Video: The Great Communicator

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Dateline NBC
updated 6/6/2004 2:48:06 PM ET 2004-06-06T18:48:06

For eight years Ronald Wilson Reagan presided over tumultuous times with wit, warmth and charm, whether it was invoking the American spirit, poking fun at himself, or confronting the Soviet Union. Reagan knew how to deliver his lines, and he had an innate ability to touch the American soul.

“There's no question that President Reagan was among the greatest  communicators we've ever seen,” says Ken Khachigian, once one of Reagan’s chief speechwriters.

Raised in heartland America, Reagan grew up believing in a Norman Rockwell country of church suppers, town halls and barbershops, and wherever he spoke it seemed as if he was trading jokes and stories with a handful of old friends.

“He was at one with his audience,” says Khachigian. “They would never feel like strangers with him or they wouldn't feel like this is somebody imposing on them in their living room. He has one of the most wonderful, soothing voices you could ever imagine. I often describe his voice as being like a fine merlot poured into a red wine goblet.”

And it was a voice nurtured in school dramatics, honed on radio sportscasts and trained in Hollywood. He moved on to be a commercial pitchman, and then a pitchman for conservative politics. It all culminated in what became known as "the speech" for the Barry Goldwater Campaign.

“They showed it once nationally and then they ran it all around the country,” says Lyn Nofziger, who began working with Reagan in 1965 and served him for 20 years. Nofziger says the Goldwater speech turned an actor into a political factor to be dealt with, beginning with the governor's race in California.

“He went up and down the state for several months making speeches and seeing if there was any particular desire to have him run,” says Nofziger, “and he decided there was and so he ran. But it all goes back to "the speech."

By the time he ran for president 25 years later, Reagan was still giving a version of "the speech,” with his aw-shucks brand of wit, and perfect timing. Nowhere did his stage presence and poise show better than in a 1980 debate, with a one-liner that many credit with assuring him the job as our 40th president.

Jimmie Carter: “Governor Reagan again, typically is against such a proposal.”

Reagan: "...there you go again"

“It was a way of invoking laughter, but it was intended to deflate Jimmy Carter, which it did,” says Khachigain.

And there was another trademark picked up in Hollywood – a pause.

“He explained to me that he did that on purpose,” says Khachigain. “That was what he called a stage pause,

and it was an attention getter. We would actually write that into his speeches. We would start a sentence with 'Well, dot dot dot,’ and continue.”

If President Reagan's critics complained of too many tricks, too many studied gestures, the fact is they worked to perfection. After being cut down by an assassin’s bullet, he wondered aloud if the doctors were Republicans. And when he came out of the hospital he was funny and self deprecating.

Reagan: “The letter came from Peter Sweeney. He's in the 2nd grade in the Riverside school in Rockville Center, and he said, 'I hope you get well quick or you might have to make a speech in your pajamas.’”

“it was like the gipper is back. And that was the point and he knew it,” says Khachigain.

Few presidents could do as much with a laugh-line.

Reagan: “There are some things that are current today that I haven’t had time to get familiar with -- PacMan for example. I asked about it and somebody told me it was a round thing that gobbled up money. I thought that was Tip O'Neil.”

He joked about the government he led.

Reagan: “Where but in Washington would they call the department that's in charge of everything outdoors, everything outside, the department of interior?”

But most of all, he joked at his own expense.

Reagan: “When Pennsylvania was one of the original 13 states, little did I realize at the time that someday there would be 50.”

”Humor made him not only a tough guy to dislike, it made him a very tough guy to deal with if you were his opposition because humor is a very disarming thing,” says Nofziger.

Critics remarked about the president's convenient hearing problems, and Ken Khachigian admits it was just another actor's device...

“He'd go like this [hold hand to ear] and act like he couldn't hear. He could almost always hear the questions, I think, that were yelled at him,” says Khachigian.

By the time he ran for re-election in 1984, Reagan was 73 and some said he was showing his age, particularly in the first debate with Walter Mondale. But by the time the second debate came around, the old actor knew his lines, and he used them to devastating effect -- deflating the very issue that could have cost him the presidency.

Reagan: “I want you to know that also I will not make age an issue in this campaign. I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponents youth and inexperience.”

“The camera went to Mondale, Mondale was laughing hysterically and here he was the brunt of this, the rapier wit and he was gone,” says Khachigian. “He was history, in other words there was never any question anymore, we won it in a landslide.”

Above all, there was something comforting about Reagan, the way the wind blew his hair, the way he stood tall and strong, sometimes with a whimsical cock of the head, sometimes the way he held the podium. Democrats said he was just playing the part of a president. If so, he did it well.

“He would grab his arms over the edge of the lectern as if to be embracing it,” says Khachigian. “it said this was not an intimidating presence, this is an open presence, a relaxed presence.”

But Lyn Nofziger says it wasn't just appearances that made the speeches work. It was the ideas that really mattered to the president.

“One reason he was able to communicate those bedrock principles is because he believed them,” says Nofzinger. “If you are trying to sell something you don’t believe in, eventually the people catch on.”

President Reagan was a true believer. He believed in America and Americans. He was optimistic and funny and brave. His America was full of heroes and empty of doubt. But to see the him at his best was to see him in a time of national tragedy, like the Challenger disaster, speaking the words we all needed to hear in a way that only he could speak them.

Reagan: “We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for the journey and waved goodbye and slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God.”

Ronald Wilson Reagan was a surprisingly modest man, but he was also supremely confident. He knew what skills he had and he knew how to use them. Most of all, he knew what he wanted to use them for.

Reagan: “I won a nickname: the great communicator. But I never thought it was my style or the words I used that made a difference. It was the content, my friends, we did it. We weren’t just marking time, we made a difference. We made the city stronger, we made the city freer, and we left her in good hands. All in all, not bad, not bad at all. And so, goodbye, God bless you, and God bless the United States of America.

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