An Interview with Peter Robinson, Former Presidential Speechwriter
Peter M. Robinson is a former speechwriter for then-Vice President George H.W. Bush and subsequently President Ronald Reagan, for whom he wrote the famous 1987 “Tear down this wall!” address, referring to Gorbachev’s support of the Berlin Wall. Mr. Robinson is the author of How Ronald Reagan Changed My Life, and currently works as a research fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution, where he hosts the Uncommon Knowledge series.
The Yale Politic: In at least two different pieces, including your fantastic book, How Ronald Reagan Changed My Life, you refer to the following quote from Sydney Hook’s The Hero in History.
“The great man or woman in history is someone of whom we can say on the basis of the available evidence that if they had not lived when they did, or acted as they did, the history of their countries and of the world, to the extent that they are intertwined, would have been profoundly different.”
First off, what made Ronald Reagan and Milton Friedman heroes, and is there anyone else you would include that category?
Peter M. Robinson: Milton provided a rigorous, deep, profound intellectual justification for human liberty. Of course, he is an economist and his principle interest is in free markets, but in his columns for Newsweek and his books – Free to Choose, for example – he demonstrates the tight relationship between economic liberty and political liberty, in particular freedom of speech. So there you’ve got Milton Friedman: Nobel prize winner, absolutely unassailable. You can disagree with him if you want to, but even very high-powered economists who may disagree with this or that aspect of his work recognize that they’re dealing with an intellectual titan. That’s Milton.
And then Bill Buckley takes the case for freedom and makes it – in a sense – popular. I mean ‘popular’ as the word popular applied in the ‘50s through the ‘80s. Buckley founded the National Review in 1955. Today, we have Fox News and Twitter and all kinds of talk radio that leans right. The alt-right exists – Breitbart and so forth. Bear in mind that none of that existed in the ‘50s and ‘60s, and what Bill Buckley does in popularizing the case for liberty is that he appeals to the reading public; he appeals to the people who move policy; he appeals to a thoughtful readership. He does that by force of personality. He was a brilliantly mesmerizing personality on television. I discovered him first when I was at Dartmouth, and he had the effect on me that he had on generations of college students. Bill Buckley was such an appealing figure that he made conservatism cool, and he did it with style and good humor.
Reagan is obvious. Reagan actually wins a big election, gets reelected by an even bigger margin, and achieves the power to effect major policy changes. But I don’t see Ronald Reagan becoming president if Milton Friedman hadn’t laid the intellectual groundwork he had, and I don’t see Milton Friedman’s intellectual work proving effective without Bill Buckley and Ronald Reagan.
At the end of the Cold War, you get a kind of national renewal. To some degree, that’s an obvious statement that we can demonstrate very easily with statistics. We had an economic renewal in the 1980’s; we went from the stagnation of the 70’s to robust economic growth, rising levels of employment. That’s part of it.
But another part is a renewal of national morale. So when Reagan runs for reelection in 1984 on the campaign slogan “It’s Morning Again in America,” yes, he was advertising. But people also knew that he wasn’t making some ridiculous, outrageous claim. Everybody understood he had a point: they could see the economic recovery around them, a certain renewal of pride.
The end of the Cold War could not have happened as it did without the resurgence, the renewal, the revitalization of the United States. And I argue that all three of those figures – Milton Friedman, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Buckley – were indispensable to that.
Here’s one from a conversation about the Cold War between Reagan and his first National Security Advisor, Richard Allen, in 1977:
“Some people think I’m simplistic,” Reagan said, “but there’s a difference between being simplistic and being simple. My theory of the Cold War is that we win and they lose. What do you think about that?”
It says a couple of things about Ronald Reagan – both of which we need to grasp in order to understand him. One of the things it says is that Reagan has this amazing facility for getting right down to the nub of any matter and expressing it in plain, conversational, ordinary English that anyone could grasp.
By 1977, this is a low moment in the Cold War for the United States. The economy is in bad shape, the Soviet Union during the 1970s takes what was essentially a coastal fleet and turns it into a great blue water navy, they’re expanding their influence in Africa and in Central America, the Brezhnev Doctrine gets announced– that for a capitalist nation to undermine socialism in any communist country is a threat to the whole communist world.
And the American response, by 1977, has been years and years of coexistence, of détente. (By the 1970s, even the old, original Cold War doctrine of ‘containment’ had dropped out of the discourse because it felt too aggressive.) Our approach was all about détente, all about co-existence.
Jimmy Carter gave a famous speech at Notre Dame in which he advocated that we move beyond our ‘inordinate’ fear of communism. Reagan would hypothetically question, of course, what an ordinate fear of communism would be. So that’s the context when he declares it “Morning in America.”
And Reagan sets all of those trends toward coexistence aside, and distills US policy down to one simple goal: “we win and they lose.” That’s a breathtaking statement, and so powerful for its simplicity. It’s a breathtaking sentence in 1977.
But remember that Ronald Reagan at the time was derided (as Clark Clifford, a Former Secretary of Defense put it) as an ‘amiable dunce.’ He was a lovely man – even his enemies couldn’t really dislike him – but everybody condescended to Reagan. And what you get in this statement – “We win, they lose” – is that he is a genial man, he is amiable – but he is also extremely tough. At the time, very few people grasped how competitive he was. He was not filled with notions of ‘coexistence’; he wanted to destroy the Soviet system. Even now, I feel that gets overlooked about Reagan. His inner core is adamant. He is a very tough hombre. Nothing fancy about it; he’s a Midwesterner: plain, unvarnished, pretty matter-of-fact in all kinds of ways.
Here’s one from your 2001 article, “How Reagan Did It.”
“In the act of delivering it, in other words, the president was composing an entirely new speech. Perhaps half a dozen people in the room were aware of what was taking place. We exchanged alarmed glances. Could he pull it off? Then we smiled. Reagan? He could pull off anything. The president delivered the speech without so much as a pause, a stumble, or an “uh.”’
The story there is that the ventilation system in this hotel kicked on after he was about a third of the way through his speech. A gust of air came down to the podium and blew the speaking texts – he referred to them as ‘half sheets’ (they were 8 ½ by 11 sheets of paper that had been cut in half) – up into the air and scattered them all around the podium.
Reagan began picking them up and the audience felt tense – it was an embarrassing moment – and he picked them up and spent a moment at the podium trying to put them back in order. Imagine if you just took a deck of cards and threw it into the air. It would take you a while to put them back in order.
He was aware that the audience was tense and fidgety. He tried to break the tension by saying, “well if I don’t get these texts back in order pretty soon, I’m going to have to tell a speech.” And they chuckled a little bit. As it turned out, he did not take the time to put the cards back in order before restarting the speech. But he understood the speech. He would glance down from time to time, he would get the point, and he would adlib a transition from one point to another.
So he gave the speech in a different order than I had written it, and the performance was absolutely flawless. Nobody noticed; it didn’t occur to anybody that he was having any trouble with the texts at all. The point of my telling this story, again, is to show the degree to which he was condescended to. In fact, he was a highly intelligent man who was extremely experienced in the art of public presentation, of persuading his fellow citizens. He was the kind of man who could effectively rewrite a speech in the act of delivering it.
The subsection that is diverging in our conversation so far is that Ronald Reagan was tougher than you might suppose, he was more knowledgeable than you might suppose, and he was extremely technically skillful. He wasn’t an effective communicator simply because he happened to have been born good at it. He was all the more effective because he worked at it for several decades before becoming president. The underlying point about all this is discipline: he did not have the benefit of a Yale education, but he read widely and wrote constantly.
This next one is from an adaptation of your book, It’s My Party: A Republican’s Messy Love Affair with the GOP, from 2000.
“Reagan accomplished all that he did without ever losing his sense of proportion about life itself. He remained sane. For eight years he was the most powerful man in the world. Then he set it all down and went back to being as ordinary an American as a former president can be.”
The story there is that I visited him about a year after he had left office. I thought I would get big, important insights into the Cold War, but I didn’t. He wanted to talk about sports. He just wanted to talk about sports.
The president who was chief executive at the beginning of the Cold War, who gets all kinds of things right, is Harry Truman. Think for a moment about what Harry Truman had to do. He never expected to become president, but then Franklin Roosevelt dies. And within about eighteen months, Harry Truman has to figure out that everything he thought he understood about the Soviet Union – namely that they were the great allies who fought alongside us in the Second World War – was wrong. Now that the war had ended, he saw that the Soviet Union was instead aggressive and expansionist. He recognized that fact, he set in place policies to deal with it, and he brought the American public along with him in supporting those policies.
Ronald Reagan at the end of the Cold War, in a certain sense, has to reassert these truths about the Soviet Union and reassert the American policy of containment, and he again has to bring the public with him. Now, what do those two guys have in common? They’re both Midwesterners; Harry Truman never went to College and Ronald Reagan went to a small college in the Midwest, they’re both substantially self-taught, they both loved reading, and they both wrote a great deal. But they’re both ordinary, uncomplicated, patriotic Americans.
There’s something almost providential – I can’t avoid thinking – in the notion that at the beginning of the Cold War, when it was very important for the United States to get quite a lot of things right, and then at the end of the Cold War, when once again it was very important for us to get things right, we had the benefit of a plainspoken, proudly ordinary president. Harry Truman said, when he left office, that he got a promotion, meaning that being president is only second best to being an ordinary American citizen. Ronald Reagan never said anything quite like that, but that’s the way he felt.
Let’s talk about Milton Friedman a little bit. Here’s a quote from my favorite interview– the one you did with Rose and Milton Friedman in 1996.
Rose: “No, but it’s true that my main purpose, my main interest, was our family. I never even thought of holding a job outside our home. But Milton never did a piece of work without my reading it and criticizing it. That was my professional production.”
I’m speaking to you from my office at the Hoover Institution. And the office next to mine belonged to Rose Friedman, and the office next to that belonged to Milton Friedman! I got to know them chiefly because they were just down the hall from me when they were here at the Hoover Institution.
I remember going into a very casual restaurant near here where my wife and I used to take our kids when they were little. It was just a step up from a cafeteria. People went there as families because their kids could cry and complain and it wasn’t embarrassing to have children there. We were going through the line choosing our food, and I became conscious that at one table – just in my peripheral vision – people are speaking to each other very, very sharply. There’s a real argument taking place. I turned, and it was Milton Friedman, Rose Friedman, and their son David. And I’m almost sure David had one or two of his kids with him. So it was a family setup.
And I just watched them before going over to say hello. It was clear that in that family, argument, speaking your mind, pushing each other to test opinions – do you have the facts on that? – that was their mode of existence. That was the way they related to each other. So Rose and Milton Friedman were absolutely inseparable– and I mean that literally. I may have known them for fifteen years, and there was only one dinner where Milton came by himself. Every other time they appeared together. They were just inseparable; they adored each other.
Then I remember being at dinner with them once shortly after we had invaded Iraq– not George H.W. Bush’s First Gulf War, but the Second Gulf War. Milton was very dubious that that was a good decision, and Rose supported it. And they went after each other; you couldn’t have staged a sharper debate on the Yale campus than you saw at the dinner table with those two. There was something so frank, so candid, and so honest about their relationship.
They had an intellectual relationship. Clearly they adored each other; it was a sweetly romantic relationship towards the very end of their lives. But they also had this intellectual relationship where argument mattered to them– it wasn’t a game. It mattered, and they expected people to push back, to be candid and honest in argument. It was such a wonderful thing to see.
Do you think that relationship was different from Ronald Reagan and Nancy Reagan’s relationship?
Reagan and Mrs. Reagan had a very close relationship, similar to Rose and Milton. They didn’t discuss politics or policy in particular. I’m absolutely certain – well, Milton told me himself – that everything he wrote, Mrs. Friedman edited, commented on, and so forth. As far as I’m aware, Mrs. Reagan never read a draft of one of President Reagan’s speeches. That wasn’t quite the way the relationship worked. The way it worked, though, was that she took care of him. He was genial and optimistic, and he automatically saw the best in people and thought the best of people. And Mrs. Reagan was much more skeptical, which was a darned good thing because when you’re president of the United States, everybody wants something from you.
So Mrs. Reagan, when it came to assessing people, hiring members of the staff, that was where she exerted her influence. At the same time, she went over his schedule very carefully– she would not let the staff overschedule him. She made sure he was rested; she really took care of him. There was a whole range of problems that she would always have a word for him on – running from personnel questions – whom he should hire for this and that – to arranging the state functions at the White House. There was a whole range of things he didn’t have to worry about. And in particular, with Mrs. Reagan, he knew she never wanted anything from him; she just wanted the best for him. That’s what Ronald Reagan needed in much of his life and got from her. Because he was in elected politics, people were trying to get stuff from him all the time, trying to get him to do things all the time. And with her, he had this restful, fiercely supportive presence. He knew that she was taking care of him and had no interest except his own wellbeing.
Here’s another one from your interview with Rose and Milton Friedman in 1996:
Robinson: “Amazing. If it hadn’t been for that set of circumstances, the Chicago school of economics would never have been born.”
Milton Friedman: “You know, I’ve always been impressed by the role that pure chance plays in human life.”
That’s interesting, yeah! If you’re interested in Political Science, you’re going to study a fair amount of history. In my day at Dartmouth, history was taught in the late 20th century fashion, where there was a strong tendency to emphasize the impersonal forces that shape us. So one counter to that is that there is such a thing as a hero in history: you can point in certain circumstances to individuals – men and women – who were not purely at the mercy of large, impersonal forces, but who moved history themselves.
And then you’ve also got these pure contingencies, pure chance. I thought about that a long time, and I’m now inclined toward the view of Pope John Paul II, who said there’s no such thing as coincidence. He describes things in terms instead of providence – divine providence – God arranging things, even the little details that seem happenstance to us. I would like to believe that that’s true– actually I do believe, when I’m feeling strong enough, that it’s true.
I would wager that even in your own life, young as you are, you can think of things that had some peculiar circumstance… I’ll tell you this! After Dartmouth I studied at Oxford, and after I completed my studies at Oxford, I rented a cottage to write a novel and spent a third year in England that way. The novel was so bad that even I couldn’t stand to read it. So I wrote letters to a few people asking, “do you have any job suggestions?” I spent three years in England screwing around. I had friends who had gone to law school, friends who were really starting on their careers, and I had just enjoyed myself. I had learned a few things, but I hadn’t advanced my career one step, so I was pretty desperate.
And one of the very few people who took the time to write back was Bill Buckley. Bill said you ought to get in touch with my son Christopher. Christopher Buckley was then writing speeches for Vice President George H.W. Bush. Bill said get in touch with Christopher– “you like writing, you like politics, Christopher may know of a job somewhere as a speech writer.” So I did. I flew back to the United States and presented myself to Christopher Buckley in July of 1982 as it happens. I thought to myself that with any luck Christopher would be able to give me a recommendation. I thought I might be able to get a job working for some member of Congress, or something of that nature.
I walked in and Christopher told me that he was planning to leave the office of the vice president in just a couple of weeks, and that his replacement had just fallen through. And I walked in the door at that moment, with the result that just a couple of weeks later I joined the vice president’s staff as Christopher Buckley’s replacement.
Now, I don’t know what a Yale man would think of the fact that George Bush went from a Yale speechwriter to a Dartmouth speechwriter. I tend to think of that as an upgrade, but I’m not sure what Yale men would think of it. But had that pure happenstance, pure contingency, pure mistake of timing fallen through, the trajectory of my life would have changed dramatically.
Even if you’d prefer to see these moments as contingency than divine providence, what Milton is saying in that quote is that reality is always surprising. Something will happen that’s unexpected. And one of the unexpected or unpredictable aspects of life is that even very small matters can have very large consequences.
This is what Milton understood – what all three of these men understood, Ronald Reagan, Milton Friedman, Bill Buckley. This is why they were not fatalistic about the Cold War, this is why those three never believed that we were doomed. There’s a famous passage from Whittaker Chambers in his book Witness that when he broke with the Communist Party, he did so with the feeling that he was leaving the winning side and joining the losing side. He felt, even when he broke with Communism, that the communists were going to win.
Milton Friedman, Bill Buckley, and Ronald Reagan were fighting to turn things around because they believed in the sheer open-endedness of reality. Milton’s comment about contingency was that reality is open-ended– you will not be able to predict it. But that also means that reality will never be able to dominate you.