Meet The Microphone Ronald Reagan Paid For At The Famous Debate In Nashua

Dec 5, 2015

It is perhaps the most famous moment in New Hampshire primary history: a packed auditorium, Ronald Reagan, and the moment he said: "I am paying for this microphone, Mr. Green!” [sic]

Of course, until that moment in 1980, it wasn't actually Reagan's microphone. It was a Bob Molloy microphone. "One of the many," says Molloy, who has been doing sound and video contracting for New Hampshire events since 1976.

In February 1980 he was working in the auditorium at Nashua High School, where the Nashua Telegraph was set to lead a debate between Reagan, the former governor of California, and George H.W. Bush, who had just won in Iowa and was aiming for a New Hampshire win to clear a path toward the Republican nomination.

That was the original plan, anyway. The Federal Election Commission said if the newspaper wanted to sponsor the televised debate, it would have to invite all seven Republican candidates. 

In the end the Reagan team agreed to pay for the one-on-one event – while secretly inviting the other candidates to attend. Reagan staffer Rick Ahearn stashed extra tables and chairs behind the stage and found Molloy as he prepared for the debate.  “I had the check in my pocket for Bob Molloy," Ahearn recalls. He says it was a way of saying to Molloy, "remember now, you’re working for us, you get it at the end of the night. I didn’t tell him what was going to transpire, I just showed him the check.”

As the event got underway, Reagan brought four candidates to the stage, Senators Bob Dole of Kansas and Howard Baker of Tennessee, and Illinois Representatives John Anderson and Phil Crane. He then asked the moderator, Nashua Telegraph editor Jon Breen, that they be allowed to participate alongside Bush and himself. 

Bush's campaign had opposed adding the other candidates, in the hopes of winnowing the GOP field to just Bush and Reagan. Breen, meanwhile, insisted on keeping the original agreement for a one-on-one debate.

As Reagan pressed again, Breen made a request to Molloy. “Would the sound man please turn Mr. Reagan’s mic off for a minute?" he said, to loud jeers from the Reagan supporters in the auditorium. 

Reagan staffers stood over Bob Molloy’s shoulder, telling him in colorful language he was not to touch that soundboard. But Molloy says they had nothing to worry about.

"I would never turned his microphone off for a couple reasons," he says. "Number one, I would never have been that rude to a man who was a guest in that auditorium. Number two, eventually I’ve got to turn a microphone on. Eventually he's going to speak. He’ll wait. And more importantly, he, in fact, did pay for the microphone."

So the microphone stayed on, and the rest is history.

If you’re looking for the Reagan microphone today, you’ll find it on display at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California.

It still has a yellow sticker on the base that reads: “Molloy Sound and Video Contractors, Manchester, New Hampshire.”