When Ronald Reagan stepped up to the podium to deliver a speech on behalf of presidential candidate Barry Goldwater on Oct. 27, 1964, he had no idea that he was about to launch what would later be known as the Reagan Revolution. Yet this address, which was videotaped and broadcast nationwide, transformed Reagan from a washed-up actor into a leading conservative politician and ultimately led to his election as the nation’s 40th president in 1980. Initially called “A Time for Choosing,” it is now known simply as “The Speech” and marks a watershed moment in American political history.
Today, on the 46th anniversary of The Speech, with the midterm elections looming, it is appropriate to reconsider what Reagan said and why it still matters. Indeed, the message he delivered remains as timely and important today as it was nearly half a century ago.
Reagan identified the central issue of the 1964 campaign as a struggle between individual rights and an all-powerful federal government. “This is the issue of this election,” he said, “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.”
Today, nearly five decades later, the issue remains much the same, as the rise of the Tea Party suggests. Americans, long suspicious of centralized authority and government by a select few appear ready to reject both as they prepare to head to the polls next week.
In The Speech, Reagan famously observed that Americans were being offered a stark choice in 1964: “You and I are told increasingly that we have to choose between a left or right, but I would like to suggest that there is no such thing as a left or right. There is only an up or down - up to man’s age-old dream - the ultimate in individual freedom consistent with law and order - or down to the ant heap of totalitarianism.”
Americans face a similar choice today as they prepare to vote in next week’s elections. The choice is once again a stark one between liberty and freedom on the one hand and an increasingly arrogant and coercive federal government on the other.
Invoking the spirit of Thomas Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence, Reagan bluntly warned of the erosion of individual rights as a result of such unrestrained government growth. “Our natural, unalienable rights are now considered to be a dispensation of government,” he declared correctly, “and freedom has never been so fragile, so close to slipping from our grasp as it is at this moment.”
Is this any less true today as the current administration seeks to increase spending, raise taxes and exert its control over every sector of the economy from health care to energy to education?
Reagan then turned to the arena of foreign policy and warned against those who would seek accommodation with our adversaries. He was speaking of the threat of communism then, but his words apply equally today to the threat of terrorism posed by radical Islamist militants. “Those who would trade our freedom for the soup kitchen of the welfare state have told us they have a utopian solution of peace without victory,” Reagan said. “They call their policy ‘accommodation.’ And they say if we’ll only avoid any direct confrontation with the enemy, he’ll forget his evil ways and learn to love us.”
Today, we witness an administration that has banned the word “terrorism” from its vocabulary and seeks accommodation with brutal dictators in Iran and North Korea.
In his closing paragraphs, Reagan paraphrased both Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt: “You and I have a rendezvous with destiny,” he declared. “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 darkness.”
Today, as Americans head to the polls, are the stakes any less important?
The Speech was a seminal moment in American political history that transformed the conservative movement, the Republican Party and, ultimately, America itself. Goldwater lost the election in a landslide to Lyndon Johnson in 1964, but Reagan’s words reverberated throughout the country. Sixteen years later, he took the oath of office as president and launched the Reagan Revolution.
Now, Americans face yet another “time for choosing.” Let’s all hope that we heed the Gipper’s warning and choose wisely.
Ronald Maggiano is a high school history teacher.