By David Dale June 7, 2004
Ronald Reagan was a collector of jokes, with a genius for telling them at the wrong moment. During my term as the Herald's New York correspondent in the mid-1980s my hobby was collecting Reaganisms.
Interviewed on radio talkback, he identified one caller's accent as Italian-American, and proceeded: "How do you tell the Italians at a cockfight? They're the ones who bet on the duck. And how do you tell if the Mafia's involved? The duck wins."
The complaints poured in. According to Roger Stone, Mr Reagan's campaign manager at the time: "Italian politicians in our camp were calling to get off the bandwagon. No-one actually resigned, but many of them were mad enough to."
At an economic summit in Venice he proved he was not anti-Italian by warming up the press corps thus: "A gondolier was singing O Sole Mio and God looked down and wondered what would happen if he removed a quarter of his brain. The gondolier sang O Sole, O Sole. Then God removed another quarter of his brain, and he sang O So, O So. Then God removed three quarters of his brain, and he started singing When Irish Eyes Are Smiling."
That was greeted with coolness, but the president pointed out that his own ancestry was Irish.
He had the CIA compiling dossiers of Russian jokes, and would insert them randomly into speeches, to the despair of his handlers: "A Russian goes to buy a car at the official car lot and is told it will be delivered in 10 years. 'Would that be in the morning or the afternoon?' he asks. 'Ten years from now, what difference does it make?' the salesman asks. 'Well,' says the buyer, 'The plumber's coming in the morning.' "
Asked what he was going to do about the trebling of the budget deficit during his first term, Mr Reagan responded: "Why should I do anything about the deficit? It's big enough to look after itself".
My favourite was testing the microphone before a radio address with this announcement: "This is the president. We have declared Russia illegal. The bombing starts in five minutes."