'Three Days in Moscow': An Excerpt

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The following is from Chapter 11, titled “The Speech,” of “Three Days in Moscow,” being published today by William Morrow.

An enormous bust of Vladimir Lenin, frowning and fierce, poised atop a tall yellow pedestal, loomed over the stage at Moscow State University where Reagan would give his address.  To its left was a dramatic mural of the Russian Revolution.

Josh Gilder, the speechwriter assigned to draft Reagan’s speech, was aghast when he paid an advance visit to the auditorium and saw the setting.

“I had an instinctive reaction of repulsion,” Gilder recalled.  The backdrop needed to be changed.  Gilder knew that Gorbachev had told people to be helpful, so he said to the official accompanying him, “Okay, the first thing is, the bust of Lenin has to go.  Is it movable?”

“Yes,” said the official, shaking a bit.

“Wheel it out,” Gilder instructed.

The official was nearly in tears.  “Second,” Gilder said, “cover up the mural.”

Agitated, the official hurried off to consult with others.

But as Gilder waited in the hall, his eyes nervously traveling back and forth from the majestic bust to the sweeping mural, he came to a realization:  the setting was not demeaning to American values; it was a backdrop that would heighten the power of Reagan’s speech.  Sitting there, the first line came to him:  “Standing here before a mural of your revolution…”  He quickly told the official that the bust and mural could remain.

And so the dramatic stage was set.  But it was still a bit of a shock when the president’s aides arrived that day, shortly before the speech.  Fitzwater, who was riding in the motorcade behind the president, received a call on his phone.  A nervous aide said, “Marlin, when you get here, take a look at this podium where the president’s going to be speaking.”

“What is it?” Fitzwater asked.

“Lenin…a huge statue…right above the podium.”

“Oh, no,” Fitzwater mumbled.  Was it a trick?  “Here’s the problem,” he said.  “We can’t really do anything about this without making a scene.”  It was too late.  Students were already filing into the auditorium.

Like Gilder before him, Fitzwater quickly reached a positive point of view.  Later, when someone asked him what he had thought of Reagan standing in front of Lenin for his speech, he had a snappy comeback:  “If anybody would ever appreciate Lenin having to spend an hour and a half looking at the backside of Ronald Reagan, it would be the president.”

The choice of Moscow State University for Reagan’s major speech was loaded with significance.  Considered Moscow’s finest university, with thirty-five thousand students, it was an imposing structure in Lenin Hills, with a view of the city.  Both Gorbachev and his wife were graduates, although neither would be present for the speech.  (Nor would Nancy, who was on a day trip to Leningrad.)

The students who crowded into the twelve-hundred-seat auditorium where like students everywhere:  informally dressed, their faces a mixture of curiosity, excitement, and practiced indifference.  They had been raised to distrust and even hate the United States, just as American children had been raised to distrust and hate the Soviet Union.  But because they were young and attended a university where ideas were debated, many of them had expanded their thinking.  If a poll had been conducted among them, it would probably have shown approval of Gorbachev’s reforms.  In some circles, perhaps, Reagan was even lionized, just as Gorbachev was by American youth.  Those were indeed strange times, the apple cart of conventional thinking upended by their leaders.

Anthony Dolan viewed the Moscow speech as the final flowering of Reagan’s philosophy – begun at Westminster with the “ash heap of history,” confirmed in Orlando with the “Evil Empire,” and furthered in Berlin with “tear down this wall!”  In Moscow, Reagan was summoning a vision of the new world that awaited them, already striding forward – as if the Communist state were a mere technicality of history.  Some people thought his early speeches were the “old” Reagan and the later speeches were the “new” Reagan, but Dolan saw them as being all of a piece – the continuum of his grander design.  Dolan remembered being in the Oval Office the previous December 7, the day before the Gorbachevs had arrived for the Washington summit.  Reagan had invited four writers in for a conversation.  One of them, Ben Wattenberg, who was mostly associated with Democrats, had asked bluntly, “Have we won the Cold War?”

Hearing that, Dolan had felt overtaken, finding the moment almost extraterrestrial.  He stepped outside and viewed the scene from the Rose Garden.  “I could see Reagan shifting uneasily in his seat, because he wanted to say yes, but he didn’t want to upend things before the summit,” he said.  He watched as Reagan gave a standard non-answer:  “We’re working on it…much is left to be done…”

Reagan believed that the Cold War was over, even if he never said it out loud, so the Moscow speech had a markedly different tone than any address he had ever given about communism – optimistic and futuristic, friendly and even collegial, like old friends making plans.

Dolan thought Gilder was the perfect person to give expression to those thoughts.  “Josh had a great understanding of Reagan,” he said, recalling the first time he’d taken Gilder into the Oval Office to meet the president.  He could feel Gilder “getting” Reagan, listening to him, recognizing his communication genius.

“Most of us understood it wasn’t us, it was him,” Gilder recalled, meaning Reagan.  “When I first came on the staff, I asked someone, ‘How do I write like Ronald Reagan?’  I was told, ‘Don’t try to.  Write the best speech you can and he will make it sound like Ronald Reagan.’  He was transformational in this way.  Reagan’s speeches were remembered because people learned he meant what he said.  He had a vision, and every single thing he did as president was part of it.  I don’t think there’s ever been a more consistent politician.”

When Gilder returned with a draft, it was beautiful.  Reagan loved it.  Once again, the nervous Nellies in the State Department and NSC hovered around, worrying about the language.  But they soon realized that the speech had no single phrase that might give offense, no line that just had to be excised.  Its deeper meaning was encased in respectful prose and stirring poetry.  It was meant to lift hearts, not rattle cages.  And it was pure, unadulterated Reagan.  It might have been entitled, “Morning in Moscow.”

When Reagan strode to the podium, there was polite clapping, but he immediately won over the audience with his opening:  “I know you must be very busy this week, studying and taking your final examinations,” he said.  “So, let me just say, zhelayu vam uspekha [I wish you success].”

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