The author of the “tear down this wall” speech on what Trump is doing right — and wrong — behind the podium.
Thirty years ago today, at the Brandenburg Gate in a divided Berlin, President Ronald Reagan delivered one of the most iconic lines in a lifetime of speeches.
“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”
Peter Robinson, then a 30-year-old special assistant to Reagan, drafted that speech. In it, Reagan expressed solidarity with the German people, pledged to face down the threat of nuclear weapons, and called upon Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to end the partition of Europe. Many believe the address helped build the momentum that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War two years later.
Now it’s a different era — one in which transatlantic relationships seem to be splintering rather than converging — and it’s hard to imagine a more different president. Critics of President Donald Trump have noted that while Reagan wanted to tear down walls, Trump wants to build them. In his speeches, Trump excoriates allies, praises dictators, and attacks personal enemies. At other times, he doesn’t even seem to make sense.
But Robinson, now 60, thinks that the current U.S. president has a charm all his own. “Donald Trump has an old-fashioned virtue — love of native land,” said Robinson in an interview with Foreign Policy. “He connects with people. He clearly feels to millions of Americans like an ordinary American himself.”
Robinson praised Trump’s joint address to Congress on Feb. 28, and said that Trump’s address on May 21 in Riyadh was “pretty remarkable.” In that speech, Trump highlighted common dreams of freedom and peace and enjoined leaders of Muslim-majority countries to expunge terrorism from their shores.
In fact, Robinson sees parallels between Trump’s speech in Riyadh and Reagan’s in Berlin.
“It follows roughly the same pattern that you saw at the Brandenburg Gate,” Robinson told FP. “We intend to remain active in the world; however, we also call upon world leaders to play your part.”
Trump’s speech “took very seriously the role of the United States in the this conflict, but it also took very seriously the role of other countries.”
In an odd historical coincidence, the most famous line of the Berlin speech — “tear down that wall!” — even faced identical criticism. Reagan’s chief of staff, Howard Baker, privately called the line “unpresidential,” a term now often applied to Trump.
It’s not exactly common to find parallels between one of the Republican Party’s most venerable figures and the former Democrat now in the White House, who seems uninterested in much of the GOP’s trademark conservatism. Many see Trump’s America First platform as a withdrawal from America’s leading role in the world and as a middle finger to traditional alliances. Trump’s cold reception of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and his disparaging of NATO have alarmed European allies just as Russia’s growing aggression in cyberspace and Eastern Europe have made the Cold War-era military coalition more relevant than it has been in decades.
Richard Burt, the U.S. ambassador to Germany in 1987, was sitting on the stage when Reagan spoke that day in Berlin. At a June 1 event in Washington commemorating the speech’s 30-year anniversary, Burt made no such favorable comparisons. He referred to Trump’s “boorish behavior” and criticized his May 25 speech to NATO leaders in Brussels, in which Trump shocked the summit participants and his own team by not explicitly affirming the U.S. security commitment to Europe.
“I do think it was, in my own judgment, a terrible mistake on the part of the president not to give a full-throated defense of Article 5,” said Burt, referring to the treaty’s collective defense clause, though Burt expressed certainty that the transatlantic relationship would remain strong in the long-term.
Peter Wittig, the current German ambassador to the United States, was more subtle in his remarks at the Washington event. Without mentioning the current U.S. president, he mounted a powerful case for a close U.S.-German relationship.
“Without the support of the American leadership and the American people, German reunification would not have happened two years later,” said Wittig, referring to the fall of the Berlin Wall. “It’s a lesson in how important and how effective the transatlantic alliance can be.”
To be sure, Robinson is keenly aware of Trump’s oratorical shortcomings. He told FP that Trump’s speeches could be “crude,” “scattershot,” and “undisciplined,” and that he had a tendency to “jabber” — all of which, said Robinson, “dilutes the moral authority of the presidency.”
He recommends that Trump put together a speechwriting team that he can trust and that can accurately channel his tone and message. That way, the president can feel comfortable sticking to the prompter and “deliver actual speeches” on a regular basis.
But Robinson’s most pressing advice for the sitting president?
“Stop tweeting,” he said. “Knock that off.”
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