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.”
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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