This October 27 marks the 50th anniversary of Ronald Reagan’s “A Time for Choosing” speech, which launched the “Great Communicator” on his incredible political career. This oration on behalf of conservative Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater’s presidential campaign in 1964, put Reagan on the political map and eventually launched him to the presidency.
In order to bring Reagan’s timeless speech to a new generation Young America’s Foundation (YAF) is launching A Time for Choosing: The Next Generation project. YAF will also be releasing a number of short videos this week, juxtaposing present day events with the timeless wisdom of conservatism, in Reagan’s own words. These videos include: national security, limited government, entitlement reform, the importance of the private sector, and self-determination.
YAF is commemorating the anniversary of what is sometimes simply called “The Speech,” with special initiatives reaching young people on college campuses, through conferences and seminars across the country, in the media, and through programs at the Reagan Ranch and Reagan Ranch Center.
Historian Craig Shirley wrote about how Reagan appealed to young voters in his book about the 1980 presidential election, Rendezvous With Destiny. Shirley wrote, “Reagan, the oldest candidate, knew what was on the minds of young Americans: they had been robbed of their future and didn’t like it one bit.” The newest generation, living with the burden of having less prosperity than their parents, needs to hear this message.
Reagan’s half-hour performance in front of a live audience drew from American history–speeches of Abraham Lincoln, John Winthrop, and Franklin Roosevelt in particular–and laid out the deep principles that would become the cornerstone of the conservative movement for the next half century. Channeling the American tradition and ideas stemming from the founding, Reagan proposed to set out a bold, new course for American governance that departed from the mantras of a calcified twentieth century progressivism.
By appealing to patriotism, the American dream, and simple, common-sense ideas Reagan helped lay the groundwork for a resurgent conservative movement. Reagan energized young people, many of whom would help put him in the White House.
Ultimately, Reagan proposed that Americans should have a clear cut choice when they went to the ballot box, one that he believed was clear. Reagan said, “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.”
According to Reagan every generation has an opportunity to make a choice; embrace freedom and individual liberty as passed down from the founders, or not. Reagan hit this theme again in his 1967 California gubernatorial inauguration speech. “Freedom is a fragile thing and is never more than one generation away from extinction,” Reagan continued. “It is not ours by inheritance; it must be fought for and defended constantly by each generation, for it comes only once to a people. Those who have known freedom and then lost it have never known it again.”
In giving voters a choice, Goldwater and Reagan departed from the “me-too conservatism” that defined the post-New Deal Republican Party. Reagan was asking Americans to do more than vote their interest or simply pick between two “personalities.” Using stirring rhetoric, sunny optimism, and deeply held belief in the American people–reminiscent of a Lincoln or Thomas Jefferson–Reagan inspired a new generation to fight for ideals that had made the nation truly great.
Stephen F. Hayward wrote in The Age of Reagan: The Fall of the Old Liberal Order:
…Reagan exuded a forward-looking optimism rooted in the latent greatness of America. This was not the non-ideological Chamber of Commerce kind of conservatism, the kind of conservatism that led Richard Nixon to say in the 1960 campaign, “It’s the millions of people that are buying new cars that have faith in America.” That kind of conservatism won’t stir anyone’s soul. For Reagan, faith in America transcended its material accomplishments.
The Time for Choosing speech was a critical moment in Reagan’s career that brought his name and message to a generation looking for answers. Though Goldwater would go on to lose in a landslide defeat, the power or Reagan’s message ignited a spark in Americans. His message would resonate after the failure of Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” and the malaise of Jimmy Carter’s administration in the 1970s. Fortunately, YAF is bringing Reagan’s message to a new generation, 50 years later.