taking a United States Diplomacy course, and, despite how the title sounds, she actually really enjoyed it, particularly when it came to learning about Regan. As such when I found these books I thought of her. I was torn however because the book I chose, the book I eventually kept, was about Reagan’s speech in front of the Berlin wall. That’s classic Reagan. Family Guy even parodied the speech in their show
But I kept the book, because as I’ve stated in a previous essay, I’ve been watching West Wing over the course of a year, young Aaron Sorkin is so cooler than modern day Aaron Sorkin, then again pre-Cocaine Aaron Sorkin is just amazing and way, way hotter than post cocaine Aaron Sorkin, and in the show I find myself fascinated with the idea of Presidential influence and speechwriting.
Tear Down This Wall: A City, A President, and the Speech that Ended the Cold War, apart from having too long a title for a 200 page history book, is a nice little introduction to a study of the Reagan era and an excellent beginning to learning about Reagan the President who, in my modest opinion, supersedes the cartoon character that surrounds the legacy of a great American President. For example, let’s get back to that awful myth about the Aytollah crapping himself.
Romesh Ratnesar, the author of this slim but insightful book, at the start of the second chapter, discusses the events surrounding Reagan’s inauguration. He says:
From the start Reagan’s Presidency was touched with that indispensable ingredient to political success: luck. Carter had gone forty-eight hours without sleep leading up to the inauguration, hoping yo secure the release of the hostages held in Tehran before he left office. Early on the morning of January 20, he received word that the hostages were on board planes at Tehran airport that would take them out of Iran. But the captors refused to let the planes take off until the afternoon, to deny Carter the chance to announce the release. Reagan was outraged by the Iranian’s attempt to embarrass the outgoing President, but Carter insisted that nothing be mentioned until the hostages had left Iranian airspace. At 12:25 P.M., the moment Reagan began speaking, the planes rolled down the runway in Tehran. (36).
If you’re not disturbed by this passage then you’ve likely repeated the story of the Ayatollah Khomeini unaware that in fact that the story is in fact bullshit. The conflict with the narratives surrounding former President Reagan is that they are often out of context, ill informed, and subject to the mythologizing process similar to rise of Annie Oakley. Ronald’s Reagan’s popularity has been sold by many of the American public as a sterling record of bump-less bliss and national prosperity when in fact this is anything but the case. Regan’s Iran-Contra scandal almost ended his Presidency, the congress of his time period, which included minority whip Newt Gingrich, refused to participate in many of his overseas projects been going so far as to limit his spending, his actions in aiding the Afghani rebels against the communists eventually led to the political success and domination of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, and the Tear Down this Wall speech, was actually considered by many in Germany and Russia to be “all right” and nowhere near as important to dismantling communism as it has been hyped. These are basic facts that the reader will experience as they dig into Tear Down This Wall and, hopefully, they’ll enjoy the death of the Regan myth to warm up to the interesting and historical figure of the man.
Now the first chapter of the book actually has little of Reagan in it at all, and it is only when one gets to the second chapter that Reagan becomes someone of significance. Ratnesar provides a small summation of the man:
Reagan’s even, unhurried temperament could be mystifying to those who worked for him, and led some to conclude he was detached from the job. He gave his aides few instructions about what he wanted them to do and rarely acknowledged or thanked them when they succeeded. His diary entries record social outings with an endless stream of associates from his California days, but most biographers have concluded that he had few confidants and that only his wife, Nancy, truly knew him. (37).
This last line is echoed again later in the book, and it’s the only failing aspect of Ratnesar’s work that Nancy plays no part except as a soothing comfort to Reagan. Along with these little glimpses into his character Ratnesar does a good job of keeping his subject from becoming just a strange old man that somehow became President, he offers a humanizing image of the man. When Reagan is shot he describes the President:
Doctors asked his permission to operate. “I hope you’re all Republicans,” he told the surgeons. (51).
This charm may be typical of the stock image of the man, but Ratnesar doesn’t hold back recounting brief instances from the man’s childhood as well:
His father, Jack, worked as a salesman at the local grocery store. Jack was convivial Irish storyteller and an alcoholic. […] One evening when he was eleven years old, Ron came home and found his father passed out in the snow in front of the family’s home. Reagan dragged his father to bed. “I felt myself fill with grief for my father,” he later recounted. He never mentioned the incident to his mother. Like many children of alcoholics Reagan rarely spoke about how his father’s addiction affected him (38).
Tear Down This Wall appealed to me initially however, not because it was a chance to debunk the Reagan myth, but because the focus of the book concerns the speech Remarks on East-West Relations at the Brandenburg Gate in West Berlin, now colloquially known as the Tear Down this Wall speech. The book includes a transcript of the speech in the back appendix and if you actually read it it’s surprising to see that the line is not significant, or even that catching. Whatever you may say about the man, Reagan knew how to deliver. It may just the influence of West Wing, Emerson, and Douglass lately, but there is a wonder if I couldn’t be speech writer. Perhaps one day I might, though this will probably only occur once the Walruses assume total control of the planet and require intelligent primates to write speeches while they’re busy fighting the Squid economic take-over of China.
Few probably really know what it takes to write a presidential speech, or the level of oversight that actually goes into its construction. First of all, it does require that you believe and understand the President you serve under:
The members of the White House speechwriting office considered themselves the truest believers of all. “By definition, we had to be closer to the Presidents way of thinking than anybody else on the staff,” says Dana Rohrabacher […] With only a few exceptions, they were committed to the conservative cause and viewed Reagan in near-mythic terms.
The speechwriters learned from Reagan. It was not unusual to re-write drafts of speeches submitted to him, crossing out entire passages, removing words, and tightening language. Before delivering speeches, he transcribed them into his shorthand on four-by-six index cards. […] Anecdotes, fables, sentiment, and humor were essential. “He had about thirteen rules of thumb,” Rohrabacher says. “Not to use polysyllabic words and make sure you don’t have a speech for more than half an hour. Make sure you always start out with a little funny story. And make sure there’s a little inspirational story at the end. And maybe one little funny thing in the middle.” (57).
But more than Reagan, I want to stress what is most striking is how the balance of characters from the divide of East and West, to the final crumbling of the wall, manifests to the reader. Ratnesar’s book comes not as a chance to sing the glories and eccentricities of Reagan, but a small study of the rise and plummet of Communism in Russia. It’s often easy for Americans today to dismiss what a divide existed between the Communists and Western Republics in the later half of the twentieth century, or how close was the believed possibility for nuclear war. The film Dr. Strangelove remains a testament to the absurdity that was the Cold War, but what I want to focus on in this review in the serendipity of the events that led to the speech.
Peter Robinson is today the host of uncommon knowledge and sometimes contributes to Fox News, but in the eighties the man worked as speech writer for Reagan, and is almost completely accredited with crafting the Berlin wall speech. I qualify the man’s achievement because of a short story in the book. Robinson was in West Berlin having dinner with a family and discussing the impact on the wall. For many people the wall was more than just an annoyance, it was a travesty that they day by day had to live with. In the beginning the berlin wall was merely some barbed wire and a few guard check points, but as East Berliners began to emigrate Soviet backed forces set up thick concrete walls and forbid any to pass. Those that tried were shot. Robinson listened to the stories and anecdotes of the guests until:
After a few more minutes, the hostess, Ingeborg Elz, spoke up. “If this man Gorbachev is serious with his talk of perestroika and glasnost, he can proe it,” she said. “He can get rid of this wall.”
Robinson seized on the phrase immediately. That’s big, he thought to himself. That’s good. (102).
What follows this inspiration is the politics that goes into the construction of political remarks made by executive officials in this country. It’s vetted, ripped apart, judged harshly, rewashed, fed to three German wood nymphs kept in steel boxes in the basement of the white house, the council of Nine wizards attaches several amendments and recipes for lasagna, Congress has to dance the chicken, and of course the corpse of Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson must be exhumed for consultation and after they have ratified it with the zombie continental congress and three guys named Dennis, the first three lines are approved and the process begins again. This is of course malarkey, but not that far off the mark. Robinson’s line almost didn’t make it because the line “Bring down this wall” or “tear down this wall” or “teleport this wall with your mind” was seen as too aggressive against the Soviets who might perceive it as a threat. Reagan liked the line however, and on June 12th 1987, just two years before I was born, Reagan gave the speech.
And that’s it.
Ratnesar doesn’t waste time getting into the drama of each inflection, though he does offer a point by point analysis of the reaction of the crowd before sending Reagan on his way so that Gorbachev can dissemble the U.S.S.R.
I suppose this is where my usual contractor objects in asking the only important question, why should I care about this book if all it does debunk fun stories about Reagan and spend all of it’s time leading up to a speech that, apparently, didn’t have any real impact on ending the Cold War?
It’s an honest question, because I myself, when the book ended, wondered why an entire book needed to be dedicated to a speech that, historically, really had no impact on the events that lead to the collapse of the Soviet Union. The best answer can be found after reading the book: the book isn’t really about the speech at all. By the time Reagan had given it, Gorbachev and Reagan had established a rapport that “cracked the ice” and led to the eventual dissolution of the USSR. The speech was merely a symbolic manifestation of the change that was taking place. Ratnesar’s book is about Regan and Gorbachev, Robinson’s idea of how to bridge the divide between the world and how to express that, and ultimately what was the long lasting affects.
A study of the Reagan era is essential because Reagan’s actions have had long lasting affects upon those of us living in contemporary society today. This book should serve an introduction into the library of volumes concerning Reagan, his staff, his friends and enemies, and the eventual repercussions of his influence. Ratnesar demonstrates one that’s hard to miss:
For some Russians, the fall of the berlin Wall was anything but a cause for celebration; instead it came to be a moment of humiliating national importance. In the days after the Wall collapsed, Valdimir Putin and his fellow KGB agents in Dresden burned so many of their files, containing the names of secret agents and operations, that the furnace burst. At one point a mob of Germans besieged the KGB office, prompting Putin to call for support from Soviet troops stationed nearby. They did not come. The Soviet’s virtual surrender shocked Putin, fueling his desire to someday restore Russia to its rightful place on the world stage. (186).
Now even if you don’t follow politics the name Putin should sound familiar, he’s the guy on T.V. that looks like someone farted in his nose and he can’t get the taste out of his mouth, he’s the Premiere of Russia and is currently trying to invade Ukraine. Putin imperialistic ambitions reveal old Cold War tensions between the West and he is only one of numerous ripple effects of the fall of communism. It would be a mistake to place the blame entirely upon Reagan, and Ratnesar is quick to place plenty of problems upon Gorbachev himself, but what the reader gets from this small, only 200 pages folks, book is a glimpse into a previous world. As I stated before, Ratnesar’s book should serve as a jumping point for historians, or even just history lovers, interested in the time.
I started this post trying to kill-off the cartoon character of Reagan, and it must be understood why this is essential. This coming Thursday is the first Republican debate on Fox News and already this campaign will be one of sensation and bloody conquest. Everyone is out to kill the Cult of Personality that is Donald Trump and this will ultimately play itself out as who can out-Reagan everyone else. Trump’s campaign slogan “Let’s make America Great again” was Reagan’s campaign slogan, and as this rhetoric begins to build up Americans will once again be sold the idea that Reagan was a perfect specimen of Republican deity and the customary tripe will be thrown about rather than the real Reagan. The Reagan that sometimes fell asleep in staff meetings, the Reagan who didn’t care if facts were not accurate when he gave speeches, the Reagan who infuriated conservatives for opening talks with Russia, and the Reagan who felt close to no-one in the White House except his wife Nancy.
It’s pathetic to know that once again the tired rhetoric of this god-among-men is going to be foisted onto the American public when truly interesting stories could be told. People are going to hold fast to their narratives if it fits their world view. Those that do are wasting their time and opportunity however, for in this slim book Reagan the man, flawed though he is, accomplishes a great feet:
He makes me want to learn more about him.
I’ve included a link to the Berlin Wall Speech in case you’re interested