- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 25, 2009



By Romesh Ratnesar

Simon & Schuster, $27, 229 pages

Reviewed by John R. Coyne Jr.

Romesh Ratnesar, deputy managing editor of Time magazine and author of this fast-moving and splendidly written book, quotes from “White House Ghosts,” Robert Schlesinger’s authoritative study of White House speeches: “Seeking the origin of a specific phrase, then, is, akin to straining to find the source of the first noise in an echo chamber.”

Frequently true. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “fear itself” phrase has been credited at various times to Henry David Thoreau, the Chamber of Commerce, and a department store ad. John F. Kennedy’s most memorable phrases are similarly attributed to a variety of sources. Also, as time passes, there’s a tendency among people who worked in or around administrations to take or be given credit for memorable lines - “effete corps of impudent snobs,” “axis of evil” or “tear down this wall” among them.

Despite various attributions, the first was Vice President Spiro T. Agnew’s creation, and he was very proud of it. As for “axis of evil,” at least three contenders have laid claim to it - or not, depending on the direction of the prevailing political winds. Aram Bakshian, a former White House speechwriter, suggests they split it three ways - one taking credit for “axis,” the second for “evil,” and the third for “of.”

But no matter. Here the lines are clearly drawn. Peter Robinson, a young speechwriter, had just returned from a trip to Germany with the team advancing Ronald Reagan’s upcoming visit. He had seen the wall, talked with Berliners, and the effects were profound. Mr. Robinson had been assigned to write Reagan’s Berlin speech, to be given at the Brandenburg Gate. At dinner in West Berlin, he told Mr. Ratnesar, “the idea of removing the wall had burst into his mind.” He told chief speechwriter Tony Dolan that he’d like the president to say “Tear Down the Wall.” Mr. Dolan’s response, according to Mr. Ratnesar: ” ‘What a great idea. What a wonderful idea.’ ”

The phrase was incorporated in a preliminary draft and presented to the president at a meeting with the writers to review trip material. Mr. Robinson’s speech was the last discussed, and the president had minimal comments. Mr. Robinson asked what he’d like to say to the people on the other side of the wall. ” ‘Well, there’s that passage about tearing down the Wall,’ ” he said. ” ‘That’s what I’d like to say to them.’ ”

Thus, writes Mr. Ratnesar, Mr. Dolan “had gotten what he came for: The president’s endorsement would be his most powerful weapon in the bureaucratic battles to come.” And indeed it was. Reagan had chosen the basic phrase and image, and as Mr. Robinson plowed through successive drafts, Mr. Dolan guided the speech through the heavy seas of bureaucratic approvals every presidential speech draft must navigate.

Through it all, the speech underwent numerous changes, and there were concerted efforts to deep-six the key phrase. But the president insisted that it remain. And on June 12, 1987, Reagan stood at the Brandenburg Gate and demanded: “Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate,” and “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” And with those words, on that date, the Cold War unofficially ended.

Mr. Ratnesar’s book, based on interviews with former Reagan administration officials, American and German eyewitnesses who were present at the event, State Department documents and East German records, gives us both an accurate and detailed picture of our cumbersome governmental policymaking process and a remarkable re-creation of the last days of the Soviet empire, with East Germany as the culmination of the Marxist dialectic, and the wall the perfect symbol for that strange alternate universe.

Also valuable here is Mr. Ratnesar’s re-examination of the relationship between Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, who developed a mutual respect that transcended diplomatic niceties, and led to the unprecedented steps taken by Mr. Gorbachev to begin dismantling the “evil empire.” As Mr. Ratnesar notes, Reagan understood that by openly calling on him to tear down the wall, he was in effect providing Mr. Gorbachev with the rationale necessary to put the process in motion.

In all, Mr. Ratnesar captures the vision, consistency, steadiness of purpose and unshakeable belief in the ultimate triumph of democracy that carried Reagan through his two terms and allowed him to function, to the frustration of his critics, with something very much like serenity. And despite the best efforts of those critics, he will be remembered as one of our greatest presidents.

Mr. Ratnesar leaves us with this assessment: “The liberal historian Sean Wilentz … wrote in 2008 that Reagan’s ‘success in helping finally to end the cold war is one of the greatest achievements by any president of the United States - and arguably the single greatest achievement since 1945.’ ”

John R. Coyne Jr., a former White House speechwriter, is co-author with Linda Bridges of “Strictly Right: William F. Buckley Jr. and the American Conservative Movement” (Wiley, 2007).

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