[W]ith a government that is regularly begged for relief — these days, from mortgage woes, health-care costs and tax burdens — and with every presidential hopeful making daily promises to address these woes, it might be worth encouraging the winning candidate to think twice (or even 8 or 10 times) before rushing off to do good.Reading this terrific essay, I thought it should be necessary to acknowledge the famous Ronald Reagan line: "The nine most terrifying words in the English language are, 'I'm from the government and I'm here to help.'"
At first, I thought, well, maybe you can't do that in an issue of The New York Times that features a big Frank Rich essay called "Ronald Reagan Is Still Dead." ("[T]he G.O.P. is running on empty, with no ideas beyond the incessant repetition of Reagan’s name.")
But then I searched the NYT archive. I found the transcript of Reagan's August 13, 1986 news conference that contained the line. [Restricted access link.] Since then, however, the New York Times has never printed the entire Reagan quote and has only used the final 9-word quip on 3 occasions.
1. August 22, 2006:
In the lexicon of American business, “cynicism” means doubt about the benevolence of market forces, and it is a vice of special destructiveness. Those who live or work in Washington, however, know another variant of cynicism, a fruitful one, a munificent one, a cynicism that is, in fact, the health of the conservative state. The object of this form of cynicism is “government,” whose helpful or liberating possibilities are to be derided whenever the opportunity presents.This was from Thomas Frank. Of course, the author of "What’s the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America" thinks this cynicism is wrong.
Remember how President Reagan claimed to find terror in the phrase, “I’m from the government and I’m here to help”?
2. October 21, 2001:
Since Sept. 11, Washington's sense of itself has changed utterly. ''Washington solutions'' have gone from inherently suspect to indubitably essential. The federal government is now seen not just as capable but also as uniquely capable of performing a great variety of urgent tasks: fighting our enemies abroad, stimulating our flagging economy, rescuing bankrupt airlines, rebuilding the ruins in New York City, protecting us from bioterror and making the skies feel safe again. Reagan's old joke about the 10 scariest words in the English language -- Hello, I'm from the government, and I'm here to help'' -- isn't a joke anymore. It's the literal attitude of Reagan-revering Republicans who toured the devastation at ground zero.This is from Slate's Jacob Weisberg, who also, obviously, disagrees with Reagan.
With this can-do attitude has arrived a renewed feeling of self-esteem....
3. August 1, 1993:
Unlike the Reagan and Bush Administrations, which opposed most Federal efforts to assist American industry, the Clinton Administration enthusiastically supports technology policy and has selected the National Institute of Standards and Technology as the civilian agency to help manufacturers.This is a profile of Arati Prabhakar, the woman President Bill Clinton named director of the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Again, the context is that the quote is wrong and the government can help.
The institute is one of the few Federal agencies where the statement "I'm from the Government and I'm here to help you" would not be greeted with derision among most business people....
So, you see, The New York Times has never once invoked that famous Reagan quote for the proposition that the well-meaning government efforts can prove harmful.