Wednesday, April 25, 2012

How Ronald Reagan Changed My Life by, Peter Robinson

Peter Robinson served as speechwriter for Vice President George H.W. Bush, a job he got in what he describes as a fluke, from 1982-1983.  Then, he served as speechwriter and special assistant to President Ronald Reagan from 1983-1988.  He wrote nearly 300 speeches in his time at the White House, including Reagan's famous "Tear Down This Wall" speech from June 12, 1987. After stints in the MBA program at Stanford, The News Corporation, and the SEC in Washington, Robinson joined the Hoover Institution as a fellow in 1993.  Currently, he hosts Hoover's Uncommon Knowledge interview program, where he conducts some of the best, most insightful interviews I've seen.  In 2003, he published the book How Ronald Reagan Changed My Life about his time in the White House and how it shaped him.

I remember hearing about this book when it first came out and thinking "Great.  Another book saying how great Reagan was that people will write off as hero worship by Republicans."  On a recent Ricochet podcast, the hosts mentioned how to get a free audiobook from audible.com (just click this link) and that Robinson's book was read by him, with audio excerpts of Reagan where he is quoted. Since I've become an admirer of Robinson's, I decided I'd use my freebie to download this book. Robinson himself says the book is kind of a "love letter" to Reagan, but it's not an outright hagiography of the president.  He shares ten important lessons he learned from Reagan and it reads as a warm portrait of a mentor - who just happened to be the leader of the free world.

Each chapter of the book focuses on a life lesson Robinson took from his time in the White House.  Some of these include finding the good in the bad, do the work you are intended to do, act now, what you say matters, and take things in stride.  Each one of these items is backed up by anecdotes from Robinson or from other former Reagan staffers who he interviewed.  Those interested in the "Tear Down This Wall" speech should pay close attention to chapter 4, it is a detailed behind-the-scenes look at how that speech came to be.


One of my favorite anecdotes, thought one not supporting a life lesson, comes early in the book.  In 1982, twenty-five and recently spent two years at Oxford, Robinson set out letters to anyone who thought might be able to give him a lead on a job.  One of the letters was to National Review founder William F. Buckley, Jr.  At the time, WFB's son Christopher was head speechwriter for Vice President Bush and looking to leave his post to become a novelist. Christopher's replacement, who had been lined up for months, pulled out and Christopher decided that Robinson should take over his post. He took a copy of Robinson's resume, said he would recommend him to the VP's chief of staff, and suggested that Robinson go downstairs to talk to Reagan's chief speechwriter Tony Dolan.  As he was introducing himself to Dolan five minutes later, the telephone rang.  It was the campaign manager for the Republican running against Mario Cuomo for governor of New York looking for a speechwriter.  That afternoon Christopher ant Tony conspired. The next day, they put their plan into effect.  They told the VP's press secretary they found Buckley's new replacement (Robinson), but he was being wooed by a gubernatorial campaign.  Then they told the campaign that the VP's office was heavily considering Robinson to take over Buckley's post.  With each convinced the other was about to hire him, the Bush staff and the Lehrman campaign fought over the young, inexperienced speechwriter.  The whole thing sounded like a giant practical joke put on by Christopher Buckley and Tony Dolan.

The book is written in an easy, conversational style.  Since Robinson reads the book himself, it has the effect of a witty, urbane friend over for a dinner party, regaling you with interesting stories for hours on end.  I can't tell you how many times he had me laughing out loud.  Recommended and so is the audio version.

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