Obituaries

Jon Breen, 81, editor who moderated famous Reagan-Bush debate

Republican presidential hopeful Ronald Reagan stares back at John Anderson, Howard Baker, Robert Dole, and Phil Crane February 23, 1980 after the crowd asked that Reagan's microphone be turned off and the other candidates cheered. They were unable to shut off Reagan's microphone and the scheduled one-on-one debate between Reagan and Bush took place at the Nashua Senior High School in Nashua, N.H. (AP Photo)

ASSOCIATED PRESS/file

The Republican presidential debate in Nashua, N.H., between top candidates Ronald Reagan (left) and George H.W. Bush (right) on Feb. 23, 1980, was moderated by Mr. Breen (also seated). Reagan sought to have candidates (standing, from left) John Anderson, Howard Baker, Robert Dole, and Phil Crane included, but Mr. Breen kept order, and the other candidates left the stage.

Drowned out by the raucous applause for Ronald Reagan one February evening in 1980 was the simple fact that Jon Breen was just doing his job when he tried to silence the man who several months later would be elected president of the United States.

A longtime New Hampshire journalist, Mr. Breen was 81 when he died Sept. 14 in Hyder Family Hospice House in Dover, N.H. He had lived in Rochester, N.H., and his health had been failing.

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On the night of Feb. 23, 1980, he was executive editor of the Nashua Telegraph and was moderating what the Telegraph had planned as a one-on-one debate between Reagan and George H.W. Bush, the top candidates in that year’s Republican presidential primaries.

But Reagan had a little extra clout that evening. The Federal Elections Commission had ruled that it would be a campaign contribution for the Telegraph to pay for a debate between only two of the several candidates running. Instead, Reagan’s campaign picked up the cost of renting Nashua High School, and on debate night he decided he wanted the other candidates to participate, too. His poll numbers were rising, and a crowded stage might diminish the benefit Bush could reap from a two-candidate debate.

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Bush wanted to follow The Telegraph’s original rules, however, and it was Mr. Breen’s job to keep order — a tall order, it turned out, because as the event was to begin, Reagan led the other candidates onto the stage. Mr. Breen turned down Reagan’s request to make a statement before the debate opened, and in a tumble of voices, Reagan interrupted and began speaking over Mr. Breen. “Would the soundman please turn Mr. Reagan’s mike off,” Mr. Breen instructed, and an angry look crossed Reagan’s face.

Reagan stood, lifted his microphone, and asked: “Is this on?” As the audience called out “yes” he sat and the two men’s voices overlapped again, with Mr. Breen interjecting: “Will you turn that microphone off, please?” Then Reagan angled his face toward him and said in a rising voice: “I am paying for this microphone, Mr. Green” — misstating Mr. Breen’s name in his rebuke. That moment, widely regarded as a key turning point in the 1980 presidential campaign, became a storied chapter in New Hampshire’s political lore.

It was not, however, Mr. Breen’s favorite moment in his long career in New Hampshire journalism and politics, even though he prevailed in keeping order that night, and the other candidates left the stage.

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“Eventually he got so that he could laugh about it and mention it himself, but it wasn’t something he dwelled on for a long time,” said his wife, Sally. “It was a difficult thing for him, actually.”

Editors and reporters throughout the media world called Mr. Breen afterward to back his decisions at the debate. “I never talked to so many famous people in my life,” his wife said. “They were very supportive of him.”

And as for Reagan misstating Mr. Breen’s name, “I always have to say, ‘Breen with a B, not a G,’ ” his wife said with a chuckle. “I often say if we could have 5 cents for every time that was mentioned, we’d be rich.”

Mr. Breen was an unlikely target of Reagan’s ire. He had served in the Marines and at one point took time away from his career as a reporter and editor to work for Republican US representatives James Cleveland, who served nine terms, and Louis Wyman, who was elected to the House five times. Along with his jobs with those two New Hampshire politicians, Mr. Breen had worked on Gerald Ford’s presidential campaign.

“He loved New Hampshire politics, and he knew a lot about it,” said his wife, who characterized his politics as “very conservative” for much of his life.

An only child, Jon Laurence Breen was born Nov. 28, 1935, the son of Ambrose Breen and the former Goldie Cohen, both of whom had worked in a factory.

As a boy, Mr. Breen traveled with his parents on various trips, including to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. He was a New York Yankees fan and his father was a Red Sox fan, “so I’m sure they had a few words,” his wife said.

Mr. Breen grew up in Dover, N.H., and went into the Marines before finishing high school. His wife said he subsequently finished a general equivalency diploma and took classes at the University of New Hampshire. “He was an incredibly smart person,” she said, adding with a chuckle, “I just don’t think he wanted to follow rules too well.”

While working at WTSN-AM in Dover early in his career, Mr. Breen met the former Sally Duguay, who had three sons from a previous marriage. He was the station’s news reporter, covering everything from accidents to city government. She was WTSN’s traffic manager, scheduling each day’s commercials. “When I first met Jon, he was just breaking into the business and he was a quiet person,” she said. “And he stayed a quiet person all his life.”

For their first date, he took her to Stella’s restaurant in Boston’s North End. “I’m from Keene, a little town, and had never been anyplace. He was into doing things that were different and that were fun, and that got us going,” she said.

They married in the mid-1960s and Mr. Breen became a stepfather to her three sons. “He was an only child, so he had no idea,” she said with a laugh of his quick transition from single man to father of three. “But it worked out really well. He loved the children and the children loved him.”

Mr. Breen went on to be a reporter at Foster’s Daily Democrat in Dover, his wife said, and he worked for the politicians before joining the Telegraph as an editorial writer. He was named executive editor of the Telegraph in 1979 and editor in 1982. Mr. Breen later returned to Foster’s to write editorials before retiring in 2010.

In addition to his wife, Mr. Breen leaves his stepsons Bradley Collette of Allenstown, N.H., and Joseph Collette of Candia, N.H.; three grandchildren; and a great-grandson. His other stepson, Victor Collette III, died two weeks before Mr. Breen’s death.

Family and friends will gather to celebrate Mr. Breen’s life at 11 a.m. Saturday in the clubhouse at Tara Estates in Rochester, N.H.

Mr. Breen had served as president of Temple Israel in Dover and on the New England Society of Newspaper Editors Board of Governors. He also traveled extensively to countries including Scotland – his favorite destination – and to England, Israel, and what was then the Soviet Union.

His work, however, “was most important to him,” his wife said. “He always enjoyed the association with people at the newspapers.”

Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.
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