Time deputy managing editor Ratnesar examines the legacy of what is perhaps President Ronald Reagan’s most famous speech.
When Reagan died in 2004, nearly every tribute included the universally known line from his landmark speech at the Berlin Wall on June 12, 1987: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” Reagan’s challenge to the Russian president was soon seen as one of the highlights of his tenure, and even today historians rank it as one of the most powerful lines ever spoken in a presidential speech. In his brief but comprehensive debut, Ratnesar includes testimony from members of Reagan’s former staff, including the speech’s main writer, Peter Robinson. The author capably portrays the nuts-and-bolts process of crafting a presidential speech, with vetting and editing from countless cabinet departments. But Ratnesar widens his scope, effectively placing the speech in the context of the Cold War, showing how Reagan’s predecessors dealt with the Berlin Wall and how Reagan, as far back as 1967, had expressed a firm desire to eliminate it. The author makes a strong case that the words “tear down this wall” were not simply a bellicose challenge; they were an invitation to Gorbachev, an attempt to build a bridge between Cold War enemies. Reagan’s respect for Gorbachev gave the challenge particular resonance. “If he took down that wall,” the president privately told aides, “he’d win the Nobel Prize.” Ratnesar is careful not to freight the speech with too much importance, however. Unlike some of Reagan’s more ardent admirers (and despite the book’s subtitle), the author does not give the speech full credit for the fall of the Berlin Wall, or of the Soviet Union. But there’s no denying its importance. “That single phrase in Berlin,” Ratnesar writes, “seemed to capture the essence of Reagan: a clear, simple, resolute message of optimism” that has since become a key part of Reagan lore.
A well-balanced look at a key moment in Reagan’s presidency.