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  • Robert Farago

How I Almost Destroyed Nancy Reagan's Just Say No Campaign

The author was THIS close to undermining the First Lady

CNN wasn’t my first media gig. In the six years before joining the world’s first 24-hour TV news network, I’d been a reporter/writer for four major radio stations (including Boston’s WGBH), founded a college newspaper and produced a weekly public access TV program.

None of my skills prepared me for the mind-numbing, soul-crushing boredom of working for CNN.

My job title: video journalist (a.k.a., VJ). My pay: minimum wage. My responsibilities: camera, teleprompter, stage manager. I moved Camera 3 right or left two inches (on command), turned the knob on a tiny conveyor belt (with a camera pointing down at the anchor’s script) and told everyone on set to shut up when the commercials finished.

I’d worked factory jobs that were less of a daily grind. Hour after hour, day after day, week after week, month after month, it was the same shit, different wrapper. My world was filled with coked-to-the-gills anchors, reporters and execs; comely trustafarians (using their genetic gifts to get off the assembly line) and endlessly looping images of death and destruction. I was not a happy camper.

One fateful day, Nancy Reagan sat down on set with husband and wife anchors Don Farmer and Chris Curle. The First Lady was there to promote her “Just Say No” anti-drug campaign. I was positioned behind my Volkswagen-on-stilts studio camera, keeping Ms. Reagan in view and focus, trying not to laugh…

Ronald Reagan Junior - Pothead

During my Sophomore year at Tufts, in a rare, never-repeated gesture of fraternal solidarity, my brother invited me skiing in Aspen, Colorado. After an epic bus ride, I arrived in the Rocky Mountain retreat to hang with my eldest brother and… Ronald Reagan Jr.

President Reagan’s youngest son spent a year at Yale before joining the Joffrey Ballet. My brother was Ronnie’s college roommate for his Boola Boola sojourn. Assembling in Hunter S. Thompson’s home town, we partied like it was 1999 – a good ten years before Y2K brought the world’s computer systems to its knees (or not).

So there was Nancy Reagan not ten feet away, lecturing CNN’s audience on the dangers of illegal drugs. “The only way to stop abusing them is to stop using them,” she insisted. The questioning took a personal turn, as it usually does when Public Service Announcements masquerade as news. “How did your children avoid taking drugs?” Farmer asked Ms. Reagan.

I don’t remember the First Lady’s reply. I was too busy thinking about smoking marijuana with Ronnie Jr. Under the cover of a light snowstorm. Mrs. Reagan’s boy and I shared a bowl of primo Hawaiian on the chairlift up Ajax mountain. We toked out of my beloved meerschaum pipe, carved by Turkish craftsman in the shape of a naked woman.

Flash back to CNN…

I was fed-up with my job. I was fed-up with Mrs. Reagan’s hypocrisy. With hypocrisy in general. I may have been hungover. In any case, I was ready to undermine Nancy Reagan’s Just Say No campaign, live, on national television (albeit with less viewers than an Andy Griffith rerun).

The words “excuse me!” were on the tip of my tongue. The second I opened my mouth to speak truth to power, I saw him: a Secret Service agent standing behind Mrs. Reagan, staring at me. He shook his head gently. No. Don’t do it.

How did he know what I was about to say? Did he really? No clue. But I closed my mouth, kept my job and avoided throwing shade on the President’s wife’s War on Drugs. And Ronnie Jr.’s rep.

I eventually graduated from VJ to Videotape Editor, mastered the M*A*S*H-like modus operandi and loved my job. Needless to say, I never forgot the epic moment where I learned that discretion is the better part of valor. And the key to avoiding federal investigation.

Anyway, R.I.P. Nancy Reagan. It’s too bad your husband didn’t dodge a bullet like you did.

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