As a young speechwriter in the Reagan White House, Peter Robinson was responsible for the celebrated "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall" speech. He was also one of a core group of writers who became informal experts on Reagan -- watching his every move, absorbing not just his political positions, but his personality, manner, and the way he carried himself. In How Ronald Reagan Changed My Life, Robinson draws on journal entries from his days at the White House, as well as interviews with those who knew the president best, to reveal ten life lessons he learned from the fortieth president -- a great yet ordinary man who touched the individuals around him as surely as he did his millions of admirers around the world.
Conservatives, exult! Robinson's self-help/memoir/Reagan hagiography is an All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten for right-wingers. The former White House speechwriter and author of It's My Party: A Republican's Messy Love Affair with the GOP and Snapshots from Hell: The Making of an MBA illuminates 10 life lessons in a love letter to the Gipper ("How," Robinson asks, "did such a nice guy get to be President?"). By looking at both the historical (supply-side economics, the Cold War, Iran-contra) and the personal (Reagan's beliefs, his relationship with his family), Robinson unearths maxims such as "Do your work" and "Say your prayers." The stories are engaging, and he tosses in dashes of philosophy, such as the nature of good and evil, based on Reagan's ideas. The writing style, though, is repetitive, and occasionally Robinson makes leaps in his assumptions of Reagan's motivations; none of this, however, dilutes the message. Each lesson is related to Robinson's own life either in contrast or to show how he's made Reagan's lessons "scalable" for his own use. Interviews with and stories about many of the major players of the Reagan administration, like Ed Meese and Colin Powell, lend an insider's feel. Behind-the-scenes details, such as how the famous "Tear Down the Wall" speech was composed, give a fresh perspective. And while Robinson's respect for the former president verges on deification, especially as he glosses over Reagan's shortcomings ("Now, I myself was never able to get worked up over the deficits," Robinson says), this book provides solid, if somewhat obvious, lessons that will appeal to the legions of Reagan fans.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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July 05, 2004
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Excerpt from How Ronald Reagan Changed My Life by Peter Robinson
The Pony In the Dung Heap
When Life Buries You, Dig
Journal Entry, June 2002:
Over lunch today I asked Ed Meese about one of Reagan's favorite jokes. "The pony joke?" Meese replied. "Sure I remember it. If I heard him tell it once, I heard him tell it a thousand times."
The joke concerns twin boys of five or six. Worried that the boys had developed extreme personalities -- one was a total pessimist, the other a total optimist -- their parents took them to a psychiatrist.
First the psychiatrist treated the pessimist. Trying to brighten his outlook, the psychiatrist took him to a room piled to the ceiling with brand-new toys. But instead of yelping with delight, the little boy burst into tears. "What's the matter?" the psychiatrist asked, baffled. "Don't you want to play with any of the toys?" "Yes," the little boy bawled, "but if I did I'd only break them."
Next the psychiatrist treated the optimist. Trying to dampen his out look, the psychiatrist took him to a room piled to the ceiling with horse manure. But instead of wrinkling his nose in disgust, the optimist emitted just the yelp of delight the psychiatrist had been hoping to hear from his brother, the pessimist. Then he clambered to the top of the pile, dropped to his knees, and began gleefully digging out scoop after scoop with his bare hands. "What do you think you're doing?" the psychiatrist asked, just as baffled by the optimist as he had been by the pessimist. "With all this manure," the little boy replied, beaming, "there must be a pony in here somewhere!"
"Reagan told the joke so often," Meese said, chuckling, "that it got to be kind of a joke with the rest of us. Whenever something would go wrong, somebody on the staff would be sure to say, 'There must be a pony in here somewhere.'"
The other day Josh Gilder, one of my colleagues on the Reagan speechwriting staff, reminded me of Mr. Cho, the barber Josh and I discovered a couple of blocks from the White House. Mr. Cho had come to the United States from somewhere in Southeast Asia -- Thailand, as I recall -- where it was the custom for a barber to massage each customer's scalp before cutting his hair. When you sat in his chair, Mr. Cho would rub your scalp with the palms of his hands, then knead it with his fingertips. He'd work his way slowly up both sides of your head to your crown, then forward to your eyebrows, then backward to the base of your skull. When Mr. Cho finally finished the massage and began cutting your hair, you'd feel so relaxed that you'd have to grip both arms of the barber chair to keep from sliding onto the floor.
For the six or seven months from the time we discovered him to the time Mr. Cho moved to a new barbershop in the suburbs, Josh and I found ourselves getting our hair cut almost once a week. Soon we stopped thinking of Mr. Cho as our barber and began thinking of him as our therapist. Our visits to the barbershop amounted to our own modest exercises in stress management. Mr. Cho helped us cope.
On a typical afternoon, for instance, Josh and I might have drafts of two or three speeches spread across our desks. The telephones would be ringing. Members of the National Security Council or the Office of Management and Budget would be pestering us for rewrites. Our boss, Tony Dolan, the chief speechwriter, would be clomping down the marble-tiled hallway in his cowboy boots to ask us whether in writing certain passages we had actually intended to cause pointless trouble with the senior staff or had simply gone out of our minds. When it got to be too much, Josh or I would telephone the other.
"Thought you'd never ask."
Josh and I have agreed ever since that only one other event could compare with a visit to Mr. Cho. That was a visit to the Oval Office.
"Reagan's presence was just -- I don't know, remarkable," Josh says. "We'd go in there, all worked up over staff wars or the way the researchers weren't doing their work. We might even have been worked up over something important for a change, like the Sandinistas or the situation in the Middle East. Then Reagan would calm us right down. He was just so sweet and serene. A few minutes with the guy were just as good as one of Mr. Cho's massages. Remember?"
Would I ever forget? Ronald Reagan's serenity taught me one of the most important lessons of my life.
For a long time, though, I just couldn't figure it out. I made a mistake about Reagan that you'll understand immediately if you've ever watched the television program The West Wing. The program does a good job of portraying the intensity in the White House -- people who work there really do look serious, speak earnestly, and spend half their days taking urgent telephone calls and the other half hurrying to vital meetings. My mistake lay in assuming that the intensity must reach a peak or climax in the person of the President. If the people who worked for him were driven and harried, it stood to reason that the President himself must be the most driven and harried of all. The West Wing makes the same assumption. Just look at the way Martin Sheen plays the role of chief executive. The man's anguished soul searching never lets up.