October 27 1964, Campaigning for Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan delivers The Speech

Ronald Reagan

by Gary Kamiya

“The Last Stand on Earth”

On November 3, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson crushed Senator Barry Goldwater in the U.S. presidential election. Johnson won more than 61 percent of the popular vote, the most lopsided tally since 1824. The Republican senator managed to carry only his native Arizona and, because of his position that federal civil rights laws were a violation of states’ rights, five Southern states. Respected national pundits proclaimed that the landslide tolled the death knell for American conservatism. “[Goldwater] has wrecked his party for a long time to come,” James Reston wrote in the New York Times. Political analysts agreed that Goldwater’s right-wing views were too extreme for the country to swallow. The conventional intellectual wisdom was that in the post–New Deal era, America had reached the “end of ideology,” and the election only confirmed this belief. According to sociologist Daniel Bell, the collapse of liberal illusions about the Soviet Union and the rise of the welfare state had created a “rough consensus among intellectuals on social issues.” It was not even clear what American conservatism was. The future of the battered Republican Party, if it had one, lay in its moderate Eisenhower wing, whose positions were not significantly different from those of Democrats.

It was one of the great misreadings in American history. American conservatism was not dead: Goldwater was not an end, but a beginning. His supposedly extreme ideas, presented in a more palatable way, were to become the dominant force in American politics. The man who was almost single-handedly responsible for this political revolution was a second-tier Hollywood star named Ronald Reagan. And the event that catapulted Reagan onto the national stage was something now known simply as The Speech.

On October 27, a week before the election, the Goldwater campaign ran a national telecast of an address called “A Time for Choosing” that Reagan made on Goldwater’s behalf. If the pundits had been blessed with a crystal ball, they would have ignored Goldwater’s defeat and studied every syllable of that speech, every camera angle, every facial expression. For The Speech is one of those uncanny cultural artifacts that contains within it not just words, gestures, and ideas, but a future.

Reagan had been delivering The Speech, in various versions, for years—for General Electric. The company had hired him to do an unusual double job: to host its weekly TV show, General Electric Theater, and to tour the country making motivational speeches to its 250,000 employees. GE was no ordinary company. It carefully cultivated its image as a bastion of free enterprise and as a loyal corporate community. It saw its mission as selling not only lightbulbs and appliances but an entire way of life—one for which Reagan himself became an advertisement. GE fitted out his Pacific Palisades home with the latest electric gadgets— and also fitted Reagan out as a spokesman for its free market, anti-union, anti-Communist, anti-welfare creed. Reagan spread GE’s conservative gospel to the company’s employees, and also to community groups, Rotary Clubs, and schools across the country.

It was a perfect job for Reagan. Although he had been a union leader in Hollywood, from 1947 heading the Screen Actors Guild through the most fraught years of the cold war, he was by temperament and belief a company man. His bitter fight with unionists who he was convinced were Communists, trying to take over Hollywood on orders from Moscow, had led him to fear for his life and to work as an FBI informer. So Reagan tirelessly crisscrossed the country for GE, polishing his speech, convincing workers that they were part of a big, happy family, honing antigovernment punch lines that would appeal to business leaders. After GE fired him, for reasons that remain controversial (some say it was because he had become too right-wing for the company, others that GE was afraid that Reagan would be implicated in a pending federal antitrust lawsuit against the Screen Actors Guild), giving The Speech became Reagan’s sacred cause.

Watching “A Time for Choosing” now is a little like watching Citizen Kane for the first time. Precisely because you know the speech is a classic, it is somewhat anticlimactic. Reagan’s themes, and perhaps more important, his rhetoric and performative style, have become so deeply ingrained in American political discourse that it is hard to understand what made the address such a sensation.

But if what happens is familiar, it’s also strangely unnerving. Reagan opens The Speech jumping out at the bell, a boxer who wants to overwhelm his opponent. Just seconds into it and Reagan is throwing roundhouse rights, proclaiming that America’s apparent prosperity is an illusion, threatened by excessive taxation and the national debt. The viewer scarcely has time to digest this dark thought when Reagan throws down the gauntlet. It isn’t just America’s economy that is at risk, but her soul—and her very existence. “As for the peace that we would preserve, I wonder who among us would like to approach the wife or mother whose husband or son has died in South Vietnam and ask them if they think this is a peace that should be maintained indefinitely,” Reagan says. “Do they mean peace, or do they mean we just want to be left in peace?”

Only three minutes into his speech and Reagan has sanctified himself with the blood of heroic Americans and accused Democrats of appeasement. Having performed those holy rituals, he delivers the liturgical condemnation of Evil. “We are at war with the most dangerous enemy that has ever faced mankind in his long climb from the swamp to the stars,” he thunders. And then, in an ingenious transition, he makes the classic right-wing move, linking together the little Satan, big government, with the Great Satan of communism. “If we lose freedom here, there is no place to escape to. This is the last stand on Earth,” Reagan proclaims. And to make that last stand against mankind’s most dangerous enemy, we must return to the “freedoms that were intended for us by the Founding Fathers.” If we do not, we will “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.” The welfare state is not just a subversion of rugged American individualism, it is the first step toward surrendering the City on a Hill to the Communists.

Reagan strikes a slightly less harsh note in his assault on big-government follies, but it’s clear from his relentless tone that all of the sins he denounces are connected. Mocking a government redevelopment agency that declared Rice County, Kansas, a depressed area, he asserts that its inhabitants “have over $30 million on deposit in personal savings in their banks.” Then comes the punch line: “When the government tells you you’re depressed, lie down and be depressed.” The banner-toting audience, which the camera occasionally shows applauding, roars with laughter. Some of Reagan’s anecdotes are almost identical to ones he would use sixteen years later, when as president he attacked “welfare queens” driving Cadillacs. Reagan tells the story of a married woman whose husband made $250 a month, and who decided to divorce him because welfare would pay a single mother $330 a month. “She got the idea from two women in her neighborhood who had already done that very thing.”

Then Reagan returns to his overarching theme—the moral necessity of resistance to Communist evil. “There is no argument over the choice between peace and war, but there is only one guaranteed way you can have peace—and you can have it in the next second—surrender.” The accusation is now explicit: the Democratic policy of accommodation is a betrayal of everything holy.

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?

In his conclusion, Reagan borrows rhetorical fire from two of America’s greatest presidents, Franklin Delano Roosevelt—his lifelong model of a charismatic leader—and Abraham Lincoln. “You and I have a rendezvous with destiny,” Reagan intones, echoing Roosevelt. And then, from Lincoln: “We will preserve for our children this, the last best hope of man on Earth, or we will sentence them to take the last step into a thousand years of darkness.”

The Speech made Reagan a national political figure overnight—in fact, even before the night was finished. After the broadcast ran, Reagan recalled in his autobiography, he was “still nervous about it and, when I went to bed, I was hoping I hadn’t let Barry down.” Reagan was awakened about midnight by a call from a Goldwater staffer, who told him the campaign switchboard had been lit up constantly since the broadcast. Thousands of people had pledged support for Goldwater. The Speech, replayed again and again across the country, ultimately raised $8 million for Goldwater and the GOP—the equivalent of about $50 million in 2007.

Historians agree that The Speech was such a sensation because Reagan was a better communicator than Goldwater. His anecdotes were folksier, his jokes better, his delivery more informal. He was a more familiar, less threatening, and less eccentric figure than Goldwater. As Rick Perlstein relates in Before the Storm, his exhaustive study of Goldwater’s campaign and the rise of postwar American conservatism, Goldwater came across as an angry Jeremiah, an outsider, an image that his Democratic opponents seized on and converted into a menacing caricature reminiscent of Dr. Strangelove. As Reagan noted after the election, conservatism needed the “soft sell.” But to contemporary eyes, The Speech is far from genial or reassuring. Reagan speaks much faster than he did in the years that followed, or than most politicians have done since. He smiles less. He starts citing statistics just seconds into the speech, and his arguments are relentless, almost staccato. His famous charm flashes now and then, but he is mostly deadly serious. He comes across as a stern father, exuding a controlled outrage. If Reagan is the Good Cop, Goldwater’s Bad Cop must have resembled a Western version of Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant.

This impression is partly due to the changed conventions of political speech. Humorless pronouncements delivered by jutting-jawed white men were the cultural norm in the fifties and early to midsixties: they didn’t feel authoritarian, merely authoritative. But the real reason that The Speech feels ominous is the fact that it was filmed before history canceled out the actual meaning of its words.

Reagan displays none of his storied optimism here. There’s no “Morning in America,” no soaring talk about making “a new beginning.” Instead, he warns that America is on the verge of an apocalyptic doom. It is a bleak speech, verging on despair, that unabashedly employs the most extravagant historical and philosophical comparisons—“Should Christ have refused the cross?”—to denounce our moral weakness and warn of our imminent demise. It is one of the great role player’s darkest roles.

The Speech is disturbing because it shows the paranoid, millenarian side of American conservatism, unleavened by Reagan’s Main Street sunniness. But it is also disturbing because it presents that right-wing vision in its pure form, unsullied by history. The Speech predates Reagan’s entry into the world of politics, with its compromises and accommodations. As president, Reagan ended up backing away from some of his most cherished ideals. He raised taxes, reached agreement with the Communists, folded his cards in the face of terrorism, increased the federal deficit, and expanded the federal government. Reagan never abandoned his rhetoric of good versus evil, but it turned out not to apply to the real world. The Speech allows us to imagine an alternative Reaganist future, in which he lives up to his words—a world where he really does bomb the Soviet Union, get rid of Social Security, and end the progressive income tax. The Speech is a kind of distillation of Reagan’s Platonic right-wing essence. Like Keats’s Grecian Urn, it freezes him, an immortal figure from a strange, lost part of the American id, eternally raging against communism, big government, and liberal traitors.

That future never happened, but Americans think it did. That’s one reason that New Right conservatism continues to wield a disproportionate influence in American life. But the other reason has to do with the inchoate anxieties, wishes, and fears to which The Speech appealed then, and to which the dream it spoke for appeals today.

The Speech tapped into the primordial American myth: untrammeled individuality. There must be a territory for Huck Finn to light out to, a promised land where authority—or government—does not reach. In this always-beckoning frontier, all the hindrances that drag Americans down are left behind. Businessmen can run their businesses as they like, free from the plague of do-gooder bureaucrats. White people need not carry the spurious cross of racial guilt. Unruly and ungrateful minorities—pinkos and softies and degenerates and pointy-heads and uppity women— are shown their place. Above all, the profoundly destabilizing specter of relativism, of compromise, of moral ambiguity, is banished. No longer need Americans accommodate themselves to evil. A divine certainty stretches from sea to shining sea.

This is as much a metaphysical wish as it is a political platform. It is a sermon as much as a speech. And it is in the gap between those two things—the space between the dream of absolute freedom and the reality of a fallen world—that America forever stumbles.

Bibliography:

Sidney Blumenthal, The Rise of the Counter-Establishment: From Conservative Ideology to Political Power (New York, 1986). Sidney Blumenthal and Thomas Byrne Edsall, eds., The Reagan Legacy (New York, 1988). Rick Perlstein, Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus (New York, 2001). Garry Wills, Reagan’s America: Innocents at Home (New York, 1987).