Why you should care
Because when you are president, every word matters.
It was Aug. 11, 1984, a hot summer Saturday during the height of the Cold War. A day earlier, at the Soviet Union–boycotted Olympic Games in Los Angeles, barefoot South African runner Zola Budd had collided with American Mary Decker in the women’s 3,000-meter final, sinking Decker’s medal hopes and sparking a controversy that engulfed the news. The next morning, the president of the United States, Ronald Reagan, would make his own controversial misstep, one that serves as a powerful reminder of the importance of an American president’s words — even the most flippant ones — as we enter the tweet-filled presidency of Donald Trump.
During a routine sound check before his weekly Saturday-morning radio address, Reagan decided to crack a joke for the technicians adjusting the level of his microphone. The president was supposed to open his address by informing his fellow Americans that he was pleased to have just signed legislation allowing religious groups to meet in public schools during nonschool hours. Instead, Reagan deadpanned a 145-character line that, while not transmitted over the air, would create worldwide reverberations:
“My fellow Americans, I’m pleased to tell you today that I’ve signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes.”
It was certainly not the first time the jovial former actor had launched a one-liner on a hot mic. “Reagan was a born jokester,” Craig Shirley, historian and author of the forthcoming book Reagan Rising, tells OZY. “He loved pithy one-liners and making people laugh.” After careers in radio and show business, Reagan was no stranger to sound checks, outtakes and killing downtime with a good laugh. Once while on set in Hollywood, says Shirley, an actress had asked him in an outtake, “Are you getting any?” Without missing a beat, Reagan quipped, “You mean overtime?”
The incident was not usefully exploited by either the Soviets or the Democrats.
As he entered the political arena, Reagan brought along his comic timing and ability to ad-lib. At a sound check at a Los Angeles hotel during his 1980 presidential campaign, Reagan relived his days calling baseball games on the radio in Davenport, Iowa. “And now,” Reagan bantered about another presidential candidate, “Teddy Kennedy is coming to the plate. Kennedy has hit five out of eight in the primaries today. Kennedy looks loose.”
Once he was elected president, however, the Gipper’s mic humor started to get him into trouble. In October 1982, as he prepared to go on air to address the communist Polish government’s attempt to outlaw its political rival Solidarity, the president informed his fellow Americans that the Polish government was nothing more than “a bunch of no-good, lousy bums.”
But it was Reagan’s “bombing in five minutes” line, despite eliciting a chuckle from the reporters and technicians, that really got him in hot water once the nine-second tape was leaked. Not known for their sense of humor, nor for wasting a political opportunity, the Soviets did their best to exploit the gaffe to weaken the Reagan administration’s position in ongoing negotiations between the powers. They briefly put their forces on red alert, forcing embarrassed U.S. officials to downplay the remark, and the Kremlin released a formal statement calling the joke “unprecedentedly hostile,” while Izvestia, the government-run newspaper, labeled it a “monstrous statement.”
Commentators elsewhere were similarly unamused. “Reagan’s instinctive anti-communism — and occasional graveyard humor,” observed Britain’s Guardian newspaper, “has embroiled him in another embarrassing incident.” The Democrats also pounced on the Republican president’s election year blunder, with their scolding nominee, Walter Mondale, observing that a “president has to be very, very careful with his words.”
But while Reagan’s poll numbers temporarily faltered, the incident was not usefully exploited by either the Soviets or the Democrats. “It actually worked against the Democrats and for Reagan,” says Shirley, “as they came across as hypersensitive, and Reagan as calm, cool and collected.”
The poised Reagan, and his graveyard humor, went on to preside over the burial of both Mondale’s campaign and the Soviet Union. “I have learned that one of the most important rules in politics is poise,” the man himself once observed, “which means looking like an owl after you have behaved like a jackass.”