Reagan was often accused by critics of not working very hard, and he responded with this characteristic jibe. We now know that the critics were wrong about his work ethic. Read through his diaries or look at the copies of his handwritten speeches and radio scripts, and you see that this was a man who worked very hard on communicating ideas.
And one of the things he worked hardest on was humor.
Reagan told jokes to people he met while searching for votes, and to foreign leaders. Sitting down with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev at a summit meeting, he told a cutting joke: Two guys are standing in line waiting for vodka. Finally one grew impatient and says, "This is ridiculous. I'm going to go and kill Gorbachev." He leaves and comes back 20 minutes later. "Did you do it?" his friend asks him. "No, he responds. That line was even longer than this line!"
Other times he used jokes to poke fun at sophisticates, in a fashion similar to Will Rogers. "I feel a little bit like the old farm gentleman who was in the bar one day," he told a crowd in 1983, "and two gentlemen with much more knowledge and sophistication than he had were discussing nuclear energy. And finally, aware of his presence and thinking they'd have a little joke, one of them said to the old farmer, 'Where would you like to be in the event of a nuclear explosion?' And the old boy said, 'Someplace where I could say, 'What was that?'"
In other instances, he took sly swipes at the media and cracked a line with a gentle smile. "It's my job to solve all the country's problems," he once told reporters, "and it's your job to make sure no one finds out about it."
When there were problems in Panama and Congress was considering economic sanctions, Reagan cracked, "If the Congress wants to bring the Panamanian economy to its knees, why doesn't it just go down there and run the country?"
His humor worked because it was said with good cheer and had more than a hint of truth in it. Who could deny that the media feeds off of negativity? Who could deny that Congress can make a mess of things?
Sometimes his humor wasn't about politics at all, but just about plain old life. "I can define middle-aged," he said. "That's when you're faced with two temptations, and you choose the one that'll get you home at nine o'clock."
People have the impression that Reagan often relied on speechwriters to provide him with his best lines. There is no doubt that Reagan had some good speechwriters, but the humor was innate to the man. He was funny as governor of California and 20 years later as president.
The writers were different, but his sense of humor was the same. And his spontaneous humor, cracks done on the fly, was often the best.
While being rushed to the hospital after he was shot in 1981 he cracked to the doctors, "I hope you are all Republicans." And while governor of California he could be quick with a quip. While watching some student protests with aide Lyn Nofziger during the 1960s, they spotted a long-haired guy, who seemed a bit spaced out, waving a "Make Love, Not War" sign in the air. "Look at him, Lyn," Reagan said. "He doesn't look like he's capable of either."
In another instance as governor, he was meeting with a group of students who began to lecture him about how the older generation couldn't understand them. They pointedly told Reagan that his generation didn't "get it"; they were growing up in an era with nuclear weapons, jet airplanes and men shot into space.
"You're right," Reagan replied. "We didn't have any of those things. We invented them."
Who can't see the innate truth and genius in that?
Reagan critics called him an amiable dunce, often because he was a generally easygoing person. Humor played a part in that. But let there be no doubt. Humor was for Reagan a way to have a good laugh, but also to convey truth. And it often worked covertly, without the recipient of the joke even seeing the truth right away.
So to his critics, who believe that Reagan was a lightweight storyteller, all I have to say is the joke is on you.
Peter Schweizer is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, editor of Bigpeace.com and author of several books about Ronald Reagan, including "Reagan's War" (Doubleday). He also co-edited "Grinning With the Gipper: Wit, Wisdom and Wisecracks of Ronald Reagan."
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