I turned three fifty years ago today. Fortunately for America, something more momentous happened on October 27, 1964. As my then-young parents fed me cake and feted me with presents, I was unknowingly getting the best birthday present ever. “The Speech” was given, and a star was born.
Virtually every conservative or libertarian under the sun is talking today about what “The Speech” means to them. Like many others, I thrill to the paeans to freedom. Reagan’s critique of the top-down, “listen to your betters” strain of liberalism remains as poignant and true today as it was in the days before color television was widespread.
As I’ve aged, though, I’ve started to see just how marvelously constructed the speech is as an intellectual understanding of freedom. It was easy for me as a young man to see that Reagan was calling for human freedom. It took me decades of experience to see how Reagan’s love of freedom was based more fundamentally on a love of human dignity, and a love for all people at all times.
Accordingly, I no longer see “The Speech” as simply a call against government. It is that, to be sure, but it’s a call against a particular kind of government, a government that rules rather than helps. Reagan did not view freedom as today’s hardcore libertarians do, as something to be valued in the abstract regardless of the practical consequences for America or her people. There’s a reason why Ed Clark and David Koch ran against him in 1980: They defined freedom differently because they viewed human dignity differently.
I co-authored a piece on Reagan’s thought and legacy for today’s conservatives for Commentary recently, so I’ll just link to it rather than repeat it. But I will paraphrase it by paraphrasing the closing to “The Speech” itself.
We conservatives have a rendezvous with destiny. If we understand The Speech and Reagan’s full legacy, then — and only then — will we “preserve for our children this last best hope of man on earth.”
— Henry Olsen is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.