When Nancy Reagan Told Kids to ‘Just Say No’

It was an unusual display from a sitting president. On September 14, 1986, Ronald Reagan and his wife, Nancy, positioned themselves on a White House sofa and looked into a television camera to make a rare joint address to the nation. The topic? The government’s war on drugs—a scourge so destructive that the First Lady had made it her chief concern since her husband had arrived in office almost six years earlier.

Nancy declared that there was no “moral middle ground” on the issue, and implored viewers to be “unyielding” and “inflexible” when it came to confronting drug use. The president spoke about new regulations on mandatory drug testing for federal employees and increased budgetary spending on drug education. One in 12 people smoked marijuana, he said, and the crack cocaine epidemic was growing out of control.

“Just say no,” Nancy said, repeating a phrase that had grown into a rallying cry for her campaign against illegal substances.

More than a pet project, Nancy’s efforts to reduce drug use took her across the country throughout the 1980s. She dropped in on TV shows and led rallies. She teamed up with Clint Eastwood and Pee-wee Herman for public service announcements in movie theaters. She urged her husband to get tougher with drug offenders, leading to sharp increases in the prison population.

Several years into her husband’s administration, it didn’t seem like much was changing. But for Nancy, “Just Say No” wasn’t an obligation of office—it bordered on an obsession. The only thing missing from her impassioned address that night was a measure both she and her husband had endorsed: the introduction of the death penalty for violent dealers.

Following the acid trips of the 1960s and the marijuana escapism of the 1970s, Americans had developed new and worrisome tastes in recreational drugs. In the 1980s, cocaine had become a party favor on par with punch bowls, with an estimated 10.4 million users snorting the stimulant in 1982 alone.

“Crack” cocaine, a variation made with baking soda and water so that it could be sold as a solid rock to smoke, was a cheaper alternative that came into prominence in the middle part of the decade. Public service announcements (“This is your brain on drugs”) helped fuel awareness of the issue, which fed fears of juveniles exploring their curiosity with dangerous street drugs.

When Ronald Reagan came to office in 1981, he quickly swore to re-prioritize the fight against substances society had deemed both physically and morally corrosive. He campaigned with vows to stamp out marijuana. Harsher prison sentences awaited dealers; increased federal spending to slow the flow of the drugs into the country was promised.

For Nancy, the issue came down to intervention: She was determined to reach kids and stigmatize drug use before they were compelled to try it, a goal that may have been fueled in some part by her daughter Patti’s struggles with substance abuse in the 1970s.

The message needed to be clear, concise, and damning. Nancy told the media that it originated during a classroom visit when a student raised her hand and asked the First Lady what to do if anyone offered drugs. “Just say no,” Nancy replied.

It would be more accurate to say that Nancy was influenced by Needham, Harper & Steers, an advertising agency that was enlisted by the Advertising Council of media volunteers to come up with an anti-drug campaign. In 1983, the firm invited Nancy in to present their “Just Say No” theme, which cautioned kids to avoid drugs and for parents to educate themselves about their dangers. Nancy told them that the themes were "exactly right" for her crusade.

As a buzz term, “Just Say No” had its intended effect. The phrase became ubiquitous both in Nancy’s numerous speaking engagements and in a series of commercials. Later that year, she appeared on the sitcom Diff’rent Strokes, where Arnold (Gary Coleman) was investigating drug use for his school newspaper. “Just say no” was her advice to Coleman and anyone thinking of snorting, smoking, or injecting any illicit substances.

“Just Say No” had taken on the energy of a revival meeting. Nancy spoke at the United Nations, where she vowed to clean up America’s streets; more than 12,000 clubs sprang up around the country with kids pledging to avoid drugs; she addressed assemblies with thousands of attendees, sometimes accompanied by child stars like Soleil Moon Frye, a.k.a. Punky Brewster.

Other times, Nancy would use a celebrity to prove her point, not endorse it. When Madonna appeared smoking marijuana in 1985’s Desperately Seeking Susan, Nancy criticized the film for glorifying drug use.

It all boiled down to an admonition—simply refuse to use—and that’s where critics found Nancy’s strategy lacking.

Despite her hundreds of personal appearances and the ad placements worth millions of dollars, the Reagans didn’t appear to be gaining any ground. Prison populations went up as a result of increased penalties for possession and distribution, but drugs were still entering American streets. “Just Say No” was an authoritative voice without much substance behind it. Why, kids wondered, should they just say no? Weren't there differences between drugs? Hadn't their parents experimented? What, exactly, was the danger?

By the time the Reagans exited the White House in 1989, some critics were summarizing Nancy’s efforts as misguided. The message was simplistic and condescending, and no data appeared to show the campaign had actually had its intended effect. Instead of educating would-be users or addicts, “Just Say No” relied on parroting—a technique kids easily spot and tend to avoid. D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education), a classroom spinoff of her efforts, was found to not make any difference over whether an adolescent tried drugs. Instead, the scare tactics that communicated that drugs were everywhere might have helped normalize them to some degree.

But not everyone agreed that “Just Say No” was ineffectual. According to the Office of National Drug Control Policy, 1.3 million people tried cocaine for the first time in 1981. By 1991, that number was down to 500,000. While Nancy may not have dissuaded young people from experimentation, the campaign may have contributed to awareness and motivation for at-risk youth to do their own research.

In the end, the Reagans did not see their expected results come to fruition. Nancy continued her anti-drug efforts after the couple left office, at one time under the shadow of her daughter Patti’s 1992 biography that claimed Nancy was once dependent on tranquilizers and sleeping aids.

Today, "Just Say No" exists mostly as a time capsule of very un-hip ads and questionable rhetoric. However the next stage of drug intervention materializes, it's likely that three syllables won't be nearly enough.

Good Fortune: The Story of Miss Cleo's $1 Billion Psychic Empire

The woman sat behind a table, tarot cards in front of her, a turban wrapped tightly around her head. In Jamaican-accented patois, she invited viewers to benefit from her gift of second sight. “Call me now,” Miss Cleo said, and she would reveal all.

Mostly, respondents wanted to know if a lover was cheating on them, though there was no limit to Miss Cleo's divinity. No question was too profound. She could speak with as much wisdom about concerns over financial choices as she could sibling rivalries. Her only challenge was time: Miss Cleo could connect with only a fraction of the people looking for her spiritual guidance, leaving callers in the hands of other (potentially psychically-unqualified) operators.

Still, Miss Cleo became synonymous with psychic phenomena, a way to consult with a medium without getting off your living room couch. From 1997 to 2002, she was a virtually inescapable presence on television—the embodiment of a carnival stereotype that annoyed native Jamaicans, who bristled at her exaggerated accent. It was nonetheless effective: Roughly 6 million calls came in to Miss Cleo over a three-year period, with $1 billion in telephone charges assessed.

Not long after, the companies behind Miss Cleo would be forced to give half of that back amidst charges that they had misled consumers. Despite being a cog in the machine, Miss Cleo herself was vilified. Of the $24 million her hotline raked in monthly, she claimed to have earned just 24 cents a minute, or approximately $15 an hour.

Most people didn’t know she was born in Los Angeles, not in Jamaica; that her real name was Youree Dell Harris; and that her late-night infomercial promising psychic assistance was little more than performance art.

 

Harris may have been raised in California, but Miss Cleo was born in Seattle. While living in Washington in the 1990s, Harris tried her hand at playwrighting, authoring a play titled For Women Only under the name Ree Perris, which she performed at Seattle's Langston Hughes Performing Arts Center. In it, Harris wrote and portrayed a Jamaican woman named Cleo, a clear predecessor to the character that would later pop up in television ads.

After producing three plays, Harris left Seattle amid allegations that she had taken grant money from the Langston Hughes Advisory Council, leaving some of the cast and crew unpaid. (Harris later said she left Seattle due to wanting to distance herself from a bad relationship. She told colleagues she had bone cancer and was leaving the area but that they would be paid at a later date.) She ended up in Florida, where she responded to an ad seeking telephone operators. Harris taped a commercial in character as Cleo—the hotline added the “Miss”—for $1750 and then agreed to monitor a phone line for a set wage. Operators made between 14 and 24 cents a minute, she later said, and she was on the higher end.

Psychic premonitions can be difficult to validate, though Harris never claimed to be a medium. In her own words, she was from a “family of spooky people” and was well-versed in voodoo thanks to study under a Haitian teacher. The Psychic Readers Network and Access Resource Services, a set of sister companies that used workers sourced by a third party for their hotlines, recoiled at the word voodoo and declared her a psychic instead.

If Harris was the genuine article, many of her peers were not. As subcontractors who were not employed by the Psychic Readers Network or Access directly, some responded to ads for “phone actors” and claimed they were given a script from which to work. (Access later denied that operators used a script.) The objective, former "psychics" alleged, was to keep callers on the line for at least 15 minutes. Some customers, who were paying $4.99 a minute for their psychic readings, received phone bills of $300 or more.

When the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) began responding to complaints in 2002, it was not because Harris was portraying a character or because she may have not been demonstrably psychic. It was because the Psychic Readers Network and Access were accused of deceptive advertising. Miss Cleo would urge viewers to call a toll-free 800 number, where operators would then refer them to a paid 900 line to reach a psychic. Miss Cleo also pledged that the first three minutes were free. That was true, though those first three minutes were largely spent on hold.

When people began to dispute their phone charges, Psychic Readers Network and Access were alleged to have referred accounts to collection agencies. Even if a telephone carrier like AT&T canceled the charges, customers would still find themselves subject to harassment over unpaid debt.

Individual states like Missouri and Florida sued or fined the companies, but it was the FTC that created the largest storm cloud. Of the $1 billion earned through the hotline, $500 million remained uncollected from stubborn or delinquent consumers. In a complaint and subsequent settlement, the FTC ordered those debts canceled and imposed a $5 million fine on the companies. Psychic Readers Network and Access did not admit to any wrongdoing.

As for Miss Cleo: Harris was only briefly named in the Florida lawsuit before she was dropped from it; the FTC acknowledged that spokespersons couldn’t be held liable for violations. But the association was enough, and newspaper reporters couldn’t resist the low-hanging fruit. Most headlines were a variation of, “Bet Miss Cleo didn’t see this one coming.”

 

Outed as a faux-Jamaican and with her Seattle past further damaging her reputation, Harris faded from the airwaves. Her fame, however, was persistent. She recorded a voice for a Grand Theft Auto: Vice City game for a character that strongly resembled her onscreen psychic. Private psychic sessions were also in demand, with Harris charging anywhere from $75 to $250 per person. Her Haitian-inspired powers of deduction, she said, were genuine.

Eventually, enough time passed for Miss Cleo to become a source of nostalgia. In 2014, General Mills hired her to endorse French Toast Crunch, a popular cereal from the 1990s that was returning to shelves. Following both the Grand Theft Auto and General Mills deals, Psychic Readers Network cried foul, initiating litigation claiming that the Miss Cleo character was their intellectual property and that Harris's use was a trademark and copyright violation. General Mills immediately pulled the ads. (The argument against Rockstar Games, which produced Grand Theft Auto, was late in coming: Psychic Readers Network brought the case in 2017, 15 years after the game’s original release. The lawsuit is ongoing.)

Unfortunately, Harris’s continued use of the image would shortly become irrelevant. She died in 2016 at age 53 following a bout with cancer. Obituaries identified her as “Miss Cleo” and related her longtime frustration at being associated with the FTC lawsuit. “According to some articles, I’m still in jail,” she told Vice in 2014. Instead, she was where she had always been: Behind a table, listening, and revealing all.

When 'Courage' Caused Controversy for Dan Rather

Kevin Winter, Getty Images
Kevin Winter, Getty Images

In early 1981, Dan Rather was profiled by a number of media outlets as he prepared to take over as news anchor of CBS Evening News that March. The venerable news program had been headlined by Walter Cronkite for the previous 19 years, with Cronkite typically signing off each broadcast by telling viewers, “And that’s the way it is.”

Speaking to journalists, Rather didn’t give any indication if or when he might adopt his own signature closing statement, a tradition in news exemplified by Cronkite, Edward R. Murrow (“Good night and good luck”), and Charles Osgood (“See you on the radio”), among others. But in one October 1981 interview, Rather did mention that one of his favorite words was courage.

“[Ernest] Hemingway thought that courage was grace under pressure,” Rather told The Boston Globe. “When it comes to courage, I have not been put to the test.”

Just five years later, Rather would find himself the focus of a situation that, while not necessarily requiring courageousness, tested his resolve in the face of public ridicule. It started when he concluded a summer newscast with a pithy send-off that was part self-help advice, part personal message, and somewhat confusing.

“And that’s the CBS Evening News for this summer-ending Labor Day,” he said. “Dan Rather reporting from New York.”

Rather paused, then added, “Courage. Good night.”

That an innocuous, two-syllable word like courage could cause such a stir is attributable in part to the landscape of the news media of the 1980s. In addition to newspapers, Americans got their information primarily from the three major networks: CBS, NBC, and ABC. Fox, which launched in 1986, didn’t offer primetime news programming; CNN, which debuted in 1980 and pioneered the 24-hour news cycle, didn’t hit its hard news stride until the 1990s (it was regularly referred to as the Chicken Noodle Network during its first decade on the air). As a result, the networks placed great emphasis on the approach and style of their news programming.

Contrasted against his counterparts—Tom Brokaw at NBC and Peter Jennings at ABC—Rather was considered a stern presence on television. The Rather “stare,” as one television critic put it, defied viewers to question the veracity of each report. Management urged Rather to lighten his tone, first by getting him to wear V-neck sweaters, then by interjecting misplaced quips into his reports. (“Ready, set, Gorbachev!” Rather declared before one segment on the then-Soviet Union leader.)

Still, an emphasis on human interest stories and audience loyalty kept the CBS Evening News on top of the ratings during the first few years of Rather’s tenure. The broadcast finished first among the three news programs for 200 straight weeks.

Then, in the summer of 1986, it fell behind. In the mercurial world of news, there was no one specific reason. Brokaw, whose program took the lead, was well-liked; but Rather bristled at suggestions of adopting a lighter tone and was adamant about returning to harder news.

When he came back from an August vacation in time for the Labor Day broadcast on September 1, 1986, he had decided to take a new approach to concluding the broadcast. “Courage” was added before Rather told viewers to have a good night. To some, it was peculiar. To media observers, it was a sharp departure from the kind of objectivity expected of journalists. Was Rather advising viewers to grow a backbone? Was he dismayed at the state of affairs? Others used it as fodder for comic takes in editorials.

Attempts to parse his use of the word went unaided by Rather himself, who cautioned people not to read into it. “Don’t overanalyze it,” he said. “There’s no deep, hidden meaning.” It was just a salutation he had used with friends for years and one that also happened to be one of his father’s favorite words. Rather used it to sign off on some of his radio broadcasts in the 1970s.

“If feels right to me and I think the audience will be comfortable with it,” he said.

CBS executives tried to talk him out of it. “I’m the only one who likes it,” Rather said of the internal response. Howard Stringer, a CBS Evening News producer who had just been named president of the CBS news division, said it was Rather’s “right” to close the broadcast however he liked, but stopped short of endorsing the habit.

Rather did it on Tuesday of that week, and again on Wednesday, but with a twist: Following a Bill Moyers report on the Texas-Mexico border, Rather said coraje, the Spanish word for courage. When that was met with derision, he labeled it an “ill-advised lark.”

Ultimately, Rather's sign off experiment was short-lived. It ended that Friday, with the anchor again wishing “courage” on his viewers. The following Monday, it was back to business as usual, with reports claiming that executives were finally able to convince the broadcaster to abandon his closing statement. September ended with the CBS Evening News again trailing the NBC Nightly News by one-half a ratings point.

Rather had the last word—of sorts—when he ended his tenure as the CBS Evening News anchor in March 2005. For his final broadcast, he looked into the camera and made one final statement. “And to each of you, courage,” he said.

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