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Anthony R. Dolan: The Power of Reagan's Four Little Words

[Mr. Dolan was chief speechwriter at the Reagan White House for eight years and served in the George W. Bush administration as special adviser in the offices of the secretary of State and the secretary of Defense.]

Ronald Reagan would embarrass himself and the country by asking Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall, which was going to be there for decades. So the National Security Council (NSC) staff and State Department had argued for many weeks to get Reagan's now famous line removed from his June 12, 1987, Berlin speech.

With a fervor and relentlessness I hadn't seen over the prior seven years even during disputes about "the ash-heap of history" or "evil empire," they kept up the pressure until the morning Reagan spoke the line. "Is that what I think it is?" I asked White House communications director Tom Griscom about a cable NSC Adviser Frank Carlucci had been nudging at us across the table during a White House senior staff meeting at the Cipriani Hotel in Venice. (Reagan had been attending a G-8 summit there and would shortly fly to the German capital.) With a shake of his head and a smile, Mr. Griscom confirmed the last-minute plea from State to drop the key sentence.

In the Reagan Library archives, similar documents chronicling the opposition's intensity surface from time to time. I was gratified though not surprised to hear a few years back about one NSC staffer's memo to Deputy National Security Adviser Colin Powell complaining that on multiple occasions, perhaps as many as five or six, I had declined as head of speechwriting—the writer talked about "a heated argument" between us—to remove the offending sentence.

And not only me. Shortly after the speech draft began making its review through the bureaucracy, the speechwriters, as Reagan true-believers, had deployed to do the interpersonal glad-handing that sometimes eases objections to speech passages. The Berlin event for us was the quintessential chance—in front of Communism's most evocative monument—to enunciate the anti-Soviet counterstrategy that Reagan had been putting in place since his first weeks in office.

Well before a draft was circulated, I called the writer who had the assignment, Peter Robinson, and told him I was going to an Oval Office meeting.

Shortly before we walked to the West Wing, Peter told me what he wanted in the draft: "Tear down the wall." I pushed back in my chair from my desk and let loose "fantastic, wonderful, great, perfect" and other inadequate exclamations. The Oval Office meeting agenda went quickly, with little chance to pop the question. But the discussion ceased for a moment toward the end, and I crowded in: "Mr. President, it's still very early but we were just wondering if you had any thoughts at all yet on the Berlin speech?"

Pausing for only a moment, Reagan slipped into his imitation of impressionist Rich Little doing his imitation of Ronald Reagan—he made the well-known nod of the head, said the equally familiar "well," and then added in his soft but resonant intonation while lifting his hand and letting it fall: "Tear down the wall."

I had refused to talk to Peter until I was back in my office, such was my excitement. Slamming the door I shouted: "Can you believe it? He said just what you were thinking. He said it himself."

So it was "the president's line" now. And that made it easier, though not dispositively so, for the speechwriting department to fight off objections. But this is where the Berlin address was about more than the killer sentence...
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