Twenty-five years after President Ronald Reagan delivered his Brandenburg Gate speech, debate persists over the meaning and true impact of his words that day. Conservatives, including former Secretary of State James Baker, described the June 17, 1987 speech at the Brandenburg Gate as a “historic challenge.” Its historical resonance has escaped Reagan’s detractors then and now.
So long as the Berlin Wall stood, Gorbachev’s molasses drip paced reforms meant nothing. President Reagan, heard on both sides of the wall, challenged Gorbachev to prove his commitment to freedom. This echoed a daring chant made by East Berliners during a rock concert some days before. They demanded “the wall must go” and suffered predictable police beatings as a consequence. Gorbachev never took down the wall. In two years, the German people took it down themselves.
In the days after the speech, America’s paper of record, the New York Times,did not seem to know what to make of its significance. The Times was no friend of Reagan. During his first term, they assigned as White House correspondent the eventually disgraced Howell Raines. He later described his time there as “reporting on President Reagan’s success in making life harder for citizens who were not born rich, white, and healthy.”
Throughout June 1987, the New York Times carefully constructed a narrative on the supposed theme of Reagan’s “weakness” with articles including, “The Potemkin President” and “Playing From Weakness: Reagan’s Odd Tactics With Congress.” President Reagan’s show of rhetorical strength at the Brandenburg Gate contrasted sharply with the plotlines that the Times wished to lay out for its readership.
On June 13, one day after the speech, the Times almost completely ignored it in an editorial about Gorbachev. After barely signaling its existence, the article glowingly described the achievements of the Soviet leader in freeing a few political prisoners and pushing for more openness. Without acknowledging the pressure exerted on the Soviet system that forced these changes, the Times gushed that “the whole world watches Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms with hope and wonder.” George Church in Time magazine also waxed poetic, saying “for all his eloquence, the aging President was repeatedly upstaged by the youthful and suavely dynamic image of the man who was not there: Mikhail Gorbachev.”