WTF Fun Fact 13521 – Reagan’s Joke About Russia

It was August 11, 1984, when U.S. President Ronald Reagan delivered a joke that would reverberate far beyond the recording studio – in fact, Reagan’s joke about Russia had global consequences.

He was at a soundcheck for his weekly Saturday radio address. While testing the microphone, he said, “My fellow Americans, I’m pleased to tell you today that I’ve signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes.”

Those in the room chuckled. But the situation quickly escalated when the comment, meant to be off-the-record, was leaked to the public.

Global Consequences

The joke quickly made headlines and caused alarm both domestically and internationally. The comment coincided with heightened Cold War tensions, and people across the world anxiously speculated about the possibility of a nuclear standoff.

The Soviet Union, Reagan’s joking target, was not amused. Soviet troops reportedly went on high alert, and some media outlets said that Soviet ships temporarily moved out of their usual positions, causing the joke to momentarily shift into a potential global crisis.

When the joke leaked, media outlets had a field day. The incident sparked debates on the ethics of publishing off-the-record comments, the responsibilities of a world leader, and the heightened stakes of political rhetoric during a volatile time.

The media also questioned the humor behind the joke, leading to discussions about the appropriate boundaries for political satire.

Public Reaction to Reagan’s Joke about Russia

Public opinion was divided. While some dismissed the joke as a harmless, albeit tasteless, gaffe, others felt it was reckless. Protests broke out in multiple cities, and the incident stoked fears among a public already anxious about the Cold War.

Many felt that a world leader, especially the President of the United States, should exercise more caution with their words, given their broad implications.

Though the Soviet Union officially downplayed the incident, it did add another layer of frost to the already icy relationship between the two superpowers.

Diplomatic talks took a hit, and the event proved to be a setback in Reagan’s later attempts to engage the Soviet Union in disarmament negotiations. It served as a harsh reminder that words from global leaders, even in jest, can have significant diplomatic consequences.

Lessons Learned

In the years that followed, Reagan and other subsequent leaders seemed to have taken the lesson to heart.

The incident served as a case study of the importance of measured speech for politicians. Government officials underwent additional training and briefings on media interaction, emphasizing the risks of off-the-record comments leaking to the public.

Reagan faced significant criticism in the immediate aftermath, including from members of his own party.

While the incident did not directly contribute to a loss in the presidential election later that year, it did cast a long shadow over his foreign policy credentials.

Many historians argue that the incident was a turning point that led to increased scrutiny of Reagan’s diplomatic initiatives and strategies.

Enduring Legacy of Reagan’s Joke about Russia

Today, the incident is often cited in courses on political science, media ethics, and international relations. Instructors use it as an example of how easily words can escalate into global concerns. It’s a cautionary tale that has stood the test of time. Now, it’s a reminder to future generations of leaders to weigh their words carefully. Even when they think the microphones are off.

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WTF Fun Fact 12887 – The Reagan Astrology Connection

Ronald and Nancy Reagan believed in astrology. And they never tried to hide that – in fact, the Reagan astrology connection was confirmed by the White House in 1988.

The Reagans’ astrology beliefs

A report in Newsweek after Reagan was president hinted that the first family were believers in astrology. This make some people skeptical since the belief in the alignment of planets and stars having influence on human affairs raises some questions about presidential decision making. And since the Reagans seemed so mainstream, people had a hard time believing that they might live their lives in a way that was decidedly outside of the mainstream.

But the Reagans never hid it. Presumably, it didn’t come up a lot outside of the White House. But inside, Nancy Reagan, in particular, was a follower of astrology (which doesn’t mean she wasn’t also Christian, of course). But it would be a likely be a mistake to assume her husband just went along for the ride to make her happy.

In fact, former (but current at the time) White House spokesman, Marlin Fitzwater, told the New York Times in 1988 that Mrs. Reagan’s beliefs influenced some decision-making, especially when it came to scheduling important events.

It’s hardly any reason for concern. For his part, Ronald Reagan had assured anyone who asked that astrology never influenced his policy-making decisions. (Scheduling things on a Tuesday instead of a Friday or at 3pm instead of 4pm doesn’t typically change the course of human affairs.)

In other words, it’s interesting and surprising, but it’s not that big of a deal to most people.

Was there controversy about the Reagans’ astrological beliefs?

No one watched the White House with the kind of scrutiny we do today. There were no 24-hour news stations or websites, after all.

You’ll find the majority of the information about the role astrology played in the White House in the memoirs of Donald T. Regan (no relation, especially considering the spelling of the name) in a memoir called Inauguration After Midnight.

The book’s title references Reagan’s inauguration as Governor of California in January 1967 which took place after midnight – at 12:10 A.M. “News reports at the time said the decision was made to take advantage of favorable astrological portents,” said the Times, referencing information from officials.

According to the NYT (cited below), Fitzwater said “Mr. Fitzwater said Mrs. Reagan is particularly worried about the impact astrological portents can have on her husband’s safety. But he declined to say exactly how Mrs. Reagan had used astrological information.”

Nancy Reagan’s concerns

We can’t say for sure what the president believed, but we do know it was Nancy Reagan who consulted astrologers for the most part. In the White House response to the controversy in 1988, he said: ”It’s true that Mrs. Reagan has an interest in astrology. She has for some time, particularly following the assassination attempt in March of 1981. She was very concerned for her husband’s welfare, and astrology has been part of her concern in terms of his activities.”

Of course, the California inauguration would indicate that her concerns went back further.

In any case, the couple was seemingly bothered that people made a big deal out of it. ”They both feel it’s unfortunate and a distraction and hardly relevant to the business of government,” Fitzwater said.

A former White House aid also downplayed the role of astrology, saying that Mrs. Reagan simply believed her husband needed more downtime in his schedule. Of course, both things might be true. Nancy Reagon was well-known to be interested in astrology and didn’t hide her own interest.

The Evening News

It’s no surprise that the former First Lady may have become more interested in astrology after the assassination attempt on her husband in 1981. The NYT notes that Ted Koppel reported on the ABC News show “Nightline” that “he had learned that before the President was shot on March 30, 1981, an astrologer warned Mrs. Reagan that something bad would happen that day. Mr. Koppel declined to identify the source of his information.

Tracking presidential astrology

Reagan was still president when this came out, but it never did any damage to his reputation. It was simply titillating to people because we have an innate desire to peek into people’s private lives and react to whatever seems most salacious.

Even before the reports there were people tracking the Reagans’ interest in astrology since it was so out-of-the-oridinary, especially for the Reagan “brand.” Most people doubted the president would have come to astrology on his own and was never an avid believer but that the knowledge did have some impact on him.

The White House made light of the story in 1988, with Mr. Fitzwater opened his briefing by saying, ”I’ll take your first question at exactly 12:33 and a half.”

In any case, the Reagans’ interest in astrology was right in line with their life as celebrities in 1930s and 40s California. And Ronald Reagan would not have been the first president interested in astrology – both Roosevelts were as well.  WTF fun facts

Source: “White House Confirms Reagans Follow Astrology, Up to a Point” — The New York Times

WTF Fun Fact 12574 – John Hinckley Jr. Stalked Jimmy Carter

If the police had just looked at the journal sitting next to the guns would-be assassin John Hinckley, Jr. was trying to transport through the Nashville International Airport in 1980, they would have foiled his entire plot.

Of course, at the time, they had no idea Hinckley had plans to kill a U.S. president.

For those who don’t know the details, it didn’t matter much to Hinckley which president he shot. His only goal was to get the attention of actress Jodie Foster, who he had become obsessed with after seeing her in the 1976 Martin Scorsese film Taxi Driver. The film also starred Robert DiNero as Travis Bickle, a Vietnam vet and taxi driver with plans to assassinate a senator.

Creepily, Foster (who starred as child prostitute Iris in the film) was only 12 years old during filming. But in 1980, she was a freshman at Yale, and Hinckley was sending her letters that went unanswered.

Not content to be ignored, Hinckley made plans to emulate Travis Bickle but made his target even bigger – the president.

In 1980, Jimmy Carter was president, but on the campaign trail for reelection and running against Ronald Reagan. It appears that Hinckley’s first plan was to assassinate Carter, and he got pretty close at least twice – once in Dayton, OH, and once in Nashville, TN. Both times he got close to the president, but it appeared to be more of a trial run to ensure his plan would work. However, he was certainly capable of carrying out the plan in Tennessee because he was armed.

Despite deciding against shooting President Carter in Nashville, Hinckley would regroup. A scare at the airport in which security found multiple weapons in his luggage didn’t deter him. Neither did getting hauled into the Metro Nashville Jail, but that’s likely because he was quickly released on a small bond and paid $62.50 in total for his transgression (at least, the one people knew about).

Today we know that Hinckley’s plans were laid out in a journal he also kept in his luggage right next to those guns the police found. But no one opened it.

Of course, the very next year he would go on to shoot President Reagan in Washington, right across from the Secret Service headquarters. Reagan lived, and Hinckley was captured, but he was eventually found not guilty by reason of insanity in 1982 and handed over to a mental health institution. He was granted unconditional release in 2021. – WTF fun facts

Source: “Investigators Think Hinckley Stalked Carter” — The New York Times