Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The Challenge to 'Tear Down This Wall'

"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!"

Ronald Reagan
June 12, 1987

Presidents are remembered for saying many things.

In what tend to be their more honorable moments, presidents are remembered for statements they make in speeches.

In what tend to be their less honorable moments, presidents are remembered for things they say in more private and confidential settings or in off–the–cuff remarks they apparently think no one else can hear and often regret.

Perhaps it was that way with Ronald Reagan's remark about the "evil empire." Well, it may have been the kind of thing Reagan said only to confidantes and advisers at first, but by the time he was president, I think he believed the Soviet Union was an evil empire.

And he wasn't bashful about saying so.

Whatever else Reagan accomplished in his life, one must remember that his early training involved acting on the stage. The nature of acting is persuasion.

He often told a story about his early days as a sportscaster on radio. In those days, radio stations received the play–by–play of sports contests on the wire, and the station's own on–air talent would read it.

On one occasion, the wire machine stopped working in the middle of a baseball game, and Reagan had to ad lib. He came up with numerous creative ways for the batter to keep fouling off pitches until the machine was repaired and began providing the play–by–play again — at which point Reagan discovered that the batter had popped out on the first pitch.

His listeners would read no riveting accounts of the batter's dramatic duel with the pitcher in the next day's papers. No doubt many were disappointed.

When he was running for president, Reagan came across as being devoutly anti–Soviet Union. I must admit, though, that I often wondered just how much of that was for show and how much of it was genuine.

Some of it may well have been an act, but I was inclined at the time to believe most of it was genuine. While I seldom agreed with Reagan, I felt compelled to conclude that his rhetoric was more extreme than most mainstream establishment Republicans of the day embraced — at least, with any enthusiasm.

And Reagan's public speeches early in his presidency clearly indicated that the Reagan of the campaign trail was the same one who occupied the White House.

However, a lot changed while he was president. The Soviet Union's leadership was far more hard line when Reagan became president than it was at the end of his presidency, and, on this day 25 years ago, Reagan stood in front of the infamous Berlin Wall and called upon Mihail Gorbachev, the Soviet Union's moderate leader, to "tear down this wall."

Considering that is precisely what happened shortly after Reagan left office, his words on that occasion seem positively prophetic — even though it was his successor, George H.W. Bush, who presided over its collapse.

His most devout admirers will tell you that it happened because of Reagan's policies. Perhaps it did. Or perhaps it would have happened anyhow. Reagan himself said communism would collapse under its own weight. It was just a matter of time.

It's fair to wonder, as Peter Robinson does in the Wall Street Journal, if "mere talk," as he called Reagan's speech, "made any difference."

Robinson, a former Reagan speech writer, concluded that the speech was a catalyst that changed the world. Well, perhaps it influenced the communist world, the world that existed behind Winston Churchill's famed iron curtain.

As far as I could tell at the time, the free world was unaffected. The free world paid attention to what was happening, but daily life went on.

Still, when the wall came down, I must admit that I wondered if there had been more to the speech than met the eye — or ear.

The call to "tear down this wall" had powerful emotional imagery behind it, imagery that was even more powerful when it actually came to pass.

Some people say it was Ronald Reagan's finest hour. Personally, I felt his finest hour was when he comforted a grieving nation following the Challenger disaster. At the time, I guess I dismissed the Berlin Wall speech as grandstanding.

But I'll grant you that Reagan's speech 25 years ago today was probably his presidency's most memorable moment.

If that was grandstanding, it was grandstanding with endurance.

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