Category: This Date in History

The End of the Press’s Love Affair with Ronald Reagan – November 19, 1986 Press Conference

Ronald Reagan had saved by far his best work as an actor for the latter days of his life and the greatest role of all – President of the United States. He earned “The Great Communicator” moniker with folksy, genial anecdotes, and inspired a remarkable deference from an openly admiring press. That began to change with this press conference on November 19, 1986, as for the first time many saw Reagan struggle to answer the questions of an unusually aggressive White House press corps regarding the secret sale of weapons to Iran in exchange for the release of U.S. hostages, and openly questioned his credibility.

Courtesy of the Reagan Library, where you may also read a full transcript.

Excerpt on this press conference from On Bended Knee, The Press and the Reagan Presidency, by Mark Hertsgaard:

In a country where politics had increasingly become a contest of images rather than ideas, there was a certain bizarre inevitability about a B-grade movie star finally being elected President. Administration officials usually played down Reagan’s acting abilities, conceding at most that his personality was what made him such a good salesman. But in a not-for-attribution interview, one former White House aide made a rare admission: “He’s an actor. He’s used to being directed and produced. He stands where he is supposed to and delivers his lines, he reads beautifully, he knows how to wait for the applause line. You know how some guys are good salesmen but can’t ask the customers to give them the order? This guy is good for asking for the order, and getting it.”

If Reagan was the star, Mike Deaver was the director who knew just what it took to inspire the best possible performance from his man. Such relationships, at their best, are a product of a certain delicate chemistry between the two individuals involved, and thus are virtually impossible to replicate. After leaving the White House, Deaver noticed the difference in Reagan’s public persona, particularly during his disastrous November 19, 1986, press conference about the administration’s arms sales to Iran. “He wasn’t well prepared for that,” he remarked. “Particularly on an issue like that, the last thing you want to do is brief him or cram him full of answers, because the answers were all there. Reagan is basically a performer. What you really need to do is what a director would do, and that is set the stage and get his mind in the right position. He should have bounced into that press conference. [Instead] he walked down that hall. Somebody probably told him, ‘Now, be serious tonight.’ Absolutely wrong coaching!”