Throwback Thursday Video: Ronald Reagan on ‘The Tonight Show’ with Johnny Carson in 1975


BURBANK, CA, September 25, 2014 ( — This is a treat: Ronald Reagan, fresh out of the California governor’s office after eight years in Sacramento, sitting down on national TV with the undisputed king of late night, Johnny Carson. The two Midwesterners, who both went into radio before climbing to the top of their respective fields, share a surprisingly good natured interview, although Reagan is clearly in a defensive posture, knowing Carson’s politics. (It’s rather remarkable to see Carson suggest a flat tax in this video.)

This contains a few gems of Reaganite wit and wisdom: “If government would shut the doors and sneak away for about three weeks, we’d never miss them,” he said. He took a jab at bureaucracy, noting that the “permanent employees” of the government “determine the policy in this country more than does the Congress.”

Reagan showed how principled — and how little a “team player” — he could be by refusing to praise Republican President Gerald Ford’s handling of the economy. (Whip Inflation Now!) Rather than dutifully honor the president for vetoing the worst excesses of the overwhelmingly Democratic Congress, Reagan said America could do better. “When they give me a choice between a $53 billion deficit in the budget and an $80 deficit, when budget deficits are what’s causing inflation, I don’t see that there’s any room to be on either side of that argument,” he said, letting the wounded RINO to fend off a pack of hyenas. The knee-jerk Republican apologists — inside and outside the pro-life movement — could learn much from him.

(And yes, in retrospect, his remarks were ironic. Reagan would have killed to see a $53 billion budget deficit.)

When Carson asked him, “How do you balance the budget?” Reagan replied: “It’s like protecting your virtue. You have to learn to say no.”

At 6:42 into the video, Carson asks Governor Reagan if he would pursue the Republican presidential nomination in 1976. At this point, Reagan’s intentions were the greatest variable in American politics. His non-answer foreshadowed what we now know was coming: The 1976 cliffhanger primary contest, settled at the wire in Kansas City, followed by Reagan’s third presidential race, and what would be the last successful Republican presidency to date.

All this and Ed McMahon’s laugh, below.

Ben Johnson is U.S. Bureau Chief of, the guest host of Nothing But Truth with Crane Durhamon AFR Talk Radio, and the author of three books. His personal website is Connect with him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter.