The Great Communicator was nothing short of a public-speaking acrobat, as we learn from this yarn from President Reagan speechwriter Peter Robinson (credited for “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall”).
In an interview with The Politic, Robinson tells of a time when a hotel ventilation system kicked on about a third of the way through Reagan’s speech and blew his pages in every direction:
Reagan began picking them up and the audience felt tense—it was an embarrassing moment—and he picked them up and spent a moment at the podium trying to put them back in order. Imagine if you just took a deck of cards and threw it into the air. It would take you a while to put them back in order.
He was aware that the audience was tense and fidgety. He tried to break the tension by saying, “well if I don’t get these texts back in order pretty soon, I’m going to have to tell a speech.” And they chuckled a little bit. As it turned out, he did not take the time to put the cards back in order before restarting the speech. But he understood the speech. He would glance down from time to time, he would get the point, and he would adlib a transition from one point to another.
So he gave the speech in a different order than I had written it, and the performance was absolutely flawless. Nobody noticed; it didn’t occur to anybody that he was having any trouble with the texts at all.