On October 27, 1964 Ronald Reagan’s pre-recorded “A Time for Choosing” speech was aired on television. His half-hour defense of Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater’s presidential run, and conservative ideas, catapulted Reagan onto the American political stage and helped create his reputation as the “Great Communicator.”
Though Goldwater would go on to lose in a landslide to Democrat Lyndon Johnson, the deeply principled and effective message Reagan delivered would lead to the Gipper’s eventual election in 1980. In the short address, Reagan stood for principles that remained at the heart of the conservative movement for the next half century.
During the past week, Young America’s Foundation launched a series of videos as a part of its larger “A Time for Choosing: The Next Generation” project. The videos focus on different ideas that Reagan spoke about during the speech and how they relate to today, in Reagan’s own words. These videos include: national security, limited government, entitlement reform, the importance of the private sector, and self-determination. Reagan’s message to Americans was timeless, and there is no better demonstration of this than how well it relates to the issues of today.
Reagan brilliantly wove personal and anecdotal narratives throughout his speech to bring abstract principles to a general audience. This style made Reagan both more personably relatable, and helped voters more deeply understand how philosophical principles affected their everyday lives.
Historian Steven F. Hayward wrote in a recent Washington Post op-ed that Reagan, “understood that narrative can be more effective than abstractions or slogans alone.” He continued, “Goldwater and conservative intellectuals back to Robert Taft tended to argue from abstract principles, with less emphasis on story and concrete examples. Reagan’s rhetoric represented a potent shift.”
“The Speech,” as Reagan’s performance began to be called, drew from the presentations he had given around the country to General Electric workers on behalf of the company. Historian Jonathan Schoenwald wrote in the Oxford University Press book, A Time for Choosing: The Rise of Modern American Conservatism, “Going from factory to factory, Reagan saw what free-market capitalism could achieve, and when he looked into the faces of the workers he understood that any ideology that threatened what had produced such abundance, whether liberalism or communism, must not be allowed to spread any further.”
When the speech was released on NBC shortly before the election, it provided last minute boost to Goldwater’s doomed campaign. However, more importantly for the future of conservatism, A Time for Choosing demonstrated how potent a messenger and potential campaigner Reagan could be.
Reagan said about the night the A Time for Choosing aired:
The night that the tape of the speech was to air on NBC, Nancy and I went over to another couple’s home to watch it. Everyone thought I’d done well, but still you don’t always know about these things. The phone rang about midnight. It was a call from Washington, D.C., where it was three a.m. One of Barry’s staff called to tell me that the switchboard was still lit up from the calls pledging money to his campaign. I then slept peacefully. The speech raised $8million and soon changed my entire life.
Ultimately, the financial windfall from the speech was just a small part of its immense impact. By making such a potent and unrepentant stand for conservative principles, Reagan bucked the idea that Republicans had to be a party of simple, moderate liberalism to survive. Jeffrey Lord of the American Spectator pointed out that the true importance of the speech was that Reagan “looked Americans in the eye and stood for something.”
In rejecting the pale pastels of liberal Republicans like Thomas Dewey, Richard Nixon, and especially Nelson Rockefeller–whom Goldwater had defeated in that year’s GOP presidential primary–Reagan was proposing that his party would finally give a real choice to the country. As Reagan said, this choice was not between “left or right” but between “an up and down… the ultimate in individual freedom consistent with law and order, or down to the ant heap of totalitarianism.” In choosing Goldwater and Reagan, the country could reverse course on the road to serfdom.
In A Time for Choosing, America was introduced to the foremost ambassador from a conservative movement that was still finding its legs, and within a few decades there would be a massive sea change in electoral politics. Reagan made his speech during the high tide of liberalism, an era of big government, social engineering, and the “Great Society.” When he was done with his public career, a Democrat president would have to admit that “the era of big government is over.” This was the power of strong ideas and equally strong communication skills.
Reagan had grown up an admirer of President Franklin Roosevelt and learned to emulate the New Deal Democrat’s ability to speak directly to the hearts and minds of the American people; Reagan then honed this ability to communicate through a career in Hollywood.
Even though Reagan had been a lifelong Democrat, his ideas started to shift based on personal experiences and a belief that the government had become too powerful and was trampling on individual liberty. The Great Communicator would use his skills to unwind the centralized, bureaucratic behemoth that Woodrow Wilson, FDR, and other progressives had created.
Reagan officially switched parties in 1962 and in his speech appealed to potential disaffected Democrats who, like him, believed the soul of the party had deeply changed.
The Democrat Party, which had stood for limited, decentralized government and the common man against the encroachment of government and powerful elites, had entirely changed its principles in the mind of Reagan. Reagan paraphrased the prominent New York, Catholic Democrat of the 1920s and 1930s, Al Smith, saying the “leadership of his Party was taking the Party of Jefferson, Jackson, and Cleveland down the road under the banners of Marx, Lenin, and Stalin.” This potent message to frustrated Democrats would be a powerful force in bringing over the conservative “Reagan Democrats” to the Republican Party in the 1980s.
In A Time for Choosing, Reagan was not trying to merely defeat the ideas of his opponents, he was attempting to persuade the American people to choose another path. Today, 50 years after Reagan burst on to the political scene, Americans are again presented with a choice: embrace the principles that made America exceptional and preserve for future generations the last best hope of man on earth, or live in a world in which freedom and individual liberty have been entirely snuffed out.