President-to-be Ronald Reagan's acceptance speech at the GOP Convention 34 years ago this past Thursday was just one of the many times he proved himself to be the "Great Communicator" . . . and as Mo Rocca reminds us now, it was President Reagan's gift for humor that helped see him through some of the grimmest of days:
March 30, 1981: John Hinckley Jr. fires six shots at President Ronald Reagan. A bullet lodges an inch away from his heart.
Reagan is rushed into the operating room, and tells his doctors, "I hope you're all Republicans."
Our 40th president survived, of course, and beside his toughness, the shooting showed the American people that the "Great Communicator" also had quite a sense of humor.
"A letter came from Peter Sweeney, he's in the second grade in the Riverside School at Rockville Center, and he said, 'I hope you get well quick or you might have to make a speech in your pajamas."
Throughout his political career, Reagan used humor to win friends, influence voters . . . and slay the opposition.
No one knew that better than Democratic challenger Walter Mondale.
"I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent's youth and inexperience."
A former Hollywood actor and spokesman for General Electric, Reagan knew how to make his humor seem off-the-cuff. Except that it wasn't.
"Mike Deaver said in his book that I had a short attention span. Well, I was going to reply to that, but what the hell, let's move on to something else."
"You can talk to any number of President Reagan's speechwriters over the years, and when they might hand him a speech, sometimes the speeches would come back with a quote or an expression or a joke that they hadn't seen before," said John Heubusch, executive director of the Reagan Library.
Turns out the Gipper had a secret comedic weapon. Buried inside a box of his desk's contents was a stack of index cards, of the president's famous one-liners -- his best jokes, written on both sides.
"This is the humor of Ronald Reagan in 3x5," said Heubusch.
Such as: "Adolescence is the time when children suddenly feel responsible for answering the phone."
As unassuming as these look, they were political dynamite -- a war chest of jokes. Many he wrote himself; others he borrowed:
"Someone had once said that actually as long as there are final exams, there will be prayers in schools."
"I can remember when a hot story broke, and the reporters would run in and yell, "Stop the chisels!"
We showed some of the jokes to comedian Drew Carey, who read Reagan quips about Congress:
"I've wondered at times what the 10 Commandments would have looked like if Moses had run them through the U.S. Congress."
The Soviet Union:
"What are the four things wrong with Soviet agriculture? Spring, summer, autumn and winter."
And about himself:
"Just to show you how youthful I am, I intend to campaign in all 13 states."
"Here was a guy who wasn't afraid to make fun of himself, which was great," said Carey. "Whatever you think the elephant in the room is, that's the thing you should be able to talk about and joke about. And I do the same thing. The first thing I do is I make a joke about the way I look, the very first thing."
"And that kind of inoculates yourself?" asked Rocca.
"When I go in for a physical now, they no longer ask me how old I am, they just carbon-date me."
Reagan's sunny disposition -- his ability to joke about pretty much anything -- long predated his career in politics, says his daughter, Patti Davis. She says it was a lifelong coping mechanism.
"I think that everything about my father goes back to the fact of him being a child of an alcoholic," she told Rocca. "He protected himself against the unpredictability of his home, by developing this sort of coating of humor over everything. 'I don't wanna feel the pain here. I don't wanna feel the unpredictability here.'"
Sam Donaldson: "Mr. President, in talking about the continuing recession tonight, you have blamed mistakes in the past. You have blamed the Congress. Does any of the blame belong to you?"
Reagan: "Yes, because for many years I was a Democrat!"
At home, Davis also saw another side of her father's humor: impersonating the distinctively, high-pitched voice of writer Truman Capote.
"So I'm trying to imagine Ronald Reagan imitating Truman Capote!" said Rocca.
"Yeah! And he wasn't doing it as a put-down, but to me -- because I was so idealistic, I thought this could be like he's putting down a gay man or something -- he really wasn't. He just thought it was funny."
Oh, and, there's one more Reagan family joke. After that assassination attempt, the Gipper told Nancy, "Honey, I forgot to duck."
For more info:
- Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Library
- "The Reagan Wit: The Humor of the American President" by Bill Adler (William Morrow) - Available in eBook format
for more features.