02/28/2014 12:06 pm ET Updated Apr 30, 2014

Leadership by Grit

Thirty-three years ago this week, Ronald Reagan showed how he made a great president and leader, culminating in his epic performance at the Reykjavik summit which proved pivotal in ending the Cold War.

"I am paying for this microphone, Mr. Green," Reagan -- ever bad with names -- lashed out at Jon Breen in New Hampshire. Breen's newspaper, the Nashua Telegraph, sought a two-man debate between leading candidates Reagan and George H.W. Bush. Other GOP contenders, foremost Bob Dole, considered this restricted format unfair, and Reagan, ever generous, agreed. When Breen refused to open the debate to the other GOP candidates, Reagan agreed to pay for the facilities himself.

On that day in late February 1981, the traveling press corps expected just another primary debate. Instead, they witnessed the grit of the seemingly-genteel Reagan after Breen ordered the soundman to turn off Reagan's microphone. Reagan's instinctive lash-out -- "I am paying for this microphone, Mr. Green!" -- brought the house down, as the audience and even his GOP opponents cheered wildly.

Reagan later reflected back on it: "For some reason, my words hit the audience, whose emotions were already worked up, like a sledgehammer. The crowd roared and just went wild. I may have won the debate, the primary - and the nomination - right there." Ace Washington Post reporter David Broder sure thought so, as he often spoke of the electric effect of Reagan's stance. Here, he and others concluded, was a different kind of candidate.

And soon a different kind of President. When, in his initial months in office, the air controllers went on strike, against the contract each had signed, he fired the lot of them.

And when, at the critical summit in Reykjavik late on Sunday October 12, 1986, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev wished to crimp SDI, Reagan staunchly refused. The meeting broke up and within minutes they were standing at curbside outside Hofdi House, where they had met. Gorbachev tried to soften the summit collapse by muttering, "I don't know what I could have done differently."

"Well," Reagan said according to the most sources, "you could have said 'yes!'" and turned away in Nashua, New Hampshire-like fury.

From that refusal, seemingly so disastrous as it helped end Reykjavik in utter failure, later proved so fortuitous as it helped end the Cold War in stellar success.

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