Friday, March 11, 2011 at 6:53AM
Ronald Reagan's oft-quoted 1980 debate zinger, "I am paying for this microphone," became almost as instantly quotable as Charlie Sheen's "winning" rant last week. However, few remember what that declaration actually meant in the context of that Republican Primary Debate.
After Reagan's then-rival George Herbert Walker Bush edged him out by 2% in the Iowa caucuses, many pols saw the nomination battle as a two man race. A month later, the Nashua Telegraph newspaper set up a debate between Reagan and Bush exclusively, the only one that would exclude four of the six candidates, and it would be held only three days before the New Hampshire Primary. The Telegraph's plans almost fell through when the FEC cited that the format was unfair and declined to pay for the event, but the Reagan campaign volunteered to pick up the cost.
Reagan and Bush had the most to gain from a two-man debate, since a strong performance could propel either of them to a New Hampshire Victory. Reagan especially needed the edge, as he was down 4%, at 33% to Bush's 37%. However the morning of the debate, Reagan unexpectedly began to lobby the Nashua Telegraph and George Bush on behalf of the excluded candidates, insisting that they be allowed to participate. When his 11th hour effort was rebuffed, Reagan pulled a stunt that would go down in history.
Appearing on set with the excluded candidates in tow (Bob Dole, Howard Baker, John Anderson and Philip Crane), Reagan angrily insisted that the other candidates be included and proceeded to create a spectacle of his indignation. When the moderator refused to give in to his request and tried to proceed as originally planned, Reagan only acted out more. The moderator, having had enough, then asked to have Reagan's microphone cut off, at which point the candidate famously responded, "I am paying for this microphone Mr. Green!"
Another little known fact: the line Reagan used was actually borrowed from the movie The State of the Union with Spencer Tracy -- despite being criticized for his age, the former actor had the ability to quickly recall famous movie quotes, always in asset in any field or occupation.
Whether Reagan was feigning indignation or not, the tactic clearly paid off as the debate was largely overshadowed by the confrontation. Reagan showed leadership ability and a willingness to help the underdog and Bush was one-upped, appearing petty for supporting two-man-only contest. Bush later claimed to have been "set up" by Reagan's campaign. Probably so, but that's politics...