"Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this Wall!" Peter Robinson was the man responsible for writing one of Ronald Reagan’s most famous speeches. He spent six years in the White House, and is now a Research Fellow at the Hoover Institution where, apart from editing the quarterly journal, the Hoover Digest and presenting the Institution’s TV programme, Uncommon Knowledge, he is often to be found genially mediating scholarly brawls between Fellows during coffee-hour in the common room. I met Peter on my first visit to Hoover a couple of years ago. Educated at Dartmouth and Oxford, he is a member of National Review’s group blog, The Corner.
(We did the interview by e-mail. As usual, I’ve added links where appropriate.)
Q: The Bush team is generally regarded - certainly in Europe- as being bad at PR. What's the basic difference between this administration's efforts and Ronald Reagan's?
A: Reagan had a particular genius for public communication—he’d been speaking, often and publicly, for three decades before becoming president, and throughout those years he wrote nearly all his material himself—and Reagan also possessed an overarching and coherent vision- that informed his entire administration.
It’s unfair to compare Bush with Reagan on the former point—chief executives as skilled at communications as was the Gipper seem to come along only two or three times in each century—but entirely fair to compare him with Reagan on the second. Where is Bush’s overarching vision? The progress he has made in Iraq amounts to a historic accomplishment, and Europeans think he’s bad at PR only because they disagree with his policy. But where is his domestic agenda? "Compassionate conservatism?" We now know that in practice it amounts to a themeless mass of spending programmes.
Q: What are the main strengths and weakness of Bush's current team of speechwriters?
A: Bill McGurn, Mike Gerson, John McConnell, and Marc Thiessen are all friends of mine, but I can honestly say that each of them is a president’s dream—imaginative, resourceful, hugely hard-working, and just immensely talented. This president’s speechwriting office is as good a shop as any president has ever had.
Q: Some Americans argue there's no point trying to win over the rest of the world because the leading nation in any era is always doomed to be unpopular? Do you agree?
A: Oh, sure. Without a doubt. What citizen of another country wouldn’t feel some resentment at Number One? But it’s possible to hold Europe and the United States together, even so. I consider Thatcher instructive here. Thatcher made it impossible for Reagan to dismiss the Europeans as effete or obstructionist because she simply insisted that he take their interests into account, and at the same time she made it impossible for Mitterand, Kohl or anybody else to dismiss Reagan as a mere cowboy by insisting that they take him seriously. It required constant work on her part—and a certain largeness of heart on the part of everyone else.
Q. If you had Karen Hughes' job, what would be your first three priorities?
A: Honestly, at this point I’d have exactly one priority: to find, and to hire, Arab-speaking Americans — native speakers, with a feel for the Arab world, who are nevertheless prepared to make the case for the United States. Lots of such people exist. It drives me to distraction that so few occupy prominent positions in the State Department. Note, though, that the armed forces have done pretty well on this score: General Abizaid is a fluent Arab speaker.
Q: Have you changed your mind about the Iraq war?
A: Actually, no. I considered the invasion a very close but nevertheless correct decision, and I consider the progress since a really enormous accomplishment. I still feel that the administration failed to make its case effectively, but that is very different from saying that Bush did the wrong thing. And note—and this is terribly important—that although Bush never succeeded in building a consensus for the invasion itself, he has now established a consensus for the present hard slogging: Despite the constant carping, no responsible Democrat wants to pull out of Iraq, while no responsible Republican wants to increase our troop levels at all dramatically.
Q: What's the best book on America that most Europeans have probably never heard of?
A: Well, to the extent that Europeans still don’t quite appreciate the stature of Ronald Reagan, I’d recommend my own book, a memoir of my days as a Reagan speechwriter, How Ronald Reagan Changed My Life. But aside from that, I’d read Mark Twain, both Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Yes, I know Europeans have already heard of Twain. Really, though, you can’t find a more gorgeous or more accurate portrait of this big, free-wheeling, rambunctious country.
Q: What's the best book on Europe that most Americans have never heard of?
A: Since you can’t understand Europe without first understanding Rome, I’d recommend Gibbon. Americans have heard of him, of course, but actually read him? And then I suppose the J. M. Roberts history of Europe. I’m a sucker for big, sweeping narratives, and Roberts has the virtue of treating Europe as a whole.
Q: Condi or Rudy for president in '08?
A: I’d place the chances for either at pretty close to zero. Rudy is simply too liberal—much, much too liberal—on social issues to capture the Republican nomination. Anyone campaigning against him in, say, South Carolina will need only to run a few TV ads showing Rudy marching in various gay and lesbian parades in Manhattan during his years as mayor. Condi (whom I should admit I know slightly; she was a colleague of mine at the Hoover Institution before joining the administration) seems to me simply to have the wrong temperament for electoral politics. As highly as I and many others regard her, I just doubt she’ll get into the race.
Q: What are your best and worst memories of Oxford?
The good memories are countless, and all involve friendship: bumps races on the Isis (I was the bow man in the Christ Church first eight); theological and political fights late into the night in Canterbury Quad; bacchanalian feasts once a term with the Loder’s Club; and midnight rafting expeditions through an underground culvert that opened onto Christ Church meadow, wound its way beneath the city, and debouched near the Castle.
The worst memories all involve the same stark and utter incomprehension of what we would now call red-state America that I encountered nearly everywhere in Oxford. In late 1980, for example, the very distinguished political scientist, Peter Pulzer, told me, "America needs John Anderson, thinks it wants Ronald Reagan, and will re-elect Jimmy Carter." A couple of weeks later Ronald Reagan won in a landslide. During three years in Oxford, the only person I met who truly understood and appreciated Reagan was Lord Blake.
Q: What's the one thing British conservatives need to do to enjoy the same success as Republicans?
A: Enter the blogosphere. The United States now has dozens of really fascinating websites in which young conservatives are constantly working out their positions, commenting on current politics, and brawling with the liberals and with one another, and otherwise giving voice to conservative thinking in a way the mainstream media never did, and never would. As best I can tell, conservatives in Britain have yet to enter cyberspace in anything like their due numbers, or with anything like the appropriate sense of enthusiasm and even abandon.