- The Washington Times - Monday, October 27, 2014

History tells us that seemingly inconsequential decisions can sometimes change the world in ways that no one would have predicted at the time they were made.

Fifty years ago this week, an actor nearing the end of his not particularly outstanding career appeared on network television near the end of Sen. Barry Goldwater’s not particularly outstanding presidential campaign. In one last appeal for votes, actor Ronald Reagan and the speech he delivered on the evening of Oct. 27, 1964, dubbed “A Time for Choosing,” changed the world and is today remembered as one of the most consequential speeches ever by an American politician.

Ronald Reagan was well known both as a Hollywood actor and as the longtime host of CBS’ “General Electric Theater,” one of the most popular shows on television in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. In addition to hosting the show, Reagan’s GE contract required him to travel the country speaking to company employees, but as his politics changed from reliably liberal to more controversially conservative, he was let go. Even today, big companies abhor controversy.

The modern conservative movement began after World War II as an essentially intellectual movement with little real-world political clout. William F. Buckley Jr. at National Review and others saw Goldwater as a candidate who might help change that. The Arizonan was, after all, the man who stood seemingly alone on the Senate floor to denounce his own party’s domestic policies as a “dime-store New Deal.” In his “Conscience of a Conservative,” he articulated a cohesive new conservatism that appealed to the millions who bought and read the book, and at the 1960 Republican National Convention urged conservatives to “grow up,” promising them that if they did, they could change the world.

Many believed then that Goldwater would emerge as the Republican nominee to challenge President Kennedy in 1964, looking forward to a civil issues-based campaign. Goldwater and Kennedy were personal friends who had even talked about debating around the country should such a campaign come to pass, but Lee Harvey Oswald destroyed the world in which such a campaign might have been possible in November 1962. Goldwater and the other potential Republican presidential candidates would face a very different kind of liberal in Lyndon Johnson running on JFK’s legacy in 1964; a race no Republican could win and one for which Goldwater initially had little stomach.

Goldwater was not a perfect candidate. He was plain-spoken, principled, unscriptable, often cantankerous and ambivalent about making the race, but eventually decided to lead conservatives into battle even if it was to be a losing cause. He decided to say what he thought, rally his troops and let the chips fall as they might. He later bragged that losing in a landslide as he did meant that he would never have to wake up thinking that if he’s just done this or that differently he might have won.

Lee Edwards, now a distinguished fellow in conservative thought at the Heritage Foundation, worked in the Goldwater campaign and has called him the most consequential loser in modern American political history. Goldwater remade the GOP, brought a new generation of activists into a conservative movement that in the years following could mount successful political campaigns that conservative writers and intellectuals could only dream of before.

In the course of that campaign, with one decision made against the advice of close advisers, Goldwater inadvertently launched the political career of the aging actor who had volunteered to argue the senator’s case to a national television audience. Reagan had been speaking to California groups large and small as a Goldwater volunteer. In the process, had perfected a popular and persuasive speech that made the case for Goldwater and for a new conservative vision.

Several wealthy California conservatives were convinced that if Reagan could make that speech to a national audience he might be able to change the dynamic of the campaign. They volunteered to buy the television time themselves in what we would later call an “independent expenditure” separate from the campaign itself. Goldwater’s advisers didn’t like the idea. His media buyers and consultants would lose their commissions and his political advisers thought Reagan either too extreme or irrelevant. They wanted the contributors to let them use the money for a softer 30-minute conversation with former President Dwight Eisenhower that had aired once earlier with little effect.

They took their case to Goldwater, who called Reagan to ask him to back off, but when Reagan asked the senator what bothered him about the speech, Goldwater admitted he had not viewed it himself. When Goldwater did screen the talk, he decided it was fine, overrode his advisers and let Reagan go ahead. That decision changed the world.

Goldwater didn’t win, but Reagan never looked back. He was soon elected governor of California by a million votes, served two terms as president, and left the White House with an approval rating nearing 70 percent. Reagan turned the country’s policies and politics on their head, stared down and ultimately defeated the Soviets, and revived the American optimism that he believed so vital a part of America’s character.

The speech that changed the world was delivered only because of one seemingly inconsequential decision by an Arizona senator a half-century ago.

David A. Keene is opinion editor of The Washington Times.

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