On the night of Oct. 27, 1964, Ronald Reagan went on national television for half an hour to make a speech on behalf of the presidential candidacy of Barry M. Goldwater.
It was a riveting, dramatic speech, heavy with portents of danger and with the idea that more than just the occupany of the White House was at stake.
"You and I have a rendezous with destiny," Reagan said at the climatic moment. "We'll preserve for our children this, the last best hope of man on earth, or we'll sentence them to take the last step into a thousand years of darkeness."
In keeping with that sentiment, the speech was entitled "Rendezvous With Destiny," but nobody remembers that . Everybody remembers it as, simply, The Speech. If you were then an American inclined in your heart and your mind to think of yourself as a conservative, and you saw it, it stayed with you -- not the precise words, but the feeling and the message. They were impossible to forget.
The Speech made it instantly clear that it was Reagan, not Goldwater, who could best communicate the sentiments of conservatives in a way that might, conceivably, have a mass appeal. So, for conservatives, it was a crucially important event.
For Reagan, as well. The Speech was a turning point. It put him at the head of a national constituency. It gave him a base from which, over the years, he launched three campaigns for the presidency, the last of them successful. In a sense his road to the White House began with The Speech.
Now Reagan, the conservatives' hero, is president. People who call themselves conservatives control both houses of Congress. Judging by the labels people in power choose to attach to themselves, things are suddenly very different in Washington.
What that will mean for the country, exactly, is impossible to say. But it is possible to find out where the set of beliefs now called "conservative" came from, how they have changed over the years and what kind of government they imply.
That's why The Speech is still important. It is a clue -- a clue not to which White House aide or Cabinet officer will have the most power in the new administration, but to the idea and emotions that underlie Reaganism.
The Speech, along with the Goldwater campaign of which it was a part, represented a clean break from the past for American conservatism and drew together a range of feelings that had not been united under the conservative banner.
The Speech did not contain an ideology so much as a faith, a collective sentiment, stated brilliantly by Reagan. It didn't have an awful lot to do with the Republican Party. It didn't have much to do, either, with big business, which most liberals think of as the wellspring of American conservatism.
It was based on patriotic anti-communism, hostility to the federal government, and, most importantly, on an almost populistic resentment of the people in power. It was aimed, unlike much of the conservative rhetoric of the 1920s, '30s '40s and '50s, at peoplewho had never seen the inside of a country club.
These people were by no means the poor and disposessed. They were middle class, but they felt, for various reasons, that "the establishment" was hostile to them and to their beliefs. Look at a handful of people who are prominent conservatives today, who saw The Speech, and who still remember it vividly:
Sen. Paul D. Laxalt (R-Nev.) is the son of immigrant Basque sheepherders. Martin Anderson, the chief domestic policy adviser in the White House, grew up on a chicken farm in Northboro, Mass., and then in the small town of Lowell. Richard Whalen, a writer and Reagan adviser, grew up a Roman Catholic in New York City, in Queens, with working-class roots and middle-class parents. Richard Viguerie, the leader of the New Right, grew up in Houston and watched his father work his way up from constrction worker to oil refinery manager.
What was it in The Speech, and in Reagan and conservatism, that struck the magic chord in these men and thousands of other people like them? It was that Reagan was talking about a subject fundamental to American politcs, though rarely discussed openly. The subject was class.
The chief standard-bearer of American conservatism in the 1940s and early 1950s -- the man who occupied a position roughly equivalent to that of Reagan in the 1970s -- was Sen. Robert A. Taft of Ohio. He couldn't have been more different from Reagan. He represented a conservatism that was Protestant, midwestern, staunchly Republican, smalltown, small-business, resistant to change.
Taft was not a man of humble origins. His father was president and later chief justice. His family had been wealthy and prominent in Cincinnati for generations. While he was a man of the Midwest, his eastern establishment credentials were impeccable: Yale, then first in his class at Harvard Law School.
He was bespectacled, balding, almost bland. He was respected, indeed loved by millions of upright burghers, but the source of that was precisely his lack of star quality. He was a solid man, a repsonsible man.
He was elected to the Senate in 1938, and immediately became a leader of the Republican Party. He fought what he called "big government" -- the New Deal, the Fair Deal, federal deficits, a generation of social-welfare programs -- at every turn.
Labor unions were his implacable foes. He was reluctant to enter World War II, and after the war he was wary of the United Nations and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
Like many midwesterners of his generation, he had an almost inborn mistrust of involvement in the affairs of Europe, just as the New Yorkers who opposed him within the party seemed instinctively drawn across the Atlantic.
His political enemies, besides the Democrats, were the liberal Republicans of the East, the men of Wall Street, the internationalists, the supporters of the welfare state. Somehow Taft and his followers were never able to overcome them.
In 1940 they gave the Republican nomination to Wendell Willkie, a lawyer whose biography in Who's Who that year listed him as a Democrat. In 1944 and 1948, the first years when Taft was a candidate, they nominated Thomas E. Dewey, the liberal governor of New York. And in 1952, Taft's last-hurrah year as a presidential candidate, they nominated Dwight D. Eisenhower, a midwesterner and a war hero, but only recently a Republican. The next year, Taft died of cancer.
By the time of his death, Taft was already fading as a conservative leader.
There were two reasons for this.First, in the years after World War II an economic explosion was beginning in this country that would last for 25 years and would change the nature of American society radically.
From the end of the war to 1960, the average American's annual earnings more than doubled. Personal expenditures for recreation more than tripled. Average per-capita consumption of beef in 1945 was exactly the same as it had been in 1899; in the next 15 years it went up by 20 pounds. Taft's old bromides couldn't explain this change, and couldn't register with the people it was making prosperous.
Second, in those same years the Soviet Union quickly came to dominate Eastern Europe, and a communist government took power in China. One widespread reaction to this in America: we must stop the spread of communism around the world; something is gravely wrong. Taft, as an isolationist, did not speak to that kind of anxiety naturally. A Joseph McCarthy, or, more respectably, a Richard M. Nixon, did.
In 1953, the year Taft died, a history professor, Russell Kirk, published a book, The Conservative Mind, which for most of the decade stood as the leading expression of the conservative creed in America.
It is a musty, Anglophilic book, which defined conservatism literally: the impulse to conserve, to resist change. Kirk was horrified by "a world that damns tradition, exalts equality, and welcomes change . . . a world smudged by industrialism, standardized by the masses, consolidated by government. . . ." Two years later, when William F. Buckley started his magazine National Review, he said his aim was to "stand athwart history, shouting No."
That kind of thinking -- resistance to change, and in particular fear of the masses -- had been present in America from the days of its founding. Many of the framers of the Constitution were from the landed gentry, and shared Alexander Hamilton's apprehensions about "the imprudence of democracy." Russell Kirk, in the same spirit, revered "the ancient rights of property, especially property in land."
It is against that background that Reagan's speech is so striking. Like the True Cross, The Speech is difficult to find today, and the account of it here comes from a phonograph record pressed by a Reagan admirer in California.
In one of its many climactic moments, Reagan quotes a liberal senator as saying that government should help the masses, and then says, his voice trembling with indignation, "Well, I for one resent it when a representative of the people refers to you and me, the free men and women of this country, as the masses. This is a term we haven't applied to ourselves in this country."
That was exactly opposite in spirit and content to the respectable conservative dogma of the 1950s. In Reagan's world, the masses weren't to be feared. They were, in fact, him and his audience, valiantly fighting off the tyranny of government liberals.
"This is the issue," he said at another point. "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."
Reagan's mesage wasn't entirely new. Like Taft before him and virtually every conservative politician since, he complained bitterly about high taxes, inflation and the imbalance of the federal budget.
He predicted that the programs of the Great Society wouldn't work. But he also did what Taft couldn't: he spoke the eternal conservative verities in the language of a new class, and tied them to the fervent emotion of anticommunism.
"Those who would trade our freedom for the soup kitchen of the welfare state," he said, "have told us they have a utopian solution of peace without victory. They call their policy accommodation. . . . We cannot buy our security, our freedom from the threat of the bomb, by committing an immorality so great as saying to a billion human beings now enslaved behind the Iron Curtain, 'Give up your dreams of freedom, because in order to save our own skins we're willing to make a deal with your slavemasters.'"
That sounded good to Richard Viguerie, who says now he was "electrified" by The Speech. As a boy in Houston, he was electrified when Gen. Douglas MacArthur rode through the city in a ticker-tape parade after having been fired by President Truman. He was electrified when watching the Army-MacCarthy hearings on television.
Viguerie is too prominent now to be considered a typical conservative, or a typical anything. But his response to The Speech, and the responses of several other conservatives well known today, gives some hint of how Reagan's sentiments were then beginning to appeal to a group of people not traditionally thought of as conservative in America: the upper blue-collar and lower white-collar middle class.
In the early 1950s, Viguerie began to devour the writings of ex-communists and professional anticommunists, people like Dr. Fred Schwarz (You Can Trust the Communists -- to Be Communists), Freida Utley, James Burnham, Herbert Philbrick (I Led 3 Lives), and Whittaker Chambers. He listened to the radio anti-communists of the time, men like Fulton Lewis Jr. and John T. Flynn.
He became, to use his word, "outraged" at the conduct of the Chinese communists, and of the pro-Soviet communists in Eastern Europe; and he became convinced that the U.S. government and the East Coast Establishment, the people who ran things, did not share his outrage.
Paul D. Laxalt, who today calls himself Reagan's best friend on Capitol Hill, remembers The Speech as "a hell of a speech, fabulous." He continues: "He preached the politics of individualism. He was speaking my language."
Laxalt was then a lawyer recently come to politics; he had become Nevada's lieutenant governor in 1962 and lost a Senate race in 1964.
His father and mother had come to Nevada from France, and they herded sheep. The senior Laxalt arrived in America virtually penniless, made a fortune in the 1920s, lost it all in the Depression, and remained staunchly Republican whether he was rich or poor. His son hardly remembers the process of becoming conservative.
"I always had a conservative philosophy," he said. "Individualism, self-sufficiency, take care of your own. We were instilled with self-reliance. It's just like on the sheep range. The best government's the least government."
Martin Anderson saw The Speech at his apartment in New York City, and was immediately impressed. He saw it at a time when he was just beginning to think of himself as a conservative. As a young man, he was an assiduous student who thought far more about mathematics than about politics.
Then, in the fall of 1960, when he was in graduate school at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he decided he was as a matter of course for Nixon for president, and found that none of the other graduate students agreed with him. Not one.
He had, and has to this day, no idea what it was in his life that made him think differently from all of them. But when a friend began giving him books by Frederick Hayek and Ludwig von Mises, free-market economists, he found himself agreeing with what he read.
He became increasingly sympathetic to libertarianism, a philosophy of total individual freedom, with barely any government role, economic or otherwise. He read the free-market romantic novels of Ayn Rand, and then, through his friend, Alan Greenspan (later chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers at the White House), actually met Rand and became an occasional guest at her home. So it was natural that he would like what Reagan had to say.
Richard Whalen brought to The Speech an entirely different set of experiences, but was no less impressed than the others. Whalen's father was a textile company executive and a Republican, but the family's roots were Irish-Roman Catholic, with strong ties to the craft-union movement. Whalen grew up in what he now calls "bucolic Queens." He added: "In New York City then there were many provincial corners that could have been in the Midwest."
In the Whalen family's corner, in the late 1940s, the Democrats were unthinkable -- they represented big government, big labor, debt, a hundred great and small instrusions on the values esteemed by the small-town middle class -- but the liberal Republicans of Wall Street were the enemy, too.
To people like the Whalens, Wall Street was a lot of Protestants who not so long ago wouldn't hire Catholics, who had altogether too much power, whose foreign policy views meant too-close ties to England, too-quick involvement in foreign wars and a too-trusting attitude toward communists. Whalen's hero was Sen. Taft.
William F. Gavin, a moon-faced sentimental, plain-talking man of 45 who has been a Reagan speechwriter, thought The Speech was "absolutely incredible." Gavin grew up the son of a truck driver in a Catholic neighborhood in Jersey City.
In college at Jersey City State in the late 1950s, he began to feel that the professors were not sympathetic to "those pieties I took for granted: belief in God, family values." He began to find himself liking Republican candidates better than Democratic ones, voted for Nixon in 1960, and was a precinct worker for Goldwater in 1964.
In 1968 Gavin, then training high school teachers at the University of Pennsylvania wrote Nixon a letter telling him he should run for president. An aide to Nixon wrote back, and Gavin wound up as a Nixon speechwriter and, later, a member of the White House staff.
There he met some other young conservatives who had found their way into the Nixon administration, among them Martin Anderson and Richard Whalen. And through those contacts, years later, another Reagan speech was born.
In 1976 William Gavin was writing speeches for then-senator James L. Buckley of New York, and got a call from Anderson, who said he was working for Reagan, and could Gavin please come out to California and meet with the governor?
"We just talked," Gavin says of the meeting. "We had a general discussion of conservation. I said it isn't and cannot be an ideology, and I felt language had to be developed to put that into words. Reagan intuitively understood this. He was very receptive."
After that meeting, Gavin began working on a speech that Reagan delivered on national television on July 6, 1976. It was quite different in tone from The Speech of 1964 -- the old harshness modified, the nascent populism brought to the fore.
"Those who came to this untamed land brought the family," Reagan said. "And families built a nation. I'm convinced today the majority of Americans want really what those first Americans wanted -- a better life for themselves and their children, a minimum of governmental authority.Very simply, they want to be left alone in peace and safety to take care of the family by earning an honest dollar and putting away some savings. This may not sound too exciting, but there is a magnificence about it."
In 1978, Gavin met with Reagan again to work on a new speech, in which he would develop some of the themes of his 1980 campaign. As the work went on, someone -- Gavin won't say if it was him -- scratched down on a piece of paper a list of five words, words that immediately made their way into the speech and that Gavin now calls "the litany."
The words were Family, Work, Peace, Neighborhood, Freedom. They became famous when somebody plastered them on a huge banner in front of the platform at the 1980 Republican National Convention.
"That put into basic terms an inarticulate feeling out there," Gavin says now. "Really, what are you talking about? The GNP? No. You're talking about these values. For the first time a Republican conservative was talking about things the average guy in Jersey City could understand."
Reagan stayed hostile to the federal government through all those years, of course, and always talked about taxes and inflation and the threat of communism. But as for the collective sentiment he hit on in 1964, the idea that conservatism is the emotion of the masses, that become broader and broader, until by the fall of 1980 it was just those words: Family, Work, Peace, Neighborhood, Freedom.
Long ago a French philosopher said that everything begins with sentiment and ends in politics. Reagan and modern American conservatism had defined their basic sentiment by 1964, and stayed with it for the next 16 years. But a question remained: in what sort of politics would that sentiment end?