Today marks the 50th anniversary of what has become known as simply “The Speech.” The actual title Ronald Reagan gave to the address with which he electrified a nation during a 30-minute broadcast for the failing Goldwater campaign was “A Time for Choosing.” Goldwater lost a week later to Lyndon Johnson, but conservative presidential politics had a North Star in Reagan after that. “It defined conservatism for 50 years,” Reagan biographer Craig Shirley concluded.
Washington Post columnist David Broder wrote that the night of Reagan’s address represented “the most successful political debut since William Jennings Bryan” and his “Cross of Gold” speech in 1896. “I didn’t know it then,” Reagan wrote in his 1991 autobiography, “but that speech was one of the most important milestones of my life.”
Financially, it raised a stunning $8 million (over $60 million in today’s money) for the flailing Goldwater campaign, most of which couldn’t be spent in those days when checks were delivered by regular mail. But as former Reagan aide Jeffrey Lord reminds us, “the real importance of the speech was that Reagan had looked Americans in the eye and stood for something.”
It was a different Ronald Reagan than the one many Americans remember as president who gave “The Speech” that night. As historian Steven Hayward noted in the Washington Post on Sunday, it “was not the avuncular, optimistic Reagan of his film roles, or of his subsequent political career that emphasized ‘morning in America’ and the ‘shining city on a hill,’ but a comparatively angry and serious Reagan, serving up partisan red meat against liberalism and the Democrats” (whose party he had been a member of only two years before).
In the middle of the Cold War Reagan forthrightly said liberals refused to acknowledge that “There is no argument over the choice between peace and war, but there is only one guaranteed way you can have peace — and you can have it in the next second — surrender.”
On domestic issues, Reagan was equally blunt. “Now, one side in this campaign has been telling us that the issues of this election are the maintenance of peace and prosperity,” he said. “The line has been used, ‘We’ve never had it so good.’ But I have an uncomfortable feeling that this prosperity isn’t something on which we can base our hopes for the future.”
Many people have their favorite lines from the Reagan address. Here are a sample of mine:
“No government ever voluntarily reduces itself in size. So, government’s programs, once launched, never disappear. Actually, a government bureau is the nearest thing to eternal life we’ll ever see on this earth.”
“If government planning and welfare had the answer, shouldn’t we expect government to read the score to us once in a while?” Reagan asked, “Shouldn’t they be telling us about the decline each year in the number of people needing help? But the reverse is true. Each year, the need grows great, the program grows greater.”
“This is the issue of this election: Whether we believe in our capacity for self-government, or whether we abandon the American Revolution and confess that a little intellectual elite in a far-distant capitol can plan our lives for us better than we can plan them ourselves.”
“You and I know and do not believe that life is so dear and peace so sweet as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery. If nothing in life is worth dying for, when did this begin — just in the face of this enemy? Or should Moses have told the children of Israel to live in slavery under the pharaohs? Should Christ have refused the cross? Should the patriots at Concord Bridge have thrown down their guns and refused to fire the shot heard ’round the world?”
What marks “The Speech” as distinct from so much of political rhetoric today was its authenticity. Stuart Stevens, the former strategist for the 2012 Romney campaign, notes that it “still vibrates with a passionate intensity rarely found in any contemporary political discourse. This wasn’t a focused-grouped, calculated appeal to different constituencies. It was the voice of one man, deeply troubled by the course of his nation.”
But Reagan was also interested in reaching out to others so they too would share his concern. He more than once reminded people he had very recently been a Democrat, but he now felt that party had left him rather than he leaving the party. He was already attempting to build the coalition of “Reagan Democrats” that would carry him to two landslide elections.
“I believe that the issues confronting us cross party lines,” he said, reminding the audience of his history as a Democrat. “You and I are told increasingly we have to choose between a left or right. Well I’d like to suggest there is no such thing as a left or right. There’s only an up or down: man’s old, aged-old dream, the ultimate individual freedom consistent with order, or down to the ant heap of totalitarianism.”
The fact that in our overly-sensitive and easily offended age that such stirring rhetoric is so rare is a partial indictment of where our politics has failed. While issues come and go, there are fundamental questions of America’s future and place in the world that need to be addressed in overarching terms. That’s what Reagan’s “The Speech” was all about. We need leaders who will speak in such terms again.