February 6 is the 100th birth anniversary of Ronald Reagan. As we celebrate the legacy and continuing influence of our 40th president, we should recall that Ronald Reagan’s road to the While House, like that of so many other presidents, began with a speech.
It was late October of 1964. Barry Goldwater’s quixotic campaign for president was careening toward catastrophe. Dispirited Republicans glumly awaited their worst presidential showing since Alf Landon defeated Franklin Roosevelt in Maine and Vermont.
Then Ronald Reagan—who was then widely regarded as nothing more than a washed-up movie actor—made a nationally-televised fundraising speech for Barry Goldwater called, “A Time for Choosing.”
As a teenaged Goldwater enthusiast I tuned in, not expecting much. But hardly had Reagan begun to speak, when I was hanging on his every word.
“I have spent most of my life as a Democrat,” he began. “I have recently seen fit to follow another course. I believe that the issues confronting us cross party lines.”
What were those issues? They were the same issues that Reagan was to ride triumphantly to the White House 16 years later: oppressive tax rates, reckless spending, government bureaucracies run amok and fatal irresolution in the face of the Communist threat.
Even then, Reagan had the uncanny ability to make his case in terms that average voters could understand, and to do so with the warmth and wit that would become his trademarks.
His jab at the Great Society’s Job Corps program was particularly effective. He pointed out that the government would be spending $4700 on each trainee in the program, and then added: “We can send them to Harvard for $2700! Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting that Harvard is the answer to juvenile delinquency.”
The speech also showed Reagan’s genius—which he shared with Lincoln—for using homey little illustrations to make a point. Toward the end of the end of the speech, he used this device to show the American people the real Barry Goldwater.
Anyone who thinks that politics today is a blood sport should revisit the presidential campaign of 1964. Barry Goldwater, a decent man if ever there was one, was vilified as everything from a trigger-happy psychopath bent on nuclear war to a neo-Nazi. (And him half Jewish, yet!)
With a few bold strokes, Reagan replaced the caricature with an authentic likeness: “This is a man who, in his own business, before he entered politics, instituted a profit-sharing plan, before the unions had ever thought of it. He put in health and medical insurance for all his employees. He took 50 percent of the profits before taxes and set up a retirement program … He sent checks for life to an employee who was ill and couldn’t work. He provided nursing care for the children of mothers who work in the stores. When Mexico was ravaged by floods from the Rio Grande, he climbed in his airplane and flew medicine and supplies down there …
“During the hectic split-second timing of a campaign, this is a man who took time out to sit beside an old friend who was dying of cancer. His campaign managers were understandably impatient, but he said, ‘There aren’t many left who care what happens to her. I’d like her to know I care.’ This is a man who said to his 19-year-old son, ‘There is no foundation like the rock of honesty and fairness, and when you build your life upon that rock, with the cement of the faith in God that you have, then you have a real start.’ This is not a man who could carelessly send other people’s sons to war.”
Reagan’s speech did not change the outcome of the 1964 campaign, but it changed history, nonetheless. It raised $8 million in contributions to the Republican Party; it propelled Reagan to the governorship of California just two years later; and it made him a respected national figure who would become, ultimately, President of the United States and leader of the free world.
Hal Gordon was a speechwriter in the Reagan White House. He now freelances and teaches speechwriting in Houston. He blogs on speechwriting, at The Speechwriter’s Slant.