Ronald Reagan, Master Storyteller

<b>CBS News' Dan Rather</b> On Former President's Wit And Wisdom

"You've heard, I'm sure, that I like to tell an anecdote or two," Ronald Reagan once said. "Well, life not only begins at 40 but so does lumbago and the tendency to tell the same stories over and over again."

If Hollywood taught Mr. Reagan anything, it was the value of a good story — and a good punch line, reports CBS Evening News Anchor Dan Rather.

On Nov. 8, 1966, he was elected as California governor over incumbent Democrat Edmund G. "Pat" Brown.

"Jack Warner, of Warner Bros., I'd been under contract for a number of years, heard I was running for governor. I understand that he said, 'No, no. Jimmy Stewart for governor. Reagan for best friend."

He was sworn in as president on January 20, 1981.

"Howard Baker ... told me on the steps of the Capitol, at the time of the inaugural, 'Mr. President, I want you to know I will be with you through thick.' and I said, 'What about thin?' and he said, 'Welcome to Washington.'"

Washington had never seen anything quite like him: a one-time liberal Democrat turned Republican conservative who could disarm critics — even the press — with a sly comeback.

"Mr. President, in talking about the continuing recession tonight, you have blamed mistakes of the past and you've blamed the Congress. Does any of the blame belong to you?" asked ABC White House Correspondent Sam Donaldson.

"Yes, because for many years I was a Democrat," replied Mr. Reagan.

His wit rivaled that of his two idols, Franklin Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln.

"He liked a laugh, President Lincoln. He was criticized for it once and he said, 'If I couldn't laugh, I couldn't stand this job for 15 minutes.'"

Mr. Reagan clearly relished the job, missing no opportunity to joke about his favorite targets: communism, big government, high taxes.

"If the big spenders get their way, they'll charge everything on your Taxpayer's Express card, and believe me, they never leave home without it," he said, on one occasion.

"You know, not too long ago, I was asked to explain the difference between a small businessman and a big businessman. And my answer was that a big businessman is what a small businessman would be if only the government would get out of the way and leave him alone," he said on another.

His stories often had a horse-and-buggy feel to them: anecdotes about farmers, preachers, small-town America. But the payoff usually carried a political wallop.

"Former Congressman Prentiss Walker dropped in on a farm and introduced himself as a Republican candidate. And as he tells it, the farmer's eyes lit up, and then he said, 'Wait 'til I get my wife. We've never seen a Republican before.' And a few minutes later he was back with his wife, and they asked Prentiss if he wouldn't give them a speech.

"Well, he looked around for a kind of a podium, something to stand on, and then the only thing available was a pile of that stuff that the late Mrs. Truman said it had taken her 35 years to get Harry to call 'fertilizer.' So, he stepped up on that and made his speech.

And apparently he won them over. And they told him it was the first time they'd ever heard a Republican. And he says, 'That's okay. That's the first time I've ever given a speech from a Democratic platform.'"

His adversaries learned a hard lesson.

"Governor Reagan, again typically, is against such a proposal," said incumbent Jimmy Carter in a 1980 presidential debate.

"There you go again," replied the eventual winner of that race.

Mr. Reagan's way with words could be devastating.

"I will not make age an issue of this campaign," he said in a 1984 debate with challenger Walter Mondale, some 17 years younger. "I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent's youth and inexperience."

Mr. Reagan exploited his own age to a fare-thee-well. He was nearly 70 when he became president, 78 when he left office, the oldest man ever to serve in the office.

"One of my favorite quotations about age comes from Thomas Jefferson. He said that we should never judge a president by his age, only by his work. And ever since he told me that, I've stopped worrying," he said once. "And just to show you how youthful I am, I intend to campaign in all 13 states."

"I've already lived about 20 years longer than my life expectancy at the time I was born," he also said. "That's a source of annoyance to a great many people."

He was born in 1911. And if his way with a joke came from anywhere, it came from his father Jack, an Irishman whose taste for strong drink was matched only by his talent for storytelling.

"So in the language of my forefathers," he said, switching to an Irish brogue, 'I'll have another drink of that fine Irish whiskey.'"

Mr. Reagan was a lifeguard who saved 77 people, by his own count. A handsome young man with a silken voice, he drifted into radio, then films. He played radio announcers in his first couple of movies, projecting a breezy affability audiences liked.

Years later, that likeability would serve him well in government, confounding many critics who'd written him off both as a politician — and an actor.

"I am so tired of reading something that one reporter or journalist once said about me and now it's automatically attached to me in most stories: 'Ronald Reagan, who never got the girl in the movies, when he was in pictures.' I always got the girl," he said.

His years at Warner Bros. got him something else: a quick sense of humor that carried him through countless blowups and breakdowns on the set. Take after take, he was perfecting the one thing crucial to both acting and politics: timing.

He then polished his delivery on live television, where there was no chance at a second take.

"There's an old story, from back in the days when we did those plays like General Electric Theater, live," he told late CBS News Correspondent Harry Reasoner in 1967. "This fellow forgot his lines, but to this day, nobody knows it. Because in the midst of doing his scene, when he came to the point where he forgot his lines," (Reagan mouthed words, silently). And what he was doing, of course, was just mouthing with no sound.

"And all over America, people were fiddling with their set, trying to find out what had happened with the sound on their set. When he suddenly remembered the line, it came back to him, he just added the voice to the lip movement and went on talking," the former actor said. "And I've been in a few press conferences where I've thought that could come in pretty handy."

As California governor from 1969 to 1976, he served during troubled times, and early on, there were a few rare public displays of temper.

"Wait a minute!" he said on one occasion, pounding his first on the podium. "C'mon! I didn't extract any agreement."

Confronted with anti-war marchers, campus demonstrators, hippies, his humor turned sarcastic.

"The last bunch of pickets were carrying signs that said 'Make love, not war,' he said of anti-war protesters. "The only trouble was they didn't look capable of doing either."

"His hair was cut like Tarzan, he acted like Jane and he smelled like Cheetah," he said of a hippy.

But eight years in Sacramento taught him the value of restraint, and running for president, he reverted to type: Mr. Nice Guy. And instead of downplaying his Hollywood background, he capitalized on it, often campaigning with legends like Jimmy Stewart, movie star and war hero.

"The master of ceremonies said: 'Brigadier General Jimmy Stewart.' when I got up, I said, 'You'll forgive me for correcting you, but it's Major General Jimmy Stewart,' Mr. Reagan related.

"And that night, we got back to the hotel, Jimmy said, (imitating Stewart) 'R-r-ron, that-that fellah was right, tonight. It is brigadier,' he said. 'I just never corrected you before because it s-s-sounded so good.'"

He could even turn the other cheek with the press.

"I was going to have an opening statement, but I decided that what I was going to say I wanted to get a lot of attention, so I'm going to wait and leak it," he joked at a presidential news conference.

He quickly gained a reputation as the Teflon President, to whom bad news did not stick. Even many of his harshest detractors found him charming. And the Reagan humor was often a hit with the press corps, too.

"Now I've been told that this is all off the record and that the cameras are all off, is that right?" he said once. "I was told that, because I've been waiting for years to do this, he said and put his thumbs in ears and wiggled his fingers.

Some of the criticism he drew — for supposedly being uninvolved, working banker's hours, dozing off in meetings — he turned to his advantage with yet more wisecracks.

"I know the long hours that many of you have put in. And I can only tell you that if I could manage it, I would schedule a cabinet meeting so that we could all go over and take a nap together," he said.

"I don't know of a place where prayer is more appropriate than in Washington, D.C.," he quipped, because in the Reagan joke book, the nation's capital was always good for a laugh.

"You don't have to spend much time in Washington to appreciate the prophetic vision of the man who designed all the streets there," he said. "They go in circles."

"What is needed is a sweeping, comprehensive reform, but certainly not like the proposed new tax form that was sent to me the other day," Mr. Reagan said. "It had two lines on it. The first line said, 'What did you make last year?' and the second line says, 'Send it in.'"

He succeeded in slowing the growth of government, driving home the point with an arsenal of jokes that pictured Washington as a place short on common sense and long on doubletalk.

"You know, a fellow comes in, stands in front of your desk, hands you a memorandum, and he stays and waits while you read it. And so you read: 'action-oriented orchestration, innovation, inputs generated by escalation of meaningful, indigenous decision-making dialog, focusing on multi-linked problem complexes, can maximize the vital thrust toward non-alienated and viable urban infra-structure,'" Mr. Reagan said. "I take a chance and say, 'Let's try busing.' and if he walks away, I know I guessed right."

Ronald Reagan also guessed right about communism, the "Evil Empire," as he called it. A bankrupt ideology, he insisted, on the wrong side of history. He kept up the pressure with tough diplomacy, increased defense spending — and ridicule.

"It is said that Castro was making a speech to a large assembly. And he was going on at great length and then a voice out in the crowd said, 'peanuts, popcorn, crackerjacks.' and he went on speaking and again the voice said, 'peanuts, popcorn, crackerjacks,'" Mr. Reagan said. "And about the fourth time this happened, he stopped in his regular speech and he said, "the next time," he said, "I'm going to find out who that is and kick him all the way to Miami.' And everybody in the crowd said, "peanuts, popcorn, crackerjacks.'"

And in 1987 in Berlin, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!"

He would live to see the walls come down all across the world, a process no doubt hastened along by his relentless mockery of communism as something both barbaric — and laughable.

"A commissar in the Soviet Union went out to one of those state collective farms, grabbed the first worker he came to and said, 'Comrade, how are the crops?'

"'Oh,' he said, 'Comrade Commissar, if we could put the potatoes in one pile, they would reach the foot of God,'" Mr. Reagan continued, "and the commissar said, 'This is the Soviet Union. There is no God.' and he said, 'That's all right, there are no potatoes.'"

The literal-minded were forever troubled by his tendency to sometimes confuse life with the movies. But he understood, like very few leaders before or since, the power of myth and storytelling. In his films and his political life, Ronald Reagan stood at the intersection where dreams and reality meet, and with a wink and a one-liner, always held out hope for a happy ending.

"Some day when the team's up against it and the breaks are beatin' the boys, ask 'em to go in and win just one for the Gipper," Mr. Reagan said as George "The Gipper" Gip in 1940's "Knute Rockne: All American."

"Go out there and win one for the Gipper," he told a Republican National Convention.
  • Lloyd Vries

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