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Last Updated: Saturday, 5 June, 2004, 21:34 GMT 22:34 UK
Reagan: The great communicator

Ronald Reagan
Reagan admitted reading from cue cards

A hand cupped to his ear, Ronald Reagan made an art form of feigning deafness in the presence of reporters.

Throughout the 1980s, ladies and gentlemen of the press would huddle to hurl questions as their leader strode across the White House lawn to board the Marine One helicopter.

"Mr President, is it true you supplied weaponry to the Contras?"

"Mr President, please tell us about the healthy, growing, vigorous economy."

Questions, however, were inevitably frustrated by a smiling president, employing the "Shucks, I just can't hear you guys" tactic.

Ronald Reagan
Reagan's style won over the American people

The Reagan administration had its own, sometimes fumbling, way of dealing with the press - give them short and sweet conferences, delivered by a president reading cue cards, and call time very shortly afterwards.

The cynical speculated that the president was not intellectually equipped to field rogue lines of inquiry.

Yet, among the many things he was called (Dutch by his dad, Gipper by his public), the dignified name of the Great Communicator was the one that stuck.

Expertly crafted by the likes of Pat Buchanan, his speeches were designed to strike at the heart of a shared, feel-good, American identity.

From the "Evil Empire" rhetoric as the arms race escalated, to poetic eulogy after the deaths of the Challenger astronauts, his simple "I'm in it with you" style struck home - and helped bond his famous Teflon exterior.

Pat Buchanan
Pat Buchanan, one of Reagan's writers
The "It's Morning in America Again" campaign of 1984 may have prompted a few to grumble "What's so great about mornings?" But in terms of snaring votes, it was a winner.

And testimony to the man's wit and charm is abundant.

The International Herald Tribune said the former actor's chosen political weapon was "the deft one-liner".

During a 1980 debate with George Bush - off the back of which he won the Republican presidential nomination - he used the old Spencer Tracy line, saying, "I paid for this microphone."

And in a debate later that year, he told Jimmy Carter, "There you go again."

Ted Koppel of NBC News once said, "Ronald Reagan has this wonderful communicator's ability to convey to the public: 'I know you're smarter about some things than I am, and I know there are some things we both perhaps don't understand as well as we'd like.

Jimmy Carter
Jimmy Carter was on the receiving end of Reagan's wit
'I know that experts drive you crazy like they sometimes drive me crazy. Let's see if we can get right to the heart of this issue.

'We're talking about freedom, the American way, evil empires, patriotism, some of the old eternal values that seem to have been shunted aside.' Ronald Reagan rarely, if ever, talks over the public's head. The public clearly responds very positively to that."

Governor Pete Wilson once paid tribute to Mr Reagan's ability to poke fun at himself.

Unveiling a statue of the former president outside the Reagan Presidential Library in California, Wilson said, "He had that self-deprecating wit and charm that made him immensely likeable."

Asked in 1966 what kind of governor he would be, Ronald Reagan replied, "I don't know, I've never played a governor."

His touchy-feely communicating skills, however, sometimes ran away with themselves, roaming way over the tight borders of truth and reality.

Ronald Reagan
Reagan's words came from "the heart of a great nation"
He famously managed to bring a tear to the eye of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir with a tale of how, at the end of World War II, he had been present at the liberation of the Nazi death camps.

The tale turned out to be a tall one. Ronald Reagan spent the entire wartime in Hollywood, narrating training films for the armed forces.

Almost 30 years down the line, Ronald Reagan resorted to another adage from his thespian days, "A great actor always knows when it's time to leave the stage."

His hand-written letter to the American public at the end of 1994 announced his exit from public life - and the fact that he had developed Alzheimer's disease.

In 1989, he had told reporters, "I won the nickname the great communicator. But I never thought it was my style that made a difference - it was the content.

"I wasn't a great communicator, but I communicated great things, and they didn't spring full blown from my brow, they came from the heart of a great nation, from our experience, our wisdom, and our belief in the principles that have guided us for two centuries."

Ronald Reagan: Challenger
Ronald Reagan's speech to the nation after the deaths of the Challenger astronauts

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