Unlike the current occupant of the White House, Ronald Reagan loved a good joke. None better captured the spirit of the conservative revolution he embodied than his quip at a press conference in 1986: “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are, ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.’” This was the humorous bookend to the proclamation in his first inaugural address that “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” The joke has been borrowed by a slew of conservatives, from Mike Huckabee to Jonah Goldberg. George H. W. Bush even told a version during his 1988 presidential run to assume the mantle of the Reagan revolution.

‘The nine most terrifying words in the English language are, “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”’

Surprisingly, given its canonical status as a conservative witticism, the joke appears to have originated with Maine’s Democratic senator (and later Jimmy Carter’s secretary of state) Edmund S. Muskie. At the January 1976 meeting of the U. S. Conference of Mayors, Muskie told his audience, “the three most common lies” are “I put your check in the mail yesterday,” “I gave at the office,” and “I’m from the federal government and I’m here to help you.”

If the story were only that the joke has been wrongly credited to Reagan, the correction would be antiquarian. But the improbability of Muskie’s joke—of him telling it, and when he did—shines light on the critical hinge point when mid-century Democrats lost their philosophical verve for large government initiatives. This in turn would lead to the New Deal model being left behind in favor of a less ambitious, more suspicious view of public goods that accorded with the emerging conservative consensus.

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In hindsight, Muskie’s antigovernment joke is striking on two levels.

First, Muskie was no run-of-the-mill Democrat but one who famed journalists Rowland Evans and Robert Novak described as a “bona fide liberal.” Muskie had been Hubert Humphrey’s 1968 vice presidential running mate, and as a longtime Democratic senator, he had shepherded pioneering environmental legislation through Congress and regularly received high marks from the liberal watchdog group Americans for Democratic Action.

Second, Muskie was speaking to a group of mayors at a time when activity on the part of the federal government, particularly in helping financially strapped cities, seemed urgent and necessary. Only months before, in October 1975, President Gerald Ford had made the deeply unpopular choice of telling New York City to declare itself bankrupt rather than authorizing federal aid.

So how did Muskie come to make a joke that almost instantly gained the status of conservative received wisdom? Indeed, within two weeks, conservative senator James L. Buckley (brother of William F., editor of the National Review) repeated the joke to a group of supporters without referencing Muskie. In April, Wilmer “Vinegar Bend” Mizell, a former Republican congressman and Ford administration Commerce Department official, told the joke to an audience in Texas. In February 1977, barely a year after Muskie first said it, the financial columnist Jane Bryant Quinn called it an “old gag.” By the following year, the joke, though still recent, was being referred to as an “old chestnut.”

How did ‘bona fide liberal’ Muskie come to make a joke that almost instantly gained the status of conservative received wisdom?

But it was not an old chestnut, for the joke captured a distinctly new zeitgeist. The punchline undermined a central mission of the New Deal, which was to “re-establish faith in government,” as one newspaper put it shortly after Franklin D. Roosevelt took office. FDR described the attitude of the Republican presidential administrations that preceded his in the following way: “For twelve years this Nation was afflicted with hear-nothing, see-nothing, do-nothing Government. The Nation looked to Government but the Government looked away.” By contrast, with the New Deal, he maintained, “Your Government is still on the same side of the street with the Good Samaritan and not with those who pass by on the other side.” Indeed, many people might not have “gotten” the joke during the New Deal era, when, in historian William Leuchtenberg’s words, FDR “generated new excitement about the potentialities of government.”

This was a project that had Muskie’s enthusiastic support. In his remarks before the mayors, he lambasted President Ford for his “complete lack of a national commitment to save” U.S. cities, condemned “a ‘new realism’ that forces economies on the weak and vulnerable—but rewards the wealthy and powerful,” and highlighted the problem of economic inequality, arguing that government should be on the side of the vulnerable rather than the wealthy and corporations. Muskie repeatedly called for “counter-cyclical” spending by the federal government, sanctioning the Keynesian belief in the importance of pump priming by the government to stimulate the economy.

Yet the joke, an aside from his formally prepared remarks, was of a piece with the political turn that Muskie and other members of the Democratic Party had recently made, calling for a chastened liberalism and a reconsideration of the New Deal tradition. At a time when conservatism was adrift, Muskie advocated for self-criticism on behalf of Democrats, observing that “liberals have developed an ideology and state of mind that is narrow, unimaginative and often irrelevant.” Rather than doubling down on liberalism in the wake of Watergate, he called for altering it, to avoid what he called “the trap that ensnared us in 1972,” when the Democrats, led by presidential candidate George McGovern, were crushed in the national election. In the interim, Nixon had resigned in disgrace, Democrats made tremendous gains in the 1974 midterms, and the economy continued to weaken. But Muskie believed that a revived New Deal liberalism would not be an effective or feasible response to GOP turmoil and a nation facing stringent economic limits.

Despite his strong defense of federal support for urban America and his moral critique of the Ford budget, Muskie preached a modest rather than a triumphant liberalism. As one observer noted, in light of the views expressed not by Ford and the Republicans but by Muskie and the Democrats, the “developing national mood is antispending and antibureaucratic.” In the mid-1970s, a number of prominent Democratic governors also took up the mantle of austerity—both out of necessity and to proclaim a new governing doctrine. Jerry Brown, who followed Ronald Reagan as governor of California, stressed the limitations of government and the disconnect that most citizens felt from it: “People feel that things are being done to them, not for them,” he said of citizens’ relationship to the state government. One commentator noted that Brown was “out-Reaganing Reagan,” who had been the state’s previous governor. Hugh Carey, the Democratic governor of New York and the first Democrat elected to the office in sixteen years, was described by the New York Times as a proponent of “bread-and-butter, New Deal, pro-labor liberalism.” In spite of this, in his first state of the state address in early 1975, he declared that fiscal belt-tightening was not a temporary condition but the new normal: “We must all live by a rule of austerity for as far ahead as we can see. Government can no longer be a horn of plenty for citizens.” “The days of wine and roses are over,” he insisted. Muskie’s message, then, echoed claims made by other prominent Democrats.

A few months after his speech to the mayors, Muskie followed the spirit of his antigovernment joke more than the pro-government text of his address in a presentation before the platform writing committee of the Democratic Party. “What’s so damn liberal about wasting money?” he asked. Supporting a sunset bill that would “self-destruct all federal programs every five years unless Congress voted to renew them,” he wondered “what do waste and inefficiency have to do with the New Deal?” Although he concluded by saying that he did not wish to “join the Republican chorus that government has been the cause of America’s problems and that everyone, weak and strong, must solve their own problems,” his suspicion that all government programs were potentially wasteful and unnecessary harmonized seamlessly with that chorus.

Republicans listened eagerly, then argued that Muskie and others had, as one columnist wrote, “tacitly conceded there is merit to the conservative position.” Although Muskie said his goal was not to “repudiate” the New Deal, this is precisely how they understood his admonition to his fellow liberals to stop being “defenders of government, no matter its mistakes.” Richard Lesher, the leader of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, called it a “healthy trend” that the message of one of the Senate’s “leading liberals” about the limits of government was, in his estimation, not easily distinguished from something a conservative might say. Another commentator noted that liberal Democrats were taking on “big government, the federal bureaucracy, and massive government spending,” which suggested to him that the New Deal was “dead.”

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‘What’s so damn liberal about wasting money?’ Muskie asked.

Over time, Muskie’s joke was increasingly employed to weaponize a conservative political agenda. Probably the best example came in 1980, when Mobil Oil, the nation’s third largest corporation, employed “I’m from the Government and I’m Here to Help You” as the title for an ad campaign that appeared in major U.S. newspapers. In Mobil’s rendering, Muskie’s punchline represented “sick humor” because it described an imminent threat to freedom, namely the “betrayal” of the government, which spent too much time “mucking about in inconsequential matters.” The company complained about the “huge, faceless, and infinitely meddlesome bureaucracy” that was making government a “nuisance” and a “troublesome pest.” The “obvious cure,” according to the company, was “an overhaul and gradual reduction of the present regulatory establishment.” Mobil framed this self-interested solution as a blow for liberty and assumed that readers would see corporate and personal freedom from overweening government as related projects.

Mobil published its ad during the Carter administration. Although the message of the ad suggested otherwise, Carter’s presidency marked the continuation and acceleration of the anti-bureaucratic, antistatist language that Muskie and others had promulgated. Described as a “conservative” or a “populist” Democrat, and rarely as a liberal, Carter had campaigned on a program of restoring trust in government in part by slashing bureaucracy and constraining spending. It is notable that James McIntyre, the head of the Office of Management and Budget, borrowed Muskie’s joke in 1978, this time framing it as “one of the three most broken promises in the country today.”

It is very likely that Muskie meant his joke to be ironic. (According to one of his staffers, Muskie had told it for years before it was first recorded in print in early 1976, and he especially liked to use it to warm up conservative audiences.) But it was also a portent of a fairly sudden turn on the part of moderate and even some liberal Democrats: “A year or so ago, Muskie would have been burned at the stake by the left-wing Torquemadas,” observed one columnist in 1975. The path this joke followed from Muskie to Reagan suggests a broader truth, which is that some Democrats, including leading liberals, legitimated key parts of what became known as the Reagan Revolution, well before the Gipper took office in 1981. Many of them did so in an attempt to salvage what they could of the New Deal tradition. But their embrace of austerity, and their characterization of government as inefficient and uncaring, made it hard for them to find grounds to condemn the Republicans who could legitimately claim that they had discovered these truths decades earlier.

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Democrats’ embrace of austerity, and their characterization of government as inefficient and uncaring, made it hard for them to find grounds to condemn Republicans.

When Muskie died in 1996, no obituary mentioned his “I’m from the government” joke, which anyway was by then long associated with Reagan. However, Washington Post columnist David Broder and Al From, the founder of the Democratic Leadership Council, highlighted Muskie’s role in foreshadowing the “New Democratic” agenda. From, who had worked closely with Muskie in the 1970s on the Intergovernmental Relations Committee that Muskie chaired, said, “His positions on a range of issues—budget reform, Federal and State responsibilities in the post-New Deal era, pruning away the deadwood in government, to name a few—marked him as a politician way ahead of the curve.” Broder argued that Muskie’s obituaries “barely did justice to the clarity with which he addressed two overriding national issues decades before most other politicians came to grips with them,” namely, “downsizing the federal government” and putting the nation’s “fiscal house in order.” Broder noted that “he was working on it 20 years before the authors of the Republican Contract With America took the issue to the country,” which suggested that Muskie foreshadowed not only the chastened liberalism of the Clinton administration, but the chief talking points of late twentieth-century conservatism.

If in the 1980s, as Alan Ehrenhalt wrote, Democrats “lost the agenda to President Reagan just as surely as Republicans lost it to Roosevelt in the 1930s,” part of the reason had to with their backing off of their vision of governance and public spending as positive goods. It was not just conservatives such as Reagan, but high-profile Democrats who, as Pat Buchanan wrote in 1983, maintained “that the ideas of the New Deal do not apply to the 1980s.” In foreswearing the relevance of the New Deal tradition, Democrats made a fatal error. Not only did they underestimate the ways in which that tradition remained relevant. Just as importantly, they conceded that what Muskie called “common sense criticism of government” meant suspicion of the basic functions of the state. The Democrats had good reason to examine and critique the liberal tradition, which brought them defeat in 1968 and 1972. But weakening and undermining their connection to government as an enabler of liberty helped normalize conservative political rhetoric.

“Government cannot solve our problems,” said President Carter in 1978, in the middle of his single term. “It can’t set goals. It cannot define our vision. Government cannot eliminate poverty, or reduce inflation, or save our cities.” In response, Roosevelt biographer and advocate of New Deal liberalism Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., wrote in disgust: “Can anyone imagine FDR uttering such words?” If Bill Clinton’s pronouncement, when he became the first post-Reagan Democratic president, that “the era of big government is over” signaled an echo of the conservative revolution, Muskie’s offhand joke, and the political turn it presaged among many Democrats, marked a precursor.