- - Monday, May 28, 2018


By Bret Baier, with Catherine Whitney

William Morrow, $28.99, 397 pages

“Ronald Reagan won the Cold War without firing a shot,” said Margaret Thatcher of one of the most singular accomplishments in contemporary history, analyzed in this highly readable, perceptive and deeply researched study by Bret Baier, chief political news anchor for Fox News.

Mr. Baier’s focus is on the three days of President Reagan’s fourth and final summit with Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev in Moscow, culminating in what he called his “final act,” the high point of which would be a speech at Moscow State University.

As he saw the occasion, writes Mr. Baier, “He had just three days to let the Russian people take a personal measure of the possibilities of democracy . He had been preparing for this moment for most of his life, and he had to make it count.” It was, as the president put it, an unprecedented opportunity, “a grand historical moment.”

The speech, given with a giant statue of a grim Lenin looming in the background — a splendid juxtaposition of the two systems personified by speaker and censorious onlooker — given to a full house of students from the Soviet Union’s most prestigious university, as well as officials and apparatchiks, was a celebration of democracy, freedom and human rights.

It marked the first time an American president — or anyone else, for that matter — had spoken of such subjects in the Soviet Union, and did so in such an open and sincere way, with such obvious conviction.

On June 1, 1988, The New York Times, certainly not an organ of the Ronald Reagan fan club, would write: ” ‘When people some day look back to the milestones of the cold war, they are likely to remember the day Ronald Reagan extolled freedom, while Lenin looked on.’ “

In the end, it was Ronald Reagan’s sincerity (a political rarity, he was exactly the man he seemed to be) and his eloquent idealism, combined, as Dick Cheney pointed out, with ” ‘the Reagan policy of firmness, the U.S. military buildup, the threat of SDI [that led to] the conclusion on the part of Gorbachev and those around him that they could not compete with the United States on those terms and they had to fundamentally change their system.’ “

While the Moscow speech is the centerpiece, Mr. Baier’s refreshing one-volume account of Ronald Reagan’s extraordinary career also provides a well-informed account of how business is done in the White House, including the speechwriting process, which changes little.

Ronald Reagan’s own abilities as a speaker, writer, editor and man in command of his thoughts gave his writers an advantage. In big speeches he knew what he wanted to say, so that left the task of saying it in the most effective way possible, preferably in memorable phrases.

But as in all White Houses, such formulations frequently set off alarms among advisers and Cabinet members. The White House speechwriters who feel strongly about their formulations hope to have the president sign off on them before the furor begins, or better, have them come from the president himself.

Thus it was with the phrase in an address to the British Parliament, consigning the Soviet Union to “the ash heap of history”; the command to Mr. Gorbachev to “tear down this wall”; or his designation of the Soviet Union as an “evil empire.”

That phrase, appearing in a draft written by Tony Dolan, the president’s principal writer, would set off a bureaucratic furor. Aram Bakshian, White House director of speechwriting, initially spotted it, knew its potential for trouble, but decided not to call attention to it.

” ‘First of all,’ said Mr. Bakshian, ‘it is an evil empire, what the hell, and if someone up there disagrees or is nervous about it, it’s up to them to notice it.’ ” As it turned out, there were nervous people, but they were outvoted by the president, who agreed with Mr. Dolan and Mr. Bakshian.

Later, as Mr. Baier points out, on the occasion of the historic Moscow speech, which Mr. Gorbachev had invited the president to give and had made him and Nancy Reagan welcome in Moscow in the process, Mr. Reagan announced that the “evil empire” was a thing of the past.

And no matter what the opinions of Russia today, fed as they frequently are by strange and often far-fetched political conspiratorial theories, one thing is certain: There are no, doubt, lingering vestiges of evil — the KGB by any other name is still the KGB.

But thanks to Ronald Reagan, it’s no longer an empire, evil or otherwise.

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

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