Remarks by Marlin Fitzwater at “Lessons from the Fall of the Berlin Wall,” Wed., November 6, 2019, Georgetown University, Washington, D. C.

Remarks by Marlin Fitzwater at “Lessons from the Fall of the Berlin Wall,”  Wed., November 6, 2019, Georgetown University, Washington, D. C.

We often hear it said that every great movement begins with a first step.  And thanks to our last panel, we know the first steps of the East German government and the Soviet Union in opening the border in Berlin to begin this rumbling change.  Inside the White House, there were no sirens, no announcements of change, except for the relentless ticking of the wire service machines as the story started to emerge:  the first few cautious citizens, mostly students, began to chip away at the Berlin Wall.  And the story was issued.  As the press is want to do, even the first stories out of Berlin speculated that the wall was coming down.

The national security council staff in the White House read these stories on their wire service machines  and immediately sent copies to affected officials.  My deputy for Foreign Policy, Roman Popadiuk, burst into my office in mid afternoon, waving a Reuters News Story, and exclaiming: “Marlin, look at this.  The Berlin wall may be coming down.”  His word of caution, “May,”  reflected years of service as a diplomat who knew the fragility of events, and as a press secretary who knew the vagaries of reporting. 

I took the story and started reading as I flipped the switch to turn on the four television sets in my office, with clocks to record the time in  London, Paris, Tokyo, and Abilene, Kansas. 

I first noticed that a security classification, Confidential, was stamped on the top of the story.  How can this be, I thought.  It’s a wire story.  It goes to every newspaper, radio and television station in the world.  How can it be confidential. 

“Ok,” I said, “I’m going to the Oval.”  That meant I was going to show this article to the President, and advise him to turn on his television set, in the small study next to the Oval.   As I got up to leave, CNN was showing pictures of the wall, but little evidence of change.  Nevertheless, they had the story. 

The President’s secretary told me the President was in the study.  She buzzed me into the Oval Office at 3:10 p.m, and I went on back to the study. The President was sitting at his desk, writing notes.   I handed him the Reuters story without explanation.

This day was scheduled to be busy for the President.  He was having a State Visit,  arrival ceremony and state dinner for the President of the Philippines, Mrs. Corazon Aquino.  That meant speeches on the South Grounds, meetings in the Oval Office and the Cabinet Room, and all kinds of guests.  The President even squeezed in a photo op with the country and western group, Alabama, plus Ricky Skaggs and Ricky Van Shelton

His daily diary shows 85 people or events during the day, starting with breakfast with Mrs. Bush at 6:00 a.m. and dancing with the first lady at 10:58 p.m. that night.   In between all this, the Berlin Wall started to crumble.

After I showed the Reuters story to the President, he asked for more stories as they came in.  And asked for his National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft, and Deputy Bob Gates, and Secretary of State Baker to join him in the study.  Secretary Baker was already in the White House for the Aquino visit.

The President turned on the television, and I suggested to the President that the press was very excited about this story, and that I recommended some kind of statement that gave the American people an historical context.    The President was pensive.  He said he was not going to hold a press conference.  He was not going to “dance on the wall, and none of us should either.”    I took that as a personal direction.

Many of you may remember a book by Richard Ben Kramer, called What It Takes, written after the 1988 election, which amounted to a personal profile of each candidate.   Kramer describes how often, when George Bush gets uncomfortable with a situation or events, he begins to slouch in his chair.  I had seen this phenomenon many times.  And by the time the President had finished telling our little group how careful he wanted to be with regard to Mr. Gorbachev and the Soviet Union, and how fragile German reunification might be, he had slouched almost to the point where he couldn’t reach the desk any more. 

Then he sat up and said he would do an informal statement.  I suggested just bringing a pool of reporters into the Oval, and he could sit at his desk to make remarks.  He said fine. 

Then he gave himself a mini-rehearsal, saying we had to be concerned about Soviet reaction to the wall coming down, and the future of Germany.  Everyone in our group agreed.

All of that took place in less than 30 minutes.

A White House press pool is simply about 15 people representing the newspapers, radio, television and magazines that cover the beat.  Usually this means one television correspondent and camera crew.  On Nov.9, the pool network was CBS, and the correspondent was Leslye Stahl.  Leslye, today is a correspondent for 60 minutes.

She was very excited about this story.  And her office had informed her that other Washington Officials like Speaker Gebhart of Missouri, and Leader Mitchell of Maine, were urging celebration, and even that the President should go to Berlin to join in.

So when the pool came into the Oval at 3:22 p.m., the President gave a very measured statement saying he was pleased, and this was a “good” development.  The first question was about helping Germany and the next five were about an end to the Iron Curtain and the Warsaw Pact. But the seventh was Leslye asking, “this is a sort of great victory for our side in the big East-West battle — but you don’t seem elated.”

To which the President replied, “I am not an emotional kind of guy.”   That made all the news.

But as sometimes happens, the accidental question and answer is the best.  And in this case, the answer served to emphasize that President Bush was not going to dance on the wall, or appear to be celebrating in any way.   And just one month later, after Mr. Gorbachev had said the German people should be allowed to determine their own future, he thanked the President for not dancing on the wall. 

At the Malta Summit, just three weeks after the Wall came down, Mr. Gorbachev engaged the President and Secretary of State in a discussion of the use of the term “western values,” which he found offensive.  Secretary Baker suggested the term “democratic values,”  and Gorbachev agreed.    It was clear that President Bush had gauged the sensitivity of the Soviets exactly right.  

President Bush asked if he could leadoff the first meeting at Malta. He wanted to make it clear at the beginning that the United States intended to be supportive following the fall of the Berlin Wall.

I would add, that after President Bush presented a 17 point program for helping the Soviet Union participate in the world economy, Mr. Gorbachev raised his eyes from the table to say:  that was  “exactly” what he wanted to hear.  At that point, U.S.-Soviet relations took a dramatic change.