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Tear Out This Line: How Reagan’s Most Famous Words Almost Got Silenced


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“Behind me stands a wall that encircles the free sectors of this city, part of a vast system of barriers that divides the entire continent of Europe.”

It was June 1987. After an economic summit in Venice, President Ronald Reagan was invited by the West German government to stop in Berlin for a few hours on his way home and speak near the Brandenburg Gate and the Berlin Wall.

“…General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization, come here to this gate,” Reagan challenged.

“Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate!”

“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”

That last line is probably the most famous and lasting thing that Reagan ever said, and if he had listened to any one of the dozens of aides and advisors and cabinet members that pleaded with him before the morning of June 12, it might have died on the vine and never made it into the speech.

Get Used to It

After the invite from the West Germans, Peter Robinson, a speechwriter and special assistant to the President who wrote more than 300 of his speeches, spent a day and a half in Berlin with the White House advance team to get some ideas for Reagan’s remarks.

He met the top American diplomat in Berlin, who only had suggestions for what the President shouldn’t say. There should be no “chest-thumping,” he said, and no knocking on the Soviets. And he certainly shouldn’t say anything to get people riled up about the Berlin Wall. The people of West Berlin, he claimed, had gotten used to the wall after living with it for so long.

Robinson also had dinner with a group of locals, hosted by friends of friends. After small talk and wine, Robinson asked his dining companions about what the diplomat had said. Had they really gotten used to the wall? Could they ever?

One man explained that his sister lived only 20 miles away on the other side of the wall, but it had prevented him for seeing her for some 20 years. How could he get used to that?

Another man said that every morning on his walk to work he passed one of the wall’s guard towers. He and the soldier in the tower were from the same country, he said, spoke the same language and had the same history. Yet they stood on opposite sides of a wall meant to separate them and their worlds. How could he get used to that?

Then the hostess, worked up from the conversation and red in the face, pounded her fist on the table. If Gorbachev was serious about glasnost and perestroika, she said, he’d have to prove it. He’d have to get rid of the wall.

It’s About Sending a Message

Robinson was inspired. Back in the White House, he took an idea to Anthony Dolan, the head speechwriter. He wanted to adapt the hostess’ comment for the speech and have Reagan issue a call for the wall to come down. Dolan and Tom Griscom, director of White House communications, were both on board, so Robinson got started on a draft.* He hit a few rough patches, and that one line was a sticking point. He tried, "Herr Gorbachev, bring down this wall.” Then, "Herr Gorbachev, take down this wall.” Then other mutant versions. At the end of a week, he had something on paper and the draft was sent to the president.

The next week the speechwriters sat with Reagan and went over all the speeches he’d be giving on the trip. Asked about the Berlin speech, Reagan only offered that he liked it.

Robinson pushed him for more, he writes in recollections of his White House years. "Mr. President," he said, "I learned on the advance trip that your speech will be heard not only in West Berlin but throughout East Germany." The speech, he said, might even be broadcast on the radio as far away as Moscow. "Is there anything you'd like to say to people on the other side of the Berlin Wall?" he asked.

"Well," Reagan said, “there’s that passage about tearing down the wall. That wall has to come down. That's what I'd like to say to them.”

In and Out

Robinson went back to work tweaking the speech, especially the part about the wall. At one point, he took it out and replaced it with a challenge to open the Brandenburg Gate, all in German.

Dolan objected.

"Since the audience will be German,” Robinson protested, “the President should deliver his big line in German."

“When you're writing for the President of the United States, give him his big line in English,” Dolan replied, and forced the line back in before circulating it for review.

Higher-ups from the State Department, members of the National Security Council, and the diplomat in Berlin that Robinson had consulted all fired off objections and sent alternate drafts, all of them missing the challenge to tear down the wall. At one point, Robinson had to defend his version of the speech, in person, from then-deputy national security adviser Colin Powell.

“After listening to Powell recite all the arguments against the speech in his accustomed forceful manner, however, I heard myself reciting all the arguments in favor of the speech in an equally forceful manner,” Robinson writes. “I could scarcely believe my own tone of voice. Powell looked a little taken aback himself.”

The objections continued, and the secretary of state made his displeasure known to the White House through both the chief of staff and his deputy just days before Reagan left for Europe. Up until the morning of the speech, people from all over the executive branch continued to plead for the line to be removed, but the president was set on it.

"We were in the limousine on the way to the Brandenburg Gate and he was reviewing the speech text one last time," deputy chief of staff Kenneth Duberstein recalled. “When he got to the section of the speech that was disputed by the State Department, he looked and me said, 'It's gonna drive the State Department boys crazy, but I'm gonna leave it in.'"

“Mr. Gorbachev,” Reagan said just a little while later. “Tear down this wall!”

*Chief speechwriter Anthony R. Dolan gives another account of the line's origins, attributing it directly to Reagan. He says that the president came up with it independently in a meeting with Dolan before Robinson’s draft circulated, but after Robinson had gone to Dolan with the idea, causing Dolan to tell him afterwards, "Can you believe it? He said just what you were thinking. He said it himself." Robinson takes issue with Dolan’s version of the events, and Dolan with Robinson’s objections. You can read their exchange in the Wall Street Journal here and here.

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Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock
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Tomb Raider: The Story of Saint Nicholas's Stolen Bones
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock

Throughout history, corpses have been bought and sold, studied, collected, stolen, and dissected. In Rest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses, Mental Floss editor Bess Lovejoy looked into the afterlife of numerous famous corpses, including Saint Nicholas, one of the many canonized bodies whose parts were highly prized by churches, thieves, and the faithful.

Don't tell the kids, but Santa Claus has been dead for more than sixteen hundred years. No, his body is not at the North Pole, and he's not buried with Mrs. Claus. In fact, his remains are thousands of miles away, on Italy's sunny Adriatic coast. And while Santa might be enjoying his Mediterranean vacation, he's probably not too happy about what happened to his remains. They were stolen in the eleventh century, and people have been fighting over them ever since.

Of course, the Santa Claus of folklore doesn't have a skeleton. But his inspiration, Saint Nicholas, does. That's about all we can say for sure about Nicholas: he was a bishop who lived and died in what is now Turkey in the first half of the fourth century. Legend tells us that he was born into a rich family and delighted in giving gifts. Once, he threw three bags of gold into the window of a poor family's house, saving the three daughters who lived there from a life of prostitution. Another time, he raised three children from the dead after a butcher carved them up and stored them in a vat of brine. He also protected sailors, who were said to cry out his name in rough seas, then watch the waves mysteriously smooth.

The sailors spread Nicholas's cult around the world. Within a century of his death, the bishop was worshipped as a saint, lending his name to hundreds of ports, islands, and inlets, and thousands of baby boys. He became one of the best-loved saints in all of Christendom, adopted by both the Eastern and Western traditions. Christmas probably owes something to his December 6 feast day, while Santa Claus’s red outfit may come from his red bishop’s robes. "Santa Claus" is derived from "Sinterklaas," which was how Dutch immigrants to New Amsterdam pronounced his name.

As one of the most popular saints in the Christian world, Nicholas had a particularly powerful corpse. The bodies of saints and martyrs had been important to Christianity since its beginning: the earliest churches were built on the tombs of saints. It was thought that the bodily bits of saints functioned like spiritual walkie-talkies: you could communicate with higher powers through them, and they, in turn, could manifest holy forces on Earth. They could heal you, protect you, and even perform miracles.

Sometimes, the miracles concerned the saints' own bodies. Their corpses would refuse to decay, exude an inexplicable ooze, or start to drip blood that mysteriously solidified and then reliquefied. So it was with Nicholas: at some point after his death, his bones began to secrete a liquid called manna or myrrh, which was said to smell like roses and possess potent healing powers.

The appearance of the manna was taken as a sign that Nicholas’s corpse was especially holy, and pilgrims began flocking by the thousands to his tomb in the port city of Myra (now called Demre). By the eleventh century, other cities started getting jealous. At the time, cities and churches often competed for relics, which brought power and prestige to their hometowns the way a successful sports team might today. Originally, the relics trade had been nourished by the catacombs in Rome, but when demand outstripped supply, merchants—and even monks—weren't above sneaking down into the crypts of churches to steal some holy bones. Such thefts weren't seen as a sin; the sanctity of the remains trumped any ethical concerns. The relics were also thought to have their own personalities—if they didn't want to be stolen, they wouldn't allow it. Like King Arthur's sword in the stone, they could only be removed by the right person.

That was how Myra lost Saint Nicholas. The culprits were a group of merchants and sailors from the town of Bari, located on the heel of Italy's boot. Like other relic thefts, this one came at a time of crisis for the town where the thieves lived, which in this case had recently been invaded by a horde of rapacious Normans. The conquerors wanted to compete with the Venetians, their trading rivals to the north, who were known for stealing the bones of Saint Mark (disguised in a basket of pork) from Alexandria in 827. And when the Normans heard that Myra had recently fallen to the Turks, leaving Nicholas’s tomb vulnerable, they decided to try stealing a saint for themselves.

According to an account written shortly after the theft by a Barian clerk, three ships sailed from Bari into Myra's harbor in the spring of 1087. Forty-seven well armed Barians disembarked and strode into the church of Saint Nicholas, where they asked to see the saint’s tomb. The monks, who weren't idiots, got suspicious and asked why they wanted to know. The Barians then dropped any pretense of politeness, tied the monks up, and smashed their way into Nicholas's sarcophagus. They found his skeleton submerged in its manna and smelled a heavenly perfume wafting up from the bones, which "licked at the venerable priests as if in insatiable embrace."

And so Nicholas of Myra became Nicholas of Bari. The relics made the town, and the men who stole them. The thieves became famous in the area, and for centuries their descendants received a percentage of the offerings given on the saint’s feast day. The townspeople built a new basilica to hold the remains, which drew thousands of pilgrims throughout the Middle Ages. Even today, Bari remains a major pilgrimage site in southern Italy, visited by both Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians. Every May an elaborate festival, the Feast of the Translation, celebrates the arrival of Nicholas’s relics. As one of the highlights, the rector of the basilica bends over Nicholas’s sarcophagus and draws off some of the manna in a crystal vial. The fluid is mixed with holy water and poured into decorated bottles sold in Bari's shops; it is thought to be a curative drink.

But Bari is not the only place that boasts of the bones of Saint Nicholas. If you ask the Venetians, they will say their own sailors visited Myra during the First Crusade and stole Nicholas’s remains, which have been in Venice ever since. For centuries, both Bari and Venice have claimed the saint's skeleton.

In the twentieth century, scientists waded into the dispute. During renovations to the basilica of Bari in 1953, church officials allowed University of Bari anatomy professor Luigi Martino to examine the remains— the first time the tomb had been opened in more than eight hundred years. Martino found the bones wet, fragile, and fragmented, with many of them missing. He concluded that they had belonged to a man who died in his seventies, although because Martino was given only a short time with the bones, he could say little more.

Four decades later, Martino and other scientists also studied the Venetian bones. They concluded that those relics and the ones in Bari had come from the same skeleton, and theorized that the Venetian sailors had stolen what was left in Myra after the Barians had done all their smashing.

As for Demre, all they have is an empty tomb. And they want their bones back. In 2009, the Turkish government said it was considering a formal request to Rome for the return of Nicholas's remains. Though the bones have little religious significance in a nation that’s 99 percent Muslim, there’s still a sense in Turkey that the centuries-old theft was a cultural violation. Its restitution would certainly be an economic benefit: according to local officials, tourists in Demre frequently complain about the barren tomb, and they weren't satisfied by the giant plastic sculpture of Santa Claus that once stood outside Nicholas’s church. Even though Santa has become an international cultural icon, his myth is still rooted in a set of bones far from home.

From REST IN PIECES: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses by Bess Lovejoy. Copyright © 2013 by Bess Lovejoy. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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