Single lines and alternate paths

I knew Reagan owed the presidency to a one liner he almost certainly did not write. (Edit — his second term, I should have specified.) Watch enough of the obit footage, and you’ll see a clip of his befuddled first debate with Walter Mondale — he clearly loses his train of thought, doesn’t know what to say, starts rambling nonsensically. One could blame it on early-stage Alzheimer’s, though honestly, it’s not too different from some of our current President’s performances. At any rate, after questions were reasonably raised about his age and competence, he dispelled them all — with the joke about how he wasn’t going to hold his opponent’s youth and inexperience against him. And, boom. That was it. He recited a clever one liner and the issue was put to rest.

And at the time, I thought, huh?

But there was another important one liner in his political career. And apparently he didn’t write that one either. You may remember the story:

CONCORD, N.H. – A debate, a microphone and one famous remark during the 1980 New Hampshire primary helped thrust Ronald Reagan to the presidency.
George H.W. Bush had scored an unexpected victory in the Iowa caucuses, and appeared to have the momentum in the days leading up to the New Hampshire primary. But a debate on Feb. 23, 1980, turned the tide in Reagan’s favor.

Bush’s strategy was to whittle the crowded race to himself and Reagan, and close the debate to the other candidates.

So Reagan’s campaign covered the rental for the hall, but when he tried to explain to the audience why the others should be included, the moderator called for Reagan’s microphone to be turned off.

Reagan snapped: “I paid for this microphone,” as Bush looked woefully on.

Reagan came out of the debate looking like a decisive leader, and went on to a landslide victory in the primary that led him to the Republican nomination and the presidency.

“That was the turning point in the national campaign,” said Sen. Judd Gregg, whose father, former Gov. Hugh Gregg, was Bush’s state campaign adviser. “His spontaneity in a time of high theater was devastating for Bush.”

Here’s the interesting part, according to reader Barry Rosenfeld:

But what no one ever seemed to notice was where this line “I paid for this microphone” came from. It came from a movie — a 1948 movie called “State of the Union” starring Spencer Tracy as a plain talking industrialist running for president. Tracy was making a radio speech and strayed from the lines his slick advisors had written in favor of something straight from his heart. The advisors tried to cut him off and Tracy dramatically says “I paid for this microphone!”

Figures. This was the guy who regularly confused his own movie roles with reality, after all.

Barry thinks that history might have turned out differently if more people had understood where Reagan got that line. I don’t know if he’s right or not, but speaking of alternate histories, there’s an odd little book that I’ve been thinking about lately, for obvious reasons: Time on My Hands, by Peter Delacorte, a sort of liberal wish-fulfillment book about a man who is given a time machine and a simple quest — to go back to the thirties and prevent Ronald Reagan from heading down the path which will eventually culminate in his Presidency. So naturally the time traveller becomes a contract screenwriter, befriends Reagan, and devises a plan in which Reagan will star in a movie based on the life of Garcia Lorca, thereby becoming so indelibly associated with the left that he can never become the Republican party’s salvation. Convoluted as that may sound, it’s a completely charming book, one of the surprises of which is that you actually end up liking ‘Dutch’ quite a lot, at least as the author portrays him. (The ending’s a bit ambiguous, though — hey Delacorte, if you’re out there, when do we get the damn sequel?)