Culture

‘The Speech’: When Reagan Electrified America, and Transformed It

Editor’s note: This article is adapted from the introduction to Reagan’s 1968 Dress Rehearsal: Ike, RFK, and Reagan’s Emergence as a World Statesman, which was published earlier this month.

Ronald Reagan turned over in bed the night of October 27, 1964, to kiss his wife Nancy good night, but he was worrying about the speech, “A Time for Choosing,” he had given on behalf of the Republican candidate for president, Barry Goldwater. It had been recorded in advance and was aired on national television earlier that evening. “I was hoping I hadn’t let Barry down,” he wrote in his autobiography. The Reagans had returned home after watching the speech at the home of some friends (who later became his political supporters).

A scant two hours after going to sleep, shortly after midnight, Reagan was awakened by the shrill ring of their telephone. It was the operator from Citizens for Goldwater headquarters in Washington, D.C. She could barely contain herself, yelling, “The switchboard has been lit up ever since you signed off. It’s 3 a.m. and there’s been no letup!” Political operative Clif White, running the office, was amazed by the speed and intensity of the popular response to Reagan’s speech.

Some politicians didn’t watch it. George Romney was on a speaking tour in Michigan. Robert F. Kennedy, running for the Senate as a New Yorker and busy campaigning on Long Island, was conversing with President Johnson. Former vice president Richard Nixon, however, the losing 1960 presidential nominee, did tune in. Nixon was grateful to Reagan for campaigning on his behalf two years earlier, when Nixon ran for governor of California and lost.

Nixon had keen political insight and knew political talent when he saw it. He could spot a potential political competitor as well. Immediately after the speech, Nixon noted that the one Republican winner emerging from the Goldwater debacle was not even on the presidential ballot: Ronald Reagan. Nixon likely started to mull the ramifications of the speech. He may have begun to appreciate that Reagan’s clear call for individual freedom, coupled with his emergence into the political limelight, could threaten, from the conservative right, Nixon’s own ambitions: He was musing whether to seek the Republican nomination for president once again.

And of course many other, ordinary citizens also listened to Reagan’s speech and were deeply impressed. Like America as a whole and, for that matter, the world, the lives of those touched that evening by Reagan’s speech would never be the same. A few of these men and women would would become political operatives at the heart of Ronald Reagan’s first campaign for the presidency in 1968. Each of them had been transformed by the inspiring words they heard that October evening from Ronald Reagan four years earlier.

Across the nation, especially in the three major primary states where most of the 1968 action would be, these and many other hardworking grassroots Reagan activists laid the groundwork for what was to come later. They came close, ever so close, to seeing Ronald Reagan chosen as the Republican presidential nominee in 1968.

One other person, too, watched the speech. Former president Dwight D. Eisenhower carefully studied Reagan and “The Speech.” Only two years earlier, Eisenhower and Reagan jointly cut a Republican publicity sound recording, not mentioned in any Reagan or Eisenhower biography known to me, entitled “Mr. Lincoln’s Party Today.” There, Reagan used some of the same phrases, about individual liberty, that he later used in “A Time for Choosing.”

The general, as he preferred to be called after he left the White House in 1961, watched and heard Reagan praising the courage of American soldiers during World War II and challenging the free world not to leave Eastern Europe to suffer perpetual occupation by the Soviet Union. Just before Reagan spoke the immortal words “rendezvous with destiny,” he quoted another World War II hero, Winston Churchill. Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander and D-Day leader, was an astute judge of character, politics, and nations. Looking and listening to Reagan, a new Republican star in the making, he liked what he saw and heard.

Eisenhower picked up the phone and called his former attorney general to say, enthusiastically, what a fine speech Reagan had just delivered. And the general was not done. After further reflection, he phoned his former special assistant to praise the speech to him. Eisenhower was no fan of the Goldwater candidacy. As he followed the race closely, the former president began to plan how to rebuild the Republican party after Goldwater’s huge loss, which appeared likely. Eisenhower long had felt that his party had failed to market and communicate its ideals effectively.

Right in front of him, Eisenhower was seeing a remarkably eloquent Republican, clearly a great communicator. Eisenhower knew that in 1962 Reagan became a Republican and campaigned for Nixon in California’s gubernatorial race and that now, in 1964, he was co-chairman of the Goldwater campaign in California. Perhaps Eisenhower wondered whether Reagan nursed any political ambitions of his own. Might he become an important part of Eisenhower’s plans for the future of the party?

Over the next few years, after winning the governorship of California in 1966, Reagan began his first campaign for the presidency. In his cross-country campaigning and in his speeches and press conferences, the expertise that Reagan demonstrated in world affairs grew exponentially. Mentored by Dwight Eisenhower and fighting the anti-war and big-government policies of Robert Kennedy, Reagan at first mentioned Vietnam only briefly. But as his presidential campaign progressed, he expanded his vision: decrying the decline of America’s military prowess from its height during the Eisenhower administration to its present state in the the Kennedy-Johnson years; offering specific strategies and tactics to win in Vietnam; pushing, over and over, to tear down the Berlin Wall; calling for an American missile defense shield; advocating freedom for Eastern Europe; insisting that America stand firmly with Israel, and advising on how governments and institutions should respond to the taking of hostages.

During his first presidential campaign, Reagan presented Americans with a positive image of their country. His ultimate goal was to restore America to the greatness it enjoyed under Eisenhower’s stewardship. Reagan became Eisenhower’s political student and later his protégé. Little did Reagan realize that, under Eisenhower’s mentorship, he would grow to become a world statesman, a national political figure, and a contender for the highest office in the land. Eisenhower was not left without a political legacy. Ultimately, Ronald Reagan as president succeeded in achieving the lofty goals that Dwight Eisenhower had for his party and his country. Reagan truly was one of Eisenhower’s political heirs.

Gene Kopelson, a historian and Holocaust educator, serves as president of the New England chapter of the Theodore Roosevelt Association. He is a member of the Churchill Centre.

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