Great story I came across again today. Reminds me why Reagan is one of my heroes.
How declaring “I’m paying for this microphone” helped Ronald Reagan win a key primary
Ronald Reagan was the underdog.
He had been narrowly edged out by George Bush in the Iowa caucuses a few weeks before. Now Bush, a former UN ambassador, CIA director, and Texas congressman, was the clear frontrunner for the 1980 Republican presidential nomination. In fact, Bush had publicly declared that “Big Mo” — momentum — was on his side.
Reagan and his staff knew that if he lost in New Hampshire, it could mean the end of his campaign. They retooled their strategy and redoubled their efforts in the Granite State.
But the key to victory would turn out to be a powerful, emotional moment no one could have scripted.
Thanks to your support of The Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation, the full meaning of the moment is still being shared today.
“I thought it had been unfair”
Many people remember Reagan’s famous words. But most haven’t heard the full story of what happened that chilly New Hampshire night.
After Iowa, Bush and Reagan had a clear lead on the other Republican candidates, senators Bob Dole and Howard Baker, congressmen John Anderson and Phil Crane, and former Texas governor John Connally. A local newspaper, The Nashua Telegraph, invited the two frontrunners to a debate. The five others were excluded. This unfairly helped the Ronald Reagan and George Bush campaigns, Bob Dole complained. The Federal Election Commission agreed.
Reagan did too. He offered to split the cost of the debate 50-50 with the Bush campaign, but they declined. Reagan’s campaign then paid for the debate itself.
“I thought it had been unfair to exclude the other candidates,” Reagan later wrote in his autobiography, An American Life. “I decided to invite them.”
But when four other GOP candidates showed up at the debate (Connally was campaigning elsewhere), Bush campaign manager James Baker (who later became Chief of Staff to Ronald Reagan) refused to let his man participate.
For an uncomfortable few minutes, Reagan and Bush sat silently on stage with Telegraph editor John Breen. The other candidates stood awkwardly behind them. Soon, the audience grew restless.
Wanting to explain, Reagan began to speak. At that, the moderator called to a sound engineer, “Turn off Mr. Reagan’s microphone!”
Surprised and offended, Ronald Reagan’s seldom-seen temper flashed. “I am paying for this microphone, Mr. Breen!” he snapped.
As Reagan recalled, “For some reason, my words hit the audience, whose emotions were already worked up, like a sledgehammer. The crowd roared and just went wild.
“I may have won the debate, the primary — and the nomination — right there.”
Indeed, Ronald Reagan dominated the primary, winning 49.6 percent of the votes. “Big Mo” had shifted his way. A few months later, Reagan easily won the GOP nomination.
A lesson in leadership
It was a dramatic moment in history, but more interesting is what it says about Reagan himself. After all, what provoked Reagan’s rare flash of frustration was the thought of the other candidates being unfairly excluded, and the moderator’s attempt to keep the audience from hearing Reagan’s concerns.