Today marks the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Reagan uttered one of the most oft-repeated lines of political speeches. The controversy that prevailed behind the scenes at the conception of this speech was heated to say the least. Although many liked to paint Reagan as a senile leader who would meekly defer to the powers that be, he was anything but. He was a leader first and a politician second. Politicians by their very nature are slaves to public opinion which grants them power, influence and fiscal benefit. It is lost on few that most leaders go into politics for their own self-interest. This is doubtless the reason modern-day politics has alienated so many. People will tolerate feeling manipulated for only so long. The mark of a true leader is someone who is driven by principles for the higher good of all concerned and who doggedly fights any person, idea or thing which jeopardize those principles.
In this case, the jeopardy to freedom was the Berlin Wall, a symbol of communist tyranny. Reagan would give the speech with the Wall as the backdrop and it needed to be no less than an adrenalin shot into the freedom movement. The speech was drafted by a young White House speechwriter, Peter Robinson. To refer to tearing down the wall was not a new idea by many, even by Reagan. A year prior to the speech, Reagan had said, “I would like to see the wall come down today, and I call upon those responsible to dismantle it.” The coup-de-grace was the insistence of an eye-to-eye staring down of the Soviet opponent in his speech. Upon Robinson’s completion of the speech and Reagan’s subsequent approval, the power brokers began sweating bullets. They tried everything in their arsenal to prevent Reagan from stating what obviously needed to be said, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” They thought the line too provocative and defiant. Well, I daresay, if there was ever a propitious time to be provocative and defiant this was one of them! How could he not mention Gorbachev by name with the wall behind him? How could he not make such a forceful affirmation if he was to sincerely be vigilant against the evils of communism? Were he not to be so resolute in his message it would have been a slap in the face to all of those suffering on the eastern side of the wall. To those in his inner circle, however, these were apparently not their primary concerns. They were nervous to say the least and wanted him to play nice. George Shultz was one of the louder voices in his circle and particularly insistent on eliminating anything in the speech that may insult or offend Gorbachev….like telling him to tear down the wall.
True leaders do not play it safe, period. Especially, when required to step up to the plate and defend the side of the good. There is a time and place for diplomacy, and even for politics. This time was not one of them and Reagan knew it. Reagan decided he liked the speech just as it was – much to the chagrin of his policy advisors – and that Gorbachev could handle it. How might history have changed and the world be different today had leaders – at pivotal moments of history – listened to the people around them rather than to their own internal moral compass and principles in service to the good? A leader who looks to the people to make a monumental decision or makes his moves in accordance to which way the wind is blowing is not any kind of leader at all, but a follower. The kind of man who would let his advisors talk him out of a speech in order to avoid a potential backlash or, God-forbid, an ebb in public opinion is no man to respect or trust in a leadership position. A leader should be a fearless defender of the good and defiant in the face of evil, naysayers be damned; the minute a politician becomes passive or complacent when it comes to the jeopardy of human rights we are in big trouble. Reagan employed chutzpah, not unilaterally or in service of drunk power, but when it furthered ideals in which he passionately believed. Principles, chutzpah, fearlessness, but all in service to what was right: these were the qualities that made Reagan a great leader. Politicians are a dime a dozen, but great leaders are a rare breed indeed. People called Reagan ‘The Great Communicator’. Yes, he was that. In no way did his capacity to communicate or his charisma dilute his message. Reagan had chutzpah, and his chutzpah was sincerely on the side of the good.
As Reagan taught us, we should never allow naysayers to weaken our commitment and resolve to championing those ideals we hold dear. If anyone has the power to weaken principles or ideals, then those ideals have been built on sand and, by definition, must mean nothing. If they meant something, one would fight for them tooth and nail. For have you ever heard of sitting down for ideals or beliefs in the face of dissent and consequence, real or imagined? No. To sit down is easy. To stand up and defend is what is hard – and when it comes to true leadership, it’s the only thing that counts.