"If we lose freedom here, there is no place to escape to. This is the last stand on earth."
Oct. 27, 1964
It was 50 years ago today that Ronald Reagan gave the speech that is often credited with launching his political career — "A Time for Choosing."
"There are perhaps four speeches in American history that so electrified the public that they propelled their orators to the front rank of presidential politics overnight: Abraham Lincoln's Cooper Union Address of 1860, William Jennings Bryan's 'Cross of Gold' speech at the 1896 Democratic convention, Barack Obama's keynote address to the 2004 Democratic convention and Ronald Reagan's 'A Time for Choosing' speech," writes Steven F. Hayward in the Washington Post.
You may disagree with some — or all — of those choices. I certainly do. But all should be in the conversation.
Of course, there have been people whose political careers clearly began with a single speech or a single event, but, in my experience, most followed a gradual path to political prominence — if, indeed, it could be said that they achieved prominence. And Reagan certainly did, defeating a sitting president and winning re–election by a landslide four years later.
But most went into politics — or politically oriented fields — early in life. I suppose it is somewhat ambiguous in Reagan's case. He began his professional life as an actor and spent the better part of the next three decades making movies. His first political office, I guess, was in the early 1940s when he was an alternate to the Screen Actors Guild's board of directors. He later served as SAG's vice president and president.
Reagan was a Democrat early in his life and campaigned for Democrats, but the last Democrat he actively supported for the presidency was Harry Truman. He supported Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon before officially switching parties in 1962.
And 50 years ago today, he revealed his political ideology. It didn't help Republican nominee Barry Goldwater, who went on to lose to President Lyndon Johnson in one of the most lopsided landslides in American history, but it laid the foundation for Reagan's rise to the presidency.
"The Founding Fathers knew a government can't control the economy without controlling people," he said. "And they knew when a government sets out to do that, it must use force and coercion to achieve its purpose. So we have come to a time for choosing."
If the emergence of modern conservatism can be traced to a single event, it is Reagan's speech. He put the choice in the starkest terms he could.
"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 capitol can plan our lives for us better than we can plan them ourselves."
American Rhetoric ranks the speech higher than any of Reagan's speeches as president — except the one he gave following the Challenger disaster.
But the speech that Reagan gave 50 years ago today was different, as Hayward (the Ronald Reagan distinguished visiting professor at Pepperdine University's School of Public Policy) observes.
"The Reagan whom Americans saw ... was not the avuncular, optimistic Reagan of his film roles, or of his subsequent political career that emphasized 'morning in America' and the 'shining city on a hill,'" Hayward writes, "but a comparatively angry and serious Reagan."
"In this vote–harvesting time, they use terms like the 'Great Society,' or as we were told a few days ago by the president, we must accept a greater government activity in the affairs of the people."
When I read the text of Reagan's speech today, I cannot help but see stark parallels between that time and this one, particularly with an election only a week away — as it was when Reagan delivered his speech.
"This is the issue of this election," Reagan 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 capitol can plan our lives for us better than we can plan them ourselves."
As he wrapped up his speech, Reagan told his listeners, "You and I have a rendezvous with destiny. 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."
A columnist for the Paris (Tenn.) Post–Intelligencer says Reagan's words "ring true to this day, though the magnitude of today's problems dwarf[s] those faced then."
That may or may not be an exaggeration. Every generation is warned that it is taking the path to destruction. It hasn't happened so far.
But the fact that it hasn't happened doesn't mean that it won't.
For that reason, I guess, messages like Reagan's "a time for choosing" will always find an audience, just as there will always be an audience for the message of "hope and change."
How loudly the message resonates depends upon the nature of the times — and the appeal of the messenger.