Ronald Reagan At 100: The Great Communicator

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on February 4, 2011 – 6:45 AM

One hundred years ago this Sunday, Ronald Reagan was born in Tampico, Illinois.

To commemorate President Reagan’s centennial year, this article will look at five of his most famous communications moments, each demonstrating why he earned the moniker, “The Great Communicator.” 

Ronald Reagan 1981

Moment One: February 23, 1980: “I’m Paying For This Microphone!”

Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush were running a close race in New Hampshire in 1980 when a ruling by the Federal Elections Committee forced the newspaper sponsoring the debate to withdraw its funding.

Mr. Reagan decided to underwrite the entire debate himself after Mr. Bush declined to pay for half. So when the newspaper’s moderator tried to cut Reagan’s microphone after he tried to get five other candidates included in the debate, Reagan snapped, “I am paying for this microphone, Mr. Green!”

Two things are interesting here. First, he got the name of the moderator wrong (it was “Breen,” not “Green.”)

Second, although Reagan’s anger seemed authentic, it was also probably not an improvised line. His Hollywood contemporary, Spencer Tracy, used an almost identical line in the movie State of the Union.

None of that mattered. Reagan won New Hampshire in a landslide, and this moment paved the way for his ascension to the White House.



Moment Two: October 21, 1984: Second Debate Against Walter Mondale

In his first debate against challenger Walter Mondale, Mr. Reagan appeared sluggish. So he anticipated he would be questioned about his age during the second debate (he was 73 at the time).

When The Baltimore Sun’s Henry Trewhitt asked about his fitness for office, Mr. Reagan pounced with a now iconic line that perfectly demonstrates how humor, paired with a total lack of defensiveness, can be the best tonic to disarm one’s critics. 



Moment Three: January 28, 1986: The Challenger Disaster

For my generation (I was born in the early 1970s), the Challenger explosion was our “Kennedy assassination” moment – everyone I know remembers exactly where they were when they heard the news. 

President Reagan took to the airwaves that evening, pain etched on his face as it was on ours. He struck a perfect tone on that night – sensitive but unwavering, avuncular but direct. If ever a president delivered the closing line of a speech better than this, I haven’t seen it:

“We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye – and slipped the surly bonds of Earth to touch the face of God.”




Moment Four: June 12, 1987: “Mr. Gorbachev, Tear Down This Wall”

Coming toward the end of the Cold War, Mr. Reagan’s demand of his Soviet counterpart represented the perfect media sound bite. The oft-repeated phrase left no room for confusion – Mr. Reagan wanted the Berlin Wall down, and now.

Notice how he waited for the crowd’s cheers to die down before delivering the line. He knew its power, and wanted to deliver the television-friendly phrase in the most impactful manner possible.

Less than three years later, the Wall was gone. Mr. Reagan’s speech wasn’t solely responsible, of course – but it was a crucial moment in the Wall’s history. 



Moment Five: January 11, 1989: Farewell Address From The Oval Office

This speech is best remembered for Reagan’s reference to a “shining city upon a hill.” But upon watching this video, I was struck more by his analysis of his nickname, “The Great Communicator.”

“I never thought it was my style that made a difference,” he said. “It was the content.”

I’m not sure he was right. He didn’t sweep 49 states in 1984 due to his policy positions alone; rather, his ability to use his oratorical gifts helped him reach voters who wouldn’t ordinarily give an “R” another look.

His farewell address feels other-generational. If a president infused an address with this much poetry today, it would almost certainly be mocked as “cheesy.” But Reagan pulled it off, and it’s worth a look.


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Comments (17)

  1. By JustinW:

    Thanks for these vintage Reagan clips. They never grow old. God Bless Ronald Reagan. God Bless America.

  2. By Tom Schad:

    What a great glimpse of the Great Communicator. Aside from his politics or poetry, we was THE best communicator we ever had…partly because we wanted him to be.

    I liked these selections…the only one I felt was missing was the speech on the beaches of Normandy. This was THE most moving speech I have ever heard, although I was quite young when I heard it, I felt what it might have been like to be a part of that generation and the loss that we suffered and the eventual win that came with it.

  3. By Jon Pinney:

    Thank you Brad for posting this article and these videos. I was a child during the Reagan years and have little to no recollection of hearing him speak. I knew he had the nickname of “The Great Communicator”, and seeing these videos I am convinced that indeed he was. Like he said, the message was good, but even a good message delivered by a poor communicator will not have the best effect. Reagan was indeed a master communicator… And I’m convinced it was not because of how he said things, but the honesty and feeling with which he said them. People yearn for honesty and truth, and to have someone so unabashedly share how they feel is at once refreshing and endearing. It is hard to dislike someone who opens their soul to you. Anyway, thanks again for this post. It was greatly enjoyed.

  4. By Joe M:

    It’s a shame that Reagan gets any credit for the Berlin Wall coming down. Gorbachev told Reagan it would happen well before Reagan’s speech. Gorbachev was very upset with Reagan for delivering the speech and taking credit for something he had nothing to do with. Of course, everyone in Germany knows this but why do Americans still cling to these myths?

  5. By Jose Maria Noriega Fernandez:

    Brad this is an excelent post in this era of mass and social media communicators, Content, as Reagan said is of utmost importance, you deliver day after day great and relevant content to share.

  6. By Brad Phillips:

    Thanks to all of you who have commented so far! I’m glad so many people have enjoyed this post.

    A couple of people pointed out that Reagan’s speech on the beaches of Normandy was missing. It’s tough as a curator to narrow down to only five – inevitably, the list will be incomplete. For those interested, that speech was given on June 6, 1984, and can be found here:

    Finally, to Joe M. – I take it you don’t believe that Reagan’s speech at least hastened the inevitable day when the Wall would fall?

  7. By Joe M:

    Hi Brad – I spent the summer in Berlin and quite a bit of time at the Berlin Wall Memorial – quite a moving experience for me. It is pretty clear from the archives and history that Reagan had nothing to do with the wall falling. East Germany was a mess financially and was in process of disintegrating some time before his speech. The wall falling was all about the failed economics of East Germany and more broadly the Soviet block. Does anyone seriously believe that a speech like that had any impact? If the economics allowed East Germany to remain in power, would they have ceased to exist because of his speech?

    I am impressed that he knew how to time and deliver a speech and that he was able to convince most Americans that he had something to do with it. Curious on what American history books say about this.

  8. By John:

    Joe’s comment about Reagan’s Berlin Wall speech and Gorbachev’s promise to tear down the Wall, recalls another great Reagan line regarding the Soviet’s commitments during nuclear disarmament talks — “Trust, but verify.”

  9. By American 1st:

    I’ll take a “flawed” Clinton over a perfect Reagan every time. Those who think RR was a great president are either not being honest or are themselves amiable dunces.

  10. By Klaus E.:

    @Berlin/Joe M.
    Have a look at german chancellor Kohl while Reagan speechs. Not really a breathless listening…
    This speech was delivered in english, so far so obvious, lacks a german line in contrast to JFK’s, and aims totally to the american (TV) public.
    Of course it hasn’t to do anything with the fall of the soviet empire. But, it was a good speech, and delivered excellently. The title says: Great communicator – not great changer of worlds… (The Start treatys would fall in this category).

  11. By Joel S:

    To “By American 1st” — leave it to the Clintonite to turn a civil discussion into an insulting diatribe. People who see Reagan as a great president aren’t amiable dunces any more than those who see Clinton as a good president are immoral egocentrics.

    To Joe M — Reagan’s strengthening of the military left the Soviets playing catch up with an economy that couldn’t keep up with the defense spending and eventually faltered. With no Soviet backing, E. Germany failed, too. His administration did a great deal to help bring down the wall.

  12. By Mr. Media Training and Brad Phillips In The News | Mr. Media Training:

    […] 7, 2011 – New York Magazine: Thanks to writer Dan Amira for calling our recent article, Ronald Reagan at 100: The Great Communicator, […]

  13. By Nancy:

    It would be nice to give credit to poet John Gillespie Magee, Jr., whose words Mr. Reagan quoted at the end of his Challenger tribute. They are taken from the opening and closing lines of “High Flight.” Magee was born in Shanghai of an American father and British mother, and joined the Canadian Air Force before the U.S. entered WW II. He died in that war.

  14. By Brad Phillips:

    Nancy – That’s a lovely tribute, and I’m glad you added that to the blog. Thank you for taking the time to leave it behind.

  15. By Norm Harruff:

    As these examples demonstrate Reagan told people what they wanted to hear. He spent years honing this skill when he worked for General Electric. Where is the intellectual enlightenment leading people where they should be going? It’s simply palaver to stimulate your feel good emotions.

  16. By Dwayne Smith:

    I may have disagreed with most of his policies, but I have to admit that Reagan was indeed a great communicator.

  17. By Alan H.:

    Thanks for these Brad. The one where Reagan says he won’t exploit the age issue is priceless. I think it does a great job of showing many sides of what made Reagan so charismatic to the public.

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