Distinguished Alumni: Peter Robinson

Editor’s Note: Peter Robinson is a professor at the Hoover Institute at Stanford. He produces a weekly show in conjunction with the Hoover Institute called Uncommon Knowledge.

The Dartmouth Review (TDR): Who was your favorite person to interview on your show, Uncommon Knowledge?

Peter Robinson (PR): I’ll tell you, I have a lot of favorites. Milton Friedman, whom I interviewed three times in the final decade or so of his life. Milton Friedman’s office was just down the hall from mine, so he and I got to know each other quite well. Of course, he was an intellectual giant but at the same time, a completely approachable man and a teacher. They’re old now but if you go back and look at those interview, you see someone who is a historic figure doing what he did, which is explaining his views, teaching me how to think about economics as he thought about economics. There one exchange with Milton Friedman in which he made an argument which didn’t seem to me to be a technical or economic argument. So, I said, “Milton I think you’re making a moral argument not an economic argument.” He said, “A moral argument? Of course, is there any other kind?” That I thought was very telling. That I have always remembered because for this great man, economics was not a game. It was a moral matter, human freedom as a moral matter, economic freedom was an aspect of human freedom. It was enabling people to better their lives. It wasn’t an intellectual construct and it wasn’t a game, it was something deep and important.

Thomas Sowell, whom I just love, and whom viewers love as well. He is in his eighties now, but he is still producing a book every six to ten months. When he produces a new book, we shoot a show together to talk about the book. In fact, we will be doing another show this coming spring. The marvelous thing about Thomas Sowell is that, he speaks with such honesty and directness that authenticity. And frankly, he is so annoyed by humbug, by political correctness. I shot a couple of shows yesterday with Stephen Kotkin, a historian who recently spoke at Dartmouth about his new book on Stalin. With Stephen, what you get is a sense of erudition. Stephen has spent three and a half decades immersing himself in the Soviet archives. He literally knows more about Stalin than Stalin knew about Stalin. His book, volume two of his biography of Stalin which was about some nine hundred pages long. Yet, he’s such a fine teacher, that he’s able to compress his findings and offer one or two telling details or tell one story that illuminates the entire subject of Joseph Stalin.

Yesterday I also shot a show with Shelby Steele, a colleague of mine here at the Hoover Institution. He wrote a column in the Wall Street Journal, in which he said that the era of black oppression is over, we are a free people now. That’s a paraphrase rather than a direct quotation, and I found that so striking. He said, I grew up in segregated America, this is not segregated I’m old enough to know the difference. We then talked about his childhood and his upbringing and his experiences as a young man. What’s thrilling about Shelby Steele is that he is willing to tell the truth as he sees it. I suppose that that’s the common thread here, the people I respect and enjoy are the people who tell the truth without fear or favor. And every one of the cases I’ve just mentioned there’s a total willingness to disregard political correctness.

TDR: Are there any common threads that you’ve noticed, while producing your show that Americans can use to sew together this polarized political climate in which we reside?

PR: What comes to mind immediately is the constitution. I shot two shows with Justice Scalia. Anybody who wonders how we can hold it all together, could do a lot worse than to go to those two interviews and look at what justice Scalia had to say about the correct way of interpreting the constitution and how if we adhere to the constitution, we can hold it all together.

I also shot an interview with Russ Muirhead of Dartmouth, and he was to my mind just brilliant. Professor Muirhead was not speaking about the constitution as a legal matter, but instead talking about the constitution as the product of a certain kind of political philosophy and is an instrument that elicits a certain kind of behavior from Americans. He spoke of the constitution as a magnificent document that can enable us to hold it all together. There are three or four minutes of pure gold in that interview with Professor Muirhead in my opinion.

TDR: You’re best known for your speechwriting under the Reagan administration, what would you say your crowning achievement was?

PR: My crowning achievement was to be lucky enough to work for Ronald Reagan. The speech with which I suppose I will be associated the rest of my life is the Berlin Wall speech, which he delivered over thirty years ago. I’m not sure that it’s right to call it a crowning achievement because all that the work I did for Ronald Reagan was in some pretty basic way Ronald Reagan’s work. It would be wrong for me to take credit because in all of the speeches I wrote for him, I was miming Ronald Reagan and his own beliefs.

TDR: One of the biggest projects speechwriters take on in the White House is the State of the Union Address. Can you speak about the process that you had to go through when crafting the message?

PR: You touched a sore point because the state of the union address was always a misery. In virtually every other speech in the Reagan White House, the draft was written by one writer so there was unity of voice. You’d get assigned a speech, you’d go research it, and then you would write the whole thing. It would then go to the chief speech writer, who would edit it and, you would talk back and forth with him, but it was the work of one person which meant that it had one unified voice. The state of the union address was cut into pieces, and farmed out, so that several of us would work on any given the state of the union address. The speech writer would then get in touch with the department in question. For example, with the Department of Education, I’d call the office of the secretary of education, and he would put together a memorandum of the various point he wanted included. The State of the Union Addresses almost always ran too long, almost always lacked by comparison with other presidential addresses. This seems true of almost every single administration; no administration seems able to get the state of the union address under control. The reason for that is that it’s a political instrument, it’s one moment each year when the White House in a sense polls the entire administration. Every important federal agency and every cabinet department is asked what it wants in the speech and then you’ve got this huge pile of suggestions, and the speech writing office has to do the best it can in stitching it all together This is why in the Reagan State of the Union addresses, it was very important to work in one or two stories. Reagan was the first to do so, every president has done it since, it’s become a standing part of the address. For president Reagan, it was identifying someone who’s in the gallery, an American hero and telling that person’s story and then having stand to applause. That was an innovation of the Reagan White House. It was a way of getting around the lack of drama and thematic unity in the rest of his speech. You can open strong, you can close strong, you could tell a story or two about a hero, and then it would get to the policy proposals, which would just clunk along. Even in the hands of Ronald Reagan, it would just clunk along.

TDR: What’s your favorite story from the Reagan presidency?

PR: We all loved Ronald Reagan, he was warm and affable. He was tough as steel in pursuing his objectives, but personally he was affable, he would open every meeting with a joke making sure to set everyone at ease. What he didn’t do, was say thank you. Extremely rare, in fact, I only know of two telephone calls to speech writers in which the president said thank you. At one point, he called Peggy Noonan to thank her for a speech that she had written, and at one point he called me. It was in 1984, he was running for reelection and there was a speech that was scheduled to give a speech to, B’nai B’rith a Jewish organization. We learned after the White House scheduled the president to speak to B’nai B’rith, that Walter Mondale, his opponent in the 1984 campaign, would be speaking just an hour or two before the president. Most Jewish Americans now and then, overwhelmingly tend to vote Democratic. So suddenly, Ronald Reagan was in a tight spot. The candidate whom many in the audience would favor, would just have finished speaking the same day before President Reagan got there. That was a tricky speech and I worked hard to not just lay out his policy proposals but to include language that established a kind of sense of shared values, a sense of communion between the President and the audience, and it went well. I got back to the White House and it was like a scene out of a movie, the telephone on my desk rang and I picked it up and it was the White House operator. “Mister Robinson” “Yes this is Peter Robinson” “Would you hold for the president?”  The president came on the line and he sounded relieved, and he said, “Well, I just wanted to thank you for that speech today.” We chatted about it for a moment and then Reagan said, “Well, you wrote one hell of a speech.” I could win the Nobel Prize and it wouldn’t mean half as much to me as that comment from Ronald Reagan.

TDR: The Review has been known over the years as kind of a renegade, small group off campus that a lot of people don’t tend to like. Can you, as a former correspondent for The Review, speak to the importance of a conservative presence in discourse on campus?

PR: Are you kidding me? Honestly, The Review is one of the most valuable entities in Hanover New Hampshire, absolutely, without doubt. Higher education across America, and it pains me to say this but it is true that to a large extent Dartmouth partakes in this as well, subscribes to quite a narrow outlook on politics, economics, and social questions. It can be summed up in the term political correctness, and it shows up in all kinds of ways, from the courses that appear on the curriculum to if you go online and look at the candidates to whom Dartmouth faculty make contributions, overwhelmingly go to one party rather than the other. On election night, if you go online and you look at a breakdown county by county of the way New Hampshire votes, Grafton County, which is the county that contains the town of Hanover, votes overwhelmingly one way year at after year. So, undergraduates, who are supposed to in the very nature of a liberal arts education, entertain different points of view, to hear intellectual debate, and undergraduates don’t get that as rigorously as they should. The Review is therefore essential. It represents in my judgment, an absolutely invaluable component, not just to the journalistic scene in Hanover but for having The Review present. Just go to FOCO and find students saying things like, “Did you read what was in The Review? What do you think of it?” “Oh, I didn’t like it!” “Oh well, I really liked it!” It is actually an essential part of the Dartmouth education. Another way of putting it is, The Review talks back. The Review does what college students ought to do. It is suspicious of consensus, it objects to conformity, and it talks back. And I say God bless!