OTD in History… August 11, 1984, President Ronald Reagan jokes about bombing Russia

By Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS

Source: Ronald Reagan Presidential Library & Museum

On this day in history August 11, 1984, President Ronald Reagan jokes during a voice check for his Saturday Radio Address saying, ‘’My fellow Americans. I am pleased to tell you I just signed legislation, which outlaws Russia forever. The bombing begins in five minutes.’’ That Saturday, Reagan was delivering his live 9 a.m. address from his ranch, Rancho del Cielo, near Santa Barbara, California. Reagan commonly used off-colored humor and witty one-liners in his voice checks whose fallout caused him trouble. The bombing Russia joke was one of his worst and became an embarrassment and problem at home and abroad. Reagan’s gaffe, however, did not have the news coverage that presidents in the digital age now do.

In an election year, Democrats seized on the leaked recording and used it to emphasize the president’s hard-line anti-Communist approach with Russia, calling him a “cowboy.” Reagan had called the Soviet Union just the year before in an address to the National Association of Evangelicals in Orlando, Florida. The press did not initially consider an issue because they did not report pre-speech remarks however, it cause problems for Reagan in the polls giving Democratic nominee Walter Mondale a boost. Meanwhile, the international media took to the comment looking for deeper meaning and questioning Reagan’s leadership, and the Soviet Union genuinely treated it as a real threat, standing guard for a potential attack.

Originally, the remark was a spoof of the opening line from his address. Reagan started his actual address, saying, “My fellow Americans, I’m pleased to tell you that today I signed legislation that will allow student religious groups to begin enjoying a right they’ve too long been denied — the freedom to meet in public high schools during nonschool hours, just as other student groups are allowed to do.” Reagan did not realize a private mic check said in jest would become a diplomatic problem and an embarrassment so close to the presidential election.

Reagan had made flippant remarks before that have caused him political headaches and fallout. In 1969, when he was governor of California he sarcastically told protesting University of California at Berkeley students “if there has to be a bloodbath then let’s get it over with.”

While during the 1980 presidential campaign, he said, “A recession is when your neighbor loses his job. A depression is when you lose yours. And recovery is when Jimmy Carter loses his.” His most recent blunder had been during an October 1982 mic test where he called the Polish military government as ‘’a bunch of no-good lousy bums.’’

Initially, CBS News and CNN, which was known as the Cable News Network then decided not to even report Reagan’s remark. CBS News defended their decision not to report with a spokesman saying, they ‘’were made during a voice check and it is not our intent to broadcast those kind of remarks.’’ CNN president Burt Reinhardt’ said, “We thought about it a great deal, talked about it a lot. But anything talked about before the radio broadcast would be off the record.’’ Reinhardt, however, did not find it funny, telling the New York Times, ‘’I’m told the President says a lots of funny things from time to time,’’ but this time it was ‘’Not particularly.’’

The international media, however, had a field day. A Paris newspaper called the remark “a statement of repressed desire or the exorcism of a dreaded phantom.” The Dutch news said, “Hopefully, the man tests his missiles more carefully.” Some of the international press was not as kind calling Reagan “an irresponsible old man,” and saying it was “totally unbecoming.” The White House, however, refuse to comment. White House Press Secretary Larry Speakes told the media, “Whatever is off the record is off the record. I’m not going to comment on anything that is off the record.’’

The Soviet Union gave the strongest response in October 1984, the Japanese newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun reported that the Soviet Army went on alert and stayed that way for a half an hour after the original reports of Reagan’s jokes. An aide to US Representative Michael Barnes (D–MD) said the Pentagon knew about the Soviet alert. Only one US new source, NBC news anchor Tom Brokaw covered the Soviet response. The Soviet official news agency TASS responded with a condemnation. TASS stated, “The USSR condemns this unprecedented and hostile attack by the US President” and that “this kind of behavior is incompatible with the great responsibility borne by heads of nuclear states for the destinies of their own people and mankind”.

Lou Cannon in his biography President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime noted that the gaffe was an unexpected hiccup in a smoothly run reelection campaign. Cannon recounts, “In 1984, Reagan’s campaign strategists were convinced by mid-summer that he could not be defeated unless he did something to beat himself. They saw many risks and no compensating advantages in allowing the president to wander away from his script.” Cannon, however, noted, “This was typical of Reagan’s clowning when warming up for a performance. But the Soviets made a fuss about it, and Wirthlin’s polls showed a slight decrease in Reagan’s margin over Mondale and an alarming increase in the percentage of Americans who thought Reagan might get the United States into war.”

The incident has become just a footnote in Reagan’s presidency. He would go on to win the 1984 election in a landslide winning 49 states, and completely crushing Mondale. Reagan’s peace through strength approach also led to the end of the Cold War. When Mikhail Gorbachev became the Soviet leader in 1985, through their summits Reagan and Gorbachev developed a rapport and were able to decrease nuclear weapons. Reagan was equally bold in 1987 when he called on Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall the symbol of the Soviet Union and Communism, the wall fell two years later in 1989.

More astounding than Reagan’s remarks at the time was the presses’ restraint on reporting them, demonstrating how different the culture of the press and their relationship with the presidency then it is 34-years later. We now live in very hostile times, with a contentious relationship between the press and the president. Although Republican President Donald Trump views the news media as an enemy denouncing them and their “fake news” reporting daily, he is not the first president they tended to embarrass and report off the record remarks.

The news media had a significantly better relationship with Democratic President Barack Obama, and they still reported embarrassing and contentious off the record remarks. In 2012, Obama was caught telling Russian President Dmitry Medvedev he would have more "space" and "flexibility" after the election on missile defense. In an election year, the off the record remarks caused an uproar and every news source covered the story. The year before in 2011 Obama and French President Nicolas Sarkozy were caught trash talking Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, with Obama responding, "You're tired of him; what about me? I have to deal with him every day." The snafu led to frosty and almost hostile relations between the two leaders, where the countries are supposed allies.

In 2009, Obama made waves with his open mic opinion of pop culture. President was caught giving his opinion of rapper Kanye West running up on the MTV Video Awards stage and interrupting Taylor Swift as she received her award. Obama remarked in an interview, "The young lady seems like a perfectly nice person, she's getting her award. What's he doing up there?" In an open mic and off the record addition Obama said of Kanye, "He's a jackass." A reporter recorded the moment, tweeted it and the video went viral over the internet. Obama’s opinion of West was no different in a May 2012 interview with the Atlantic where he repeated: “He is a jackass, but he’s talented.”

Republican President George W. Bush was known for his gaffes or Bushisms as Reagan was known for his humor. In 2008, he was caught telling then British Prime Minister Tony Blair how they could solve the problems in the Middle East, remarking, "What they need to do is get Syria to get Hezbollah to stop doing this s--- and it's all over." While Trump is famous for his war with CNN White House Correspondent Jim Acosta, Bush had his own beef with New York Times reporter Adam Clymer in the 2000 presidential campaign calling him a "major-league a------" which his running mate Dick Cheney agreed saying, "Oh yeah, big time."

When CNN recently ranked political leaders’ open mic gaffes, Obama’s remarks on Netanyahu ranked at the top, Bush’s took up the fourth and fifth positions, while Reagan’s ended up at the bottom of the list at number ten. With 24-hour news cycles, the constant need to report, make websites and social media relevant, and the proliferation of online news publications, the news media feels for survival they must report everything, off the record no longer exists. We can long for the gentile days of the media that covered the Reagan administration before the internet and social media put everyone not just political leaders under a microscope of scrutiny.

SOURCES AND READ MORE

Cannon, Lou. President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime. New York: Public Affairs, 2000.

Bonnie K. Goodman has a BA and MLIS from McGill University and has done graduate work in religion at Concordia University. She is a journalist, librarian, historian & editor, and a former Features Editor at the History News Network & reporter at Examiner.com where she covered politics, universities, religion and news. She has a dozen years experience in education & political journalism.