Happy 29th birthday, “Tear down this Wall!”

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Twenty-nine years ago today – when America had a real president and the Free World a real leader:

As I looked out a moment ago from the Reichstag, that embodiment of German unity, I noticed words crudely spray-painted upon the wall, perhaps by a young Berliner: “This wall will fall. Beliefs become reality.” Yes, across Europe, this wall will fall. For it cannot withstand faith; it cannot withstand truth. The wall cannot withstand freedom.

The delivery is not necessarily flawless; this was, after all, the dark age before the teleprompters. Presidents had to read from notes; today, thanks to the power of technology, even an otherwise very ordinary speaker like Obama is made to look like Martin Luther King Jr.

What the speech might lack in a theatrical polish, it makes up in gravity. It’s much weightier than the standard presidential fare today; it ranges wider, it covers more ground, it possesses intellectual heft. It is no mere puffery and rhetoric for dumbed down audiences today.

It is also rather long, at over 25 minutes. My rule of thumb when writing speeches was that no matter how interesting the topic, how good the writing, and how great the delivery, nine times out of ten it’s difficult to hold the audience’s undivided attention much beyond ten minutes. Minds start to wander, bodies start to fidget, it’s a fact of life. This is why a great majority of speeches are remembered – if at all, if they’re lucky – for one or two take-away lines; everything else is quite easily forgotten, in most cases near instantly (King’s “I have a dream” is, to my mind, one of those few notable exceptions). Reagan’s speech that June 12, 1987, outside the Brandenburg Gate, had the take-away lines in spades; in fact, perhaps the best take-away lines of the decade – a big call, considering the decade in question:

General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization: Come here to this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!

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If you’ve never read or watched the speech, you might think that lines this rousing and this memorable would form the crescendo somewhere near the very end. Instead, they’re right in the middle; a rather strange place for the rhetorical climax. It goes to show that history will take away different things than the contemporaries.

In fact, these lines almost didn’t happen at all. As Peter Robinson, who drafted the speech, reminisces about seeking input from a ranking American diplomat in Germany:

A stocky man with thick glasses, the diplomat projected an anxious, distracted air throughout our conversation, as if the very prospect of a visit from Ronald Reagan made him nervous. The diplomat gave me quite specific instructions. Almost all of it was in the negative. He was full of ideas about what the President shouldn’t say. The most left-leaning of all West Germans, the diplomat informed me, West Berliners were intellectually and politically sophisticated. The President would therefore have to watch himself. No chest-thumping. No Soviet-bashing. And no inflammatory statements about the Berlin Wall. West Berliners, the diplomat explained, had long ago gotten used to the structure that encircled them.

He was wrong, but, to be fair, so was every other foreign affairs expert – or, perhaps, should that be “expert”. Robinson continues:

With three weeks to go before it was delivered, the speech was circulated to the State Department and the National Security Council. Both attempted to squelch it. The assistant secretary of state for Eastern European affairs challenged the speech by telephone. A senior member of the National Security Council staff protested the speech in memoranda. The ranking American diplomat in Berlin objected to the speech by cable. The draft was naïve. It would raise false hopes. It was clumsy. It was needlessly provocative. State and the NSC submitted their own alternate drafts—my journal records that there were no fewer than seven—including one written by the diplomat in Berlin. In each, the call to tear down the wall was missing.

In the end, Reagan persevered. “The boys at State are going to kill me,” he said in the car on the way to Brandenburg Gate and the Wall, “but it’s the right thing to do.”

And so it was. Thank you, Mr Robinson. And thank you, President Reagan.

Coda: Three years later to the day, the parliament of the Russian Federation formally declared its sovereignty. A year after that, on 12 June 1991, Boris Yeltsin became the first democratically elected leader in Russia’s history.

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