Politics & Policy

Reagan at CPAC

Former President Ronald Reagan in 1991 (Gary Cameron/Reuters)
An excerpt from a new book, a remarkable collection of commentaries on his speeches there

Reagan at CPAC is a remarkable collection of commentaries on the speeches of President Ronald Reagan at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, and it provides for current and future generations a review of his exceptional impact on conservatism in America. I appreciate this opportunity to offer a few reflections on those speeches and their continuing relevance today.

What is considered the modern conservative movement developed in three overlapping phases: intellectual, political, and governing. Each phase had an important relationship to Ronald Reagan’s speeches.

Shortly after the end of World War II, a number of leading scholars, such as Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, became concerned about the spread of socialism and similar collectivist doctrines in both academic and political circles. To provide a counter force to such harmful concepts, they worked together to pursue a vigorous program of writing and speaking in support of “classical liberalism.” In 1947, they organized the Mont Pelerin Society, which became a rallying point for similar thinkers throughout the world. Hayek’s famous book condemning socialism, The Road to Serfdom, became widely read.

In the 1950s, the more senior scholars were joined by a brilliant young Yale graduate, William F. Buckley, who popularized the conservative message through articles, books, speeches, and a television debate show, Firing Line. One of Bill Buckley’s most significant achievements was the founding of National Review, a highly literate but informative and entertaining journal of conservative ideas.

Through these efforts, conservatism became an intellectual movement that spread from the institutions of higher learning to widespread forums of public discussion and debate. Ronald Reagan was a voracious reader and became interested in a variety of books on liberty, constitutionalism, free-market economics, and similar topics. His views turned away from liberalism, and the products of conservative thought became the foundation of his political principles and philosophy and, ultimately, the content of his speeches.

In 1964, Senator Barry Goldwater ran for the presidency as the Republican candidate on a staunchly conservative platform. Although he was not successful, his campaign established a series of robust policy positions as their ideological agenda. They also attracted a large body of adherents, including many young people, who were eager to support the politics of liberty and limited government. This became the base of conservatism as a political movement.

As described in Reagan at CPAC, one other result of the Goldwater campaign was the emergence of Ronald Reagan on the national political scene. In October of 1964, he gave a national television speech that electrified its viewers and raised over five million dollars for the Goldwater election effort. The speech, “A Time for Choosing” (also known as “Rendezvous with Destiny” and “The Speech”), dealt with the failure of big government with its oppressive bureaucracy, high taxes, and burdensome regulation. It extolled freedom, limited government, and citizen responsibility. The success of the speech encouraged political leaders in California to recognize Reagan’s potential as a candidate for office and led to the next phase of conservatism.

In 1966, Ronald Reagan ran for governor of California, winning against a highly popular incumbent by nearly one million votes. By accomplishing two successful terms as governor, leading the National Governors’ Association, and later serving two successful terms as president, he established conservatism as a governing movement. In these leadership positions, Ronald Reagan proved that conservative ideas and actions actually worked in practice. As both state and national leader, he entered office to face daunting challenges of fiscal and economic crisis, bureaucratic management failure, and the threat of high crime, as well as public discouragement. But in each position, Reagan’s leadership ability, cheerful and optimistic spirit, and persuasive communication skills enabled him to rebuild financial stability, restore sound government, and reestablish public confidence in our institutions.

One challenge that is unique to the presidency is the responsibility for national security and the conduct of foreign affairs. When Ronald Reagan was inaugurated as president, major problems in these areas faced America and were often discussed in his CPAC speeches. As related in several of the commentaries, the president identified Marxism-Leninism as an evil force in the world and decried the plight of the captive nations and the oppression that so many suffered under totalitarian rule. But his remarks always included messages of optimism and hope as well as his commitment to work for positive change. He espoused a strategy of peace through strength, support for freedom fighters around the world, contention against Soviet aggression, and action to ultimately free those imprisoned behind the “iron curtain.”

When he gave his last speech at CPAC as president of the United States, Ronald Reagan did not know when that day of victory and liberation would be achieved, but he was confident that his strategy and initiatives were moving the world toward the attainment of those goals. It was not long before his steadfast actions resulted in the ultimate victory in the Cold War and the implosion of the Soviet Union.

Ronald Reagan’s speeches at CPAC are part of the history of the modern conservative movement and are linked to the phases I have described. He reminded us of the ideals and values that have guided our republic through more than two centuries of progress and trial in our quest to preserve freedom and assure justice. His words have challenged us in the past and inspired us for the future. Ed Feulner, founder of the Heritage Foundation, in his book The March of Freedom, described the president this way:

Ronald Reagan is called the “Great Communicator,” and with good reason. He has a profound appreciation for the importance of rhetoric. . . . He is persuasive because he is so deeply persuaded of [conservative] ideas himself. . . . He boiled down politics to its most fundamental level and spoke a plain language of right and wrong.

Ronald Reagan has given us a legacy of great speeches that express the permanent convictions of the conservative movement and are an invaluable tribute to his continuing influence among lovers of freedom.

This article is an excerpt from the book Reagan at CPAC (Regnery Publishing, February 26, 2019).

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Edwin Meese III was the U.S attorney general during President Reagan’s second term. He is a prominent conservative leader and is a Distinguished Fellow Emeritus at the Heritage Foundation.

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