Reagan, an announced candidate for re-election, was preparing for his brief weekly address on National Public Radio at his Santa Barbara, Calif., ranch on Aug. 11, 1984. As part of his pre-speech, non-over-the-air sound check just moments before the broadcast, Reagan made the following joke:
"My fellow Americans, I'm pleased to tell you I just signed legislation which outlaws Russia forever. The bombing begins in five minutes."
The embarrassing comment was a parody of the actual opening line in his prepared remarks: "My fellow Americans, I'm pleased to tell you that today I signed legislation that will allow student religious groups to begin enjoying a right they've too long been denied, the freedom to meet in public high schools during nonschool hours."
Unfortunately Reagan, whose career actually began as a radio announcer in Iowa, was a victim of what's known as a "hot mic" or "live mic," a microphone inadvertently left on to broadcast or record off-the-record remarks.
The gaffe was not available to most reporters. CBS and CNN, the broadcasters covering the address, declined to air Reagan's foreign policy faux pas. Yet the incident became a source of news the following day.
Contrary to its place in history, the joke was not broadcast over the air, by NPR or anyone else, but was leaked soon after it occurred. Most Americans found it humorous -- an example of Reagan's folksy and populist speaking demeanor. However, leaders of the Soviet Union were outraged.
A television commentator on Moscow's nightly news program charged:
"Reagan blurts out what he is thinking, that is, to outlaw Russia and to start bombing in five minutes. This is a joke. But this is also a secret dream which was allowed to escape. It is simple-mindedness, mildly speaking, which characterizes the view of the president on world problems."
The Soviet state-run news agency Tass said "it is simple-mindedness, mildly speaking, which characterizes the view of the president on world problems. President Reagan's irresponsible attitude to the key issues of our times has touched off a wave of indignation, both in the United States itself and outside it." It called the joke "a very vivid reflection of the convictions of the United States President."
The White House never apologized, or even commented on the incident afterward.
An issue remains whether any pressure was put on White House reporters to overlook the story. Reagan's press secretary Larry Speakes allegedly called broadcasting executives, asking their reporters bury the incident.
Ed Turner, a CNN executive, said at the time, "There is a network agreement that was reached in October 1982 that any presidential off-the-cuff remarks just prior his radio speech would not be used on the air."
Peter Kendall of CBS invoked the same rule, adding, "I certainly didn't speak with any of them (White House representatives). As far as I know they didn't call anyone (at CBS) in New York. They definitely didn't call anyone in Washington."
Speakes later told UPI he did not call reporters' supervisors to suppress information about the embarrassment.
In October 1984, the independent U.S. military newspaper Pacific Stars and Stripes, quoting Japan's Yomiuri Shinbun newspaper, claimed the Soviet Union's army in the Far East was briefly placed on alert after Reagan's remarks were made public.
For Reagan, a president with a background in show business, speech-making came easy, as did occasional blunders. Prior to his threat to bomb the Soviet Union, he was caught criticizing Soviet Union leaders before a speech on Poland's transition from Communism.
Then in July 1985, immediately preceding a nationally-televised address on the release of 39 Americans held prisoner in Lebanon, the sound check microphones caught Reagan again. This time, he said, "Boy, I saw 'Rambo' last night. I know what to do the next time this happens," a reference to the film Rambo: First Blood II, in which an American, played by Sylvester Stallone, rescues prisoners of war in North Vietnam in an orgy of violence.
After that incident, Speakes was furious when news organization reported Reagan's wisecrack, saying, "The networks failed to honor their pledge to keep microphones closed." Asked if he thought Reagan's remarks could be damaging, Speakes said, "Well, you never know."
Just as tensions certainly continue to linger between the U.S. and Russia, the open microphone, and its way of circulating confidential comment, continues to bedevil political leaders. In March 2012, President Barack Obama was caught asking Russian President Dmitry Medvedev for "space" and "flexibility" until after U.S. presidential elections, on the part of Medvedev's successor, Vladimir Putin, in handling a reduction of nuclear weapons stockpiles. Obama clarified his comments, a day later, to reporters.
"It's a hell of a pinpoint operation," Kerry said to the unidentified aide, a reference to an Israeli airstrike on Gaza. After the aide noted the combat in Gaza was escalating, Kerry could be heard saying, "We've got to get over there. I think we ought to go tonight."
During the interview, Kerry was played an audio transcription of the brief conversation. He restated his position that the United States supports Israel's right to self-defense, and a State Dept. statement, referring to the off-the-record conversation, noted Kerry's comments were consistent with U.S. foreign policy and Kerry's previous official statements.