“You and I have a rendezvous with destiny. We will preserve for our children this, the last best hope of man on earth, or we will sentence them to take the first step into a thousand years of darkness. If we fail, at least let our children and our children’s children say of us we justified our brief moment here. We did all that could be done.”
In 1964, Ronald Reagan unveiled himself as the epicenter of conservatism in his now-famous “Time for Choosing” campaign speech for Barry Goldwater.
By that time, World War II, the Cold War, Keynesianism, and big government policies had riled the conservative base of America. In the late 1940s, the dangers of the Soviet Union and its allies in America were clearly highlighted by the trials of the Rosenbergs, Alger Hiss, and others, once again stimulating the cause of liberty in heartland America.
Harnessing this spirit was the great task for conservative leadership. Standing in their way was the entire media, a majority of the Democratic Party, and the Republican establishment (i.e. Eisenhower). The pressure came down on early Cold Warriors, such as Sen. Joseph McCarthy and Rep. Richard Nixon, who were scorned by the media (as well as by history). The first true conservative leader was William F. Buckley, an academic out of Yale, who launched the crucially important National Review magazine in 1955. In defiance of the American establishment, Buckley wrote that his magazine, “stands athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it.” His allies were the common American people and his goal was to replace Washington with leaders borne of the heartland, not of cocktail parties.
The grassroots anti-communist, pro-liberty sentiment in America was so palpable that Cold War fever took even Democrat John F. Kennedy. Kennedy remains touted to this day as a shining example of the Cold Warrior Democrat. Although the conservative base embraced his venture in Vietnam, conservatives generally dismiss his efforts there, as well as in relation to Cuba, as relatively weak. Perhaps more revealing is that his party’s emphasis on the welfare state (i.e. LBJ’s Great Society) was seen as something of a concession to the communist mold. For instance, Ronald Reagan tied socialized medicine to totalitarian threats from abroad in a 1961 radio broadcast:
Until the Civil Rights movement transcended the legislative victories in 1964 and 1965, the main modern schism between the Right and Left in America was forming over two policies: whether to deal aggressively or accommodatively with the Soviet Union and whether to limit or expand domestic government. Buckley’s National Review did its part to sow the intellectual seeds of the Right. Meanwhile, in 1960, Sen. Barry Goldwater released his influential Conscience of a Conservative, ghost-written by L. Brent Bozell Jr., Buckley’s partner and brother-in-law. Conscience and National Review laid the ground for Goldwater’s defeat of establishment Republican Nelson Rockefeller in the 1964 Republican primary. It was the first major political victory for modern American conservatism.
This was when Ronald Reagan made his grand entrance as a conservative leader. Just as the Tea Party today lacks a single, charismatic leader to symbolize the movement, conservatism lacked one back then. Yet unlike the Tea Party, conservatives did not have an internet in the 1950s and 60s to sustain interest in the movement without a charismatic leader, and even Goldwater, who was plagued by a vulnerable armoire of inartful comments, was not prime leadership material.
But on October 27, 1964, having honed his public persona as a Hollywood actor, corporate speaker, and radio host, Reagan captured a national audience with “A Time for Choosing.” Today, conservatives reverently call it, “The Speech.”
The Speech, which raised $8 million for the Goldwater campaign, critically portrayed big government as the domestic onset of the totalitarian menace we were so desperately fighting abroad at the time. Though this idea was nothing new by 1964, what was refreshing was the clarity and charisma with which the speech was delivered. After Goldwater lost the general election, the conservative movement had its sights locked on Ronald Reagan, who then immediately ran for governor of California in 1966.
In 1976, he lost the Republican nomination to Pres. Gerald Ford, but won the next two general elections in landslides, cementing himself as the great hero of the conservative movement. By the time of his death, even the media and the Left, which had maligned him as old, stupid, and dangerous throughout his presidency, lauded him as a great uniting leader.
Why was he so successful? Does it have anything to do with the type of person that he was? Peggy Noonan believes that “[b]eing a good man helped him become a great one.” The Washington Post’s birthday tribute to him today includes an article on “Five myths about Ronald Reagan,” each of which dissects a different aspect of his personality. The NY Times published, “Remembering the Reagan We May Never Know” this week, lamenting, “[l]ately, the best-known thing about Ronald Reagan is that he was unknowable.”
As important as his fundamental personality may be, I prefer to heed Reagan’s own words on what is most important:
“I won the nickname the great communicator. But I never thought it was my style that made a difference – it was the content. I wasn’t a great communicator, but I communicated great things, and they didn’t spring full blown from my brow, they came from the heart of a great nation, from our experience, our wisdom, and our belief in the principles that have guided us for two centuries.” [emphasis mine]
In other words: His values are those of liberty. Liberty is great. Liberty is American. He understood this viscerally and he happened to express it exceptionally well. His values captured the hearts and minds of America. Ronald Reagan was merely the articulate vessel.
I have yet to come across a better illustration of this than Reagan’s nascent speech, “A Time for Choosing.” It is only half an hour in length, but it is all you need to know about how Ronald Reagan stirred the nation out of its slumber in 1964.