Every poll confirmed that the Republican nominee for President in 1964 was headed for a major defeat. Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.) had pulled off an amazing victory to gain the GOP nomination in San Francisco. He had soundly defeated such Eastern Establishment figures as Gov. Nelson Rockefeller (R-N.Y.) and Gov. William Scranton (R-Penn.) Goldwater’s campaign for the nomination is seen today as the beginning of the modern conservative movement in politics.
The liberal media was determined to destroy Sen. Goldwater. They depicted him as the “mad bomber.” Their editorial pages ran hostile cartoons. One typical one showed him as a crazed trainman on a San Francisco cable car. “Streetcar Named Disaster” was the caption for that political cartoon, a reference to the play “A Streetcar Named Desire.”
Despite all this, and fully aware that he was about to make his national political debut backing a losing cause, actor and TV personality, and former union president Ronald Reagan went on national television to deliver a 29-minute speech titled: “A Time for Choosing.”
It’s worth watching this speech in its entirety. We see her a younger, edgier Ronald Reagan than we may be used to. He is angry but his righteous indignation is kept under tight control. He clearly believes that his friend, Barry Goldwater, has been savaged by the Lyndon B. Johnson campaign and by their willing accomplices in the press.
Reagan hammers home point after point, but he takes care to use stories to convey his message. My favorite line is about the Cuban exile who tells of his brutal mistreatment under Communist dictator Fidel Castro. When his American businessmen listeners remark how lucky they are to live under freedom, the Cuban says how lucky he is. “I had some place to escape to!” Reagan makes the point: If we lose freedom in America, there will be no place to escape to.”
I was too young to vote in 1964 and I missed this famous speech. In those days, you couldn’t DVR or TiVo TV broadcasts. But I certainly heard about Reagan’s amazing speech. It raised millions of dollars for the doomed Republican campaign. It was perhaps the only bright spot that fall for the outgunned GOP.
President Johnson carried forty-four states that fall and swept thousands of liberal Democrats into office on his coattails. Towns in Vermont and Kansas that had never elected a Democrat to any office at any level went with the Democrats that Election Day.
But within two years, the wheels were coming off the LBJ bandwagon. Within his own party, opponents to U.S. military involvement in Vietnam began to be heard. Inflation took off, leaving millions of Americans—especially retirees on fixed incomes and service members still enduring the military draft—falling further and further behind. By the time of the 1966 mid-term elections, scores of those Johnson had swept into Congress were swept out by voters.
In 1966, Ronald Reagan was elected Governor of California. He defeated liberal Democrat Pat Brown (father of the current Gov. Jerry Brown) by more than one million votes. Reagan served two highly successful terms as California’s governor.
His election as President in 1980 was still considered something of a long shot, largely because the liberal media continued to view him as “extreme” and “dangerous.” Reagan, however, never reacted angrily. He learned to keep his temper in check and use his well-developed sense of humor to puncture liberal shibboleths.
Still, it’s well worth remembering that it all began for Ronald Reagan this day in 1964, half a century ago. Reagan was what they call a conviction politician. Or, in more recent computer jargon, WYSIWYG—What you see is what you get.
Here’s an example: I attended a staff conference in the federal education department in 1985. Mrs. Patricia Hines had convened the meeting of Reagan appointees to decide on a policy to pursue about education. Of five options offered us by the career civil service employees, Mrs. Hines opened the meeting by saying: “Options number three and number five are off the table, but let’s look at one, two and four.”
Innocently, I asked why she had ruled out those two choices. As if she was gently chiding a slow student, Mrs. Hines said: “Numbers three and five are specifically condemned in the Republican Platform on which President Reagan was elected. This president may not be able to do all the things the Republican Platform recommends, but he will never do something the platform condemns. That’s basic to government by consent of the governed.”
I was embarrassed that I had not studied the Platform, but I was thrilled to be so corrected. Ronald Reagan believed that the people who nominated him and elected him had done so because they believed in him and trusted him to do what he said he would do. He would not break faith with them.
For thirty years—from this day in 1964 until that day in 1994 when he wrote his dignified and moving letter telling us he had Alzheimer’s Disease, Ronald Reagan was the acknowledged leader of American conservatism.
I especially like the fact that he quoted Founding Father Alexander Hamilton in his 1964 speech:
“The nation that prefers disgrace to danger is ready for a master—and deserves one.”
This quote reminds us that Reagan quoted the timeless wisdom of the Founding Fathers more than any of the four presidents who preceded him (and more, too, than any of the four presidents who have succeeded him.)
America’s leaders have disgraced us all too often in the tumultuous years since President Reagan left us. Strong majorities today tell public opinion pollsters our country is on “the wrong track.” There is deep cynicism about political leadership.
Studying Reagan’s career is not an exercise in nostalgia. It is a necessary task if we would seek to place our beloved country on a better course.