Fifty years ago, on October 27, 1964, Ronald Reagan became a national political figure and birthed the modern conservative movement by giving a nationally televised speech on behalf of the floundering presidential campaign of his friend, Barry Goldwater.
“The Speech,” as it subsequently became known, was one of the few bright spots for conservatives and Republicans in an election that saw President Lyndon Johnson win a record 61 percent of the popular vote to Goldwater’s 39 percent—a defeat so epic that most commentators agreed it represented the death of conservatism as a viable political philosophy.
But in the thirty minutes allotted to his address, Reagan captured the attention of millions already distressed by the ambitions of Johnson’s Great Society, and the perception that a morally weakened America was at the mercy of God-less Soviet totalitarianism.
Reagan said almost nothing new or different from what Goldwater had been advocating in terms of policy. Goldwater had said war with the Soviets was virtually inevitable; so did Reagan. Goldwater had advocated making Social Security voluntary; so did Reagan.
But where Goldwater frightened people, Reagan comforted them.
Liberals had taken the Goldwater slogan, “In your heart, you know he’s right,” and cruelly twisted it into the rejoinder, “In your guts, you know he’s nuts.”
When Goldwater spoke, it made it seem as if it was the dawn of the apocalypse; when Reagan spoke, it seemed the dawn of a new day. Reagan, said one impressed conservative, “was Goldwater mutton dressed up as lamb.”
The conservative wing of the Republican Party had been pushed aside for decades. Before Goldwater, the last truly conservative GOP candidate for president was probably Calvin Coolidge in 1924. Liberal and moderate Republicans disparaged their conservative brethren for wishing to take the party “back to Methuselah,” as Thomas Dewey phrased it.
But Reagan made conservatism seem like the future.
Was the difference only the messenger? Perhaps.
One of the remarkable things about The Speech was that Reagan had been working on it for more than a decade—and for most of that decade he remained a loyal Democrat.
Reagan had been so liberal during the dark days of the Great Depression that friends insist he once flirted with joining the Communist Party.
But after World War II, disillusioned first by a series of strikes in Hollywood that he believed were Communist-inspired, Reagan became steadily more conservative, though he still campaigned for Harry Truman in 1948 and against Richard Nixon in 1950 during the latter’s U.S. Senate race.
With his once-promising movie career fading, Reagan found a new career in 1954 as a corporate spokesperson for General Electric. It was a role that required him to host “GE Theater” every Sunday night on television, and to give speeches around the country to GE employees and civic groups touting the virtues of free enterprise and electric appliances.
Except for once telling him to quit attacking the Tennessee Valley Authority (a GE customer), GE never told Reagan what to say. He was free to develop his own ideas and remarks, and so he continued to refine his talk over the years.
By Reagan’s own estimation, he had given a version of The Speech more than eight thousand times before he did so on behalf of Goldwater. Little wonder that it seemed such a polished effort compared to the stilted appearances of most politicians during the early days of television.
Remarkably, Goldwater and his aides initially did not want Reagan’s help. Reading Reagan’s proposed remarks on paper, Goldwater, who had known Reagan for a dozen years, thought they were no more than a pastiche of antigovernment clichés, and worried it would reinforce Goldwater’s image as an extremist.
But reading Reagan on paper was a very different experience from hearing him speak. Instead of a radical call for rebellion against the liberal order, one keen observer within GE said The Speech came across more as an affirmation of “old American values,” and no more controversial than “the Boy Scout code.”
Reagan was as effective in his use of humor as John Kennedy or Franklin Roosevelt had been. His salvos against big government sounded more bemused than angry, such as his quip, “A government bureau is the nearest thing to eternal life we’ll ever see on earth,” or, “Today there is a growing number who can’t see a fat man standing beside a thin man without automatically coming to the conclusion the fat man got that way by taking advantage of the thin one.”
Reagan even claimed to eschew ideology, saying there was now “no such thing as left or right, only up or down.”
What Reagan had done, as much with his demeanor as his message, was redefine populism, so that the term no longer meant wariness of the power of big business, but of the power and unfairness of big government. In that regard, he seemed like a Jacksonian Democrat.
When Reagan said government had “taken from the needy and given to the greedy” with urban renewal programs that dislocated average homeowners for the primary benefit—so he said—of developers, he echoed these words from Jackson’s veto of the renewed charter of the Second Bank of the United States: “It is to be regretted that the rich and powerful too often bend the acts of government to their selfish purposes.”
By tapping into such long-held American beliefs, Reagan was more restoration than revolution—the opposite of the perception of Goldwater.
Reagan’s concluding paragraphs were a mish-mash of quotes from Lincoln, Churchill and his one-time idol, FDR.
“You and I have a rendezvous with destiny,” Reagan said. “We’ll preserve for our children this last best hope of man on earth or we’ll sentence them to the last step into a thousand years of darkness.”
It might seem, as it did to Goldwater, a string of clichés, but there is always appeal in the tried and true.
The Speech generated nearly $1 million in contributions, most of them small, into the Goldwater campaign. Yet, Goldwater never thanked Reagan for his effort. Still only fifty-five years old, Goldwater no doubt resented how quickly conservatives pushed him aside to anoint Reagan as their new leader. Later in life, Goldwater even dismissed Reagan as “just an actor.”
But it was Reagan’s theatrical and oratorical skills, often compared to Kennedy’s at the time, that gave conservatism new life even in the midst of a deadly defeat.