There are perhaps four speeches in American history that so electrified the public that they propelled their orators to the front rank of presidential politics overnight: Abraham Lincoln’s Cooper Union Address of 1860, William Jennings Bryan’s “Cross of Gold” speech at the 1896 Democratic convention, Barack Obama’s keynote address to the 2004 Democratic convention and Ronald Reagan’s “A Time for Choosing” speech 50 years ago.
Although most Americans were familiar with Reagan from his movies, this was the first many had glimpsed of his politics. A Democrat for most of his life, he had only recently switched to the Republican Party, and he agreed to try to help rescue the doomed Barry Goldwater campaign in the final weeks before the election.
The Reagan whom Americans saw on the night of Oct. 27, 1964, was not the avuncular, optimistic Reagan of his film roles, or of his subsequent political career that emphasized “morning in America” and the “shining city on a hill,” but a comparatively angry and serious Reagan, serving up partisan red meat against liberalism and the Democrats. “Our natural, unalienable rights are now considered to be a dispensation of government,” he declared, “and freedom has never been so fragile, so close to slipping from our grasp as it is at this moment.”
The speech couldn’t save Goldwater. And his landslide defeat by President Lyndon Johnson was thought at the time to represent a sweeping repudiation of conservatism. Yet “A Time for Choosing” created a groundswell of support for Reagan’s own entry into electoral politics two years later. It also provided a template — an understanding of government as ruinously ambitious and out of control, projecting weakness and uncertainty to our enemies abroad — that still defines conservatism today.
Why did Reagan, whose speech seemed very much in the spirit of Goldwater’s campaign, create such a sensation? How did he succeed where Goldwater failed?
The simplest explanation, and a favorite of the critics who later dubbed Reagan the “Teflon president,” is that he was just a better messenger than Goldwater. His familiar image — good looks, a smooth delivery, a honeyed voice and appeals to emotion — no doubt counted for a lot. Reagan could keep your attention reading from the phone book.
But he would not have been so successful for so long with appeals to emotion alone. “A Time for Choosing” reveals a coherent political philosophy that differed in subtle ways from the main current of conservatism, blended with great skill and art in Reagan’s rhetoric.
Reagan delivered a deeply ideological speech, with strong attacks on liberalism and its vessel, the Democratic Party of LBJ’s Great Society era. “In this vote-harvesting time,” Reagan said early in the speech, “they use terms like the ‘Great Society,’ or as we were told a few days ago by the president, we must accept a greater government activity in the affairs of the people.”
At the same time, Reagan made great efforts to transcend partisanship by portraying his views as common sense: “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: man’s old, old-aged dream, the ultimate in individual freedom consistent with law and order, or down to the ant heap of totalitarianism.”
This positioning, as we might say today, contrasted with Goldwater’s gratuitously combative “Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice.” There are also obvious parallels to Obama’s “There is not a liberal America and a conservative America — there is the United States of America.” Reagan, like FDR before him and Obama after him, tried to position himself above mere partisan arguments so he could win those arguments. Would-be heirs of Reagan should take note: He wasn’t just trying to speak to the base. He was trying to expand the base through persuasion of independents and, later, disaffected Democrats.
Reagan also understood that narrative can be more effective than abstractions or slogans alone. 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. After a blizzard of numbers about government profligacy, he turned to a vivid story:
“Not too long ago, two friends of mine were talking to a Cuban refugee, a businessman who had escaped from Castro, and in the midst of his story one of my friends turned to the other and said, ‘We don’t know how lucky we are.’ And the Cuban stopped and said: ‘How lucky you are? I had someplace to escape to.’ And in that sentence he told us the entire story. If we lose freedom here, there’s no place to escape to. This is the last stand on Earth.”
Of course, this sort of anecdote has endured as a standard trope of political speeches today.
Another notable aspect of Reagan’s rhetorical strategy was claiming populism for the right. He asserted that it was now progressive liberalism, with its embrace of ever-expanding “administrative government,” that represented the elitist force in American politics: “This is the issue of this election: 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 capitol can plan our lives for us better than we can plan them ourselves.”
This complaint, made before the huge growth spurt of federal regulatory agencies in the 1960s and 1970s, is even more salient today, when the White House relies so heavily on executive orders and policy czars, and more and more problems are being addressed by bureaucratic fiat rather than congressional legislation.
Reagan didn’t divide Americans along the typical interest group or class lines. Unlike Mitt Romney’s “47 percent” remark or the “makers and takers” theme popular with many conservatives today, Reagan portrayed big government as opposing the interests of all Americans, not just the entrepreneurial or property-owning class that forms the GOP’s core constituency.
There’s a preview of his widely reviled “welfare queen” remarks in an anecdote about a mother who wanted a divorce because welfare would provide more money than her husband’s paycheck did. But on the whole, this speech and most of Reagan’s speeches tried to argue that all Americans were a special interest, rather than separating them into discrete interest groups.
Finally, Reagan was masterful in appropriating the heights of the political rhetorical tradition and enlarging them while making them his own. The conclusion of “A Time for Choosing” quotes Winston Churchill with attribution, yet also borrows or adapts unattributed quotations from Patrick Henry (“life is so dear and peace so sweet”), FDR (“a rendezvous with destiny”), Lincoln (“the last best hope of man on Earth”) and Churchill (“a thousand years of darkness”). But for his utter sincerity, you might almost charge him with plagiarism.
And this dramatic closing is couched within biblical imagery that recalls the Gettysburg Address and some of Theodore Roosevelt’s more soaring efforts: “You and I know and do not believe that life is so dear and peace so sweet as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery. If nothing in life is worth dying for, when did this begin — just in the face of this enemy? Or should Moses have told the children of Israel to live in slavery under the pharaohs? Should Christ have refused the cross? Should the patriots at Concord Bridge have thrown down their guns and refused to fire the shot heard ’round the world?”
This ending, though not as sunny as Reagan’s later evocation of “a shining city on a hill,” and despite its historical references, is essentially forward-looking. That set it apart from Goldwater’s campaign, which emphasized looking back without explaining how it would make for a better future. Bob Dole made the same mistake in 1996, when he offered himself as a “bridge” to an earlier, better America.
“A Time for Choosing” shows that effective political rhetoric is sharp and subtle at the same time. It is not easy to emulate, though few Republicans who claim to be Reaganites today seem to take much trouble even to try. They settle for conveying mere information and rely on cliches and slogans instead of serious argument and persuasion.
Looking back at “A Time for Choosing” after all this time also dispels today’s perception that the Republican Party has moved sharply to the right in recent years. It is correct to say, as was said at the time, that Goldwater and Reagan represented a shift to the right for Republicans. Or as George Will wrote in 1980, “Goldwater won the election of 1964. It just took 16 years to count the votes.” And perhaps 50 years for the entire party to come aboard. There is very little in today’s supposedly “extreme” tea party conservatives that you can’t find in Reagan’s “A Time for Choosing” (the same is true if you look at Goldwater’s bestseller “The Conscience of a Conservative”). In fact, the charge of Republican extremism today is a revival of the charge liberals made against Goldwater and Reagan in the 1960s when they didn’t want to argue the issues directly — a point Reagan made in “A Time for Choosing”: “Our Democratic opponents seem unwilling to debate these issues.”
This continuity explodes the claim that Reagan was “too moderate” for today’s GOP. This charge has become comfortable for liberals who fear a renewal of Reaganism through the auspices of the tea party, as well as for Republicans frustrated that they can’t measure up to the Gipper’s standard as a “great communicator.” The central conservative proposition might be summarized as the view that some things do not change. In practical politics, this includes the need for leaders to lay out serious and compelling cases for choosing.