Ronald Reagan: An Extraordinary Politician
Today marks the tenth anniversary of the passing of President Ronald Reagan. As significant as this anniversary is to America and the world, there is a more important Reagan anniversary this year.
I am referring to the 50th anniversary of actor Ronald Reagan’s speech, televised nationwide, on October 27, 1964, on behalf of Barry Goldwater for President. The speech eventually became known as, “A Time for Choosing.” Years later, President Reagan wrote of it, “Of course, I didn’t know it then, but that speech was one of the most important milestones in my life—another one of those unexpected turns in the road that led me onto a path I never expected to take.”
What is remarkable about that speech, yet seldom noted, is there was no chance of Goldwater winning by the time Reagan delivered it. Barry Goldwater would lose the election one week later carrying only six states and gathering only 38.5% of the vote. Reagan used valuable national airtime to articulate conservative principles rather than salvage the races of some Senate or House candidates who might have benefited from blurring the differences between Goldwater and Johnson.
Goldwater’s loss was looming in late October 1964. One of his earliest and most prominent backers, William F. Buckley, Jr., had already warned Goldwater’s most enthusiastic supporters in Young Americans for Freedom (YAF) that the Senator would lose. Buckley noted in his YAF speech, “I speak of course of the impending defeat of Barry Goldwater!” Later Buckley suggested, “This is probably Lyndon Johnson’s year, and the Archangel Gabriel running on the Republican ticket probably couldn’t win.”
F. Clifton White, another close Goldwater associate and the Conservative Movement’s political guru of the 1960s, wrote, “Barry Goldwater’s defeat was the most thorough-going rout ever suffered by any candidate of a major political party…the awesome magnitude of the Goldwater defeat affected Republican candidates at all levels.”
Theodore White, the Establishment’s scribe of the time, noted of Goldwater, “Never in any campaign had I seen a candidate so heckled, so provoked by the opposition…so cruelly bill-boarded and tagged.”
Teddy White knew it was not the Johnson forces alone who were vehemently anti-Goldwater. Moderate Republican leaders including New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller and Pennsylvania Governor William Scranton, “had drawn up the indictment. Lyndon Johnson was the prosecutor. Goldwater was cast as defendant. He was like a dog with a can tied to his tail—the faster he ran, the more the can clattered.”
It was in this rigged courtroom of public opinion that Ronald Reagan offered himself up to serve as the defense attorney for Goldwater and Goldwater’s principles.
Reagan surely knew Goldwater was heading for a bruising defeat. How many of today’s political “leaders” would be willing to risk their future to speak out on behalf of a candidate who could not muster 40% of the vote and whose closest allies had already conceded his defeat just because the candidate had the right principles? Such a speaker would be trashed as “hopelessly, politically naïve,” even dangerous, and accused of ignoring “reality” to tilt at windmills.
In fact, there is no modern equivalent of an emerging or promising personality who has proven willing to champion a losing candidate, one who made fatal mistakes or “blunders” in his campaign, solely to make the case for limited government, individual freedom, and a strong foreign policy.
What Reagan demonstrated in the “A Time for Choosing” speech, and he would later repeat in similar speeches as a recently inaugurated President at CPAC in March 1981 and at the Brandenburg Gate in June 1987, is unusual political courage. Repeatedly, he was willing to ignore conventional political pundits, and staid White House and State Department advisors, to boldly raise a banner for the cause of freedom.
As actor Reagan jokingly made clear in 1964, “[T]he performer hasn’t been provided with a script…I have been permitted to use my own words and discuss my own ideas.”
Reagan’s own ideas were clear: “I think it’s time we ask ourselves if we still know the freedoms that were intended for us by the Founding Fathers…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 capital can plan our lives for us better than we can plan them ourselves.”
What were the consequences of delivering such a courageous speech?
The Washington Post’s David Broder and Stephen Hess referred to it as “the most successful national political debut” in 70 years. The Washington Post decades later admitted, “Reagan launched his political career…with a nationally televised speech that immediately made him a top prospect for governor of California.”
Reagan biographer, Lou Cannon also caught its implications. “Believers who heard Reagan felt they were being summoned to a vital battle that would surely end in victory…” Cannon ultimately concluded, “It was indeed the right message at the right time.”
A half century later, we can see through his timeless speech how Reagan became a leader the whole country would honor when he died.
Reagan articulated freedom’s principles even in the face of certain near-term defeat for his cause. Unlike many current public figures, he did not worry whether championing an unpopular position would hurt his personal fortunes. In fact, Reagan continued to speak his mind despite previous threats of losing his television show, General Electric Theater. That is because, for Reagan, principles came first. It was to advance those principles that he would even consider a political career.
President Reagan concluded, “[T]he speech changed my entire life.” Indeed, Reagan went on to restore our prosperity from the debilitating Carter economy, and win the Cold War. We now know that speech changed our nation and the world.
Perhaps it is time once again to look closely for leaders who willingly advance “their own ideas” without worrying about the reaction of professional political pundits.
Ronald Reagan gave us an example of principled leadership, and that is why we honor the anniversary of his passing.