The Day Ronald Reagan Transformed Himself and American Politics




Ronald Reagan delivering his televised speech in favor of GOP presidential candidate Barry Goldwater. (Courtesy: Ronald Reagan Presidential Library)



On October 27, 1964, Ronald Reagan went from being a former B-movie actor to a rising political figure by giving a speech in support of Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater. The speech is called “A Time for Choosing,” although in conservative movement circles it is simply referred to as “The Speech.”

Goldwater knew he was going to lose the election—by a lot. In the closing days, he was “fatigued, demoralized, and defeated, yet went through the motions . . . ” according to his biographer, Robert Alan Goldberg. Goldwater lost hugely, in part, because he was running against the former vice president of a young president who was brutally assassinated just a year before; he was successfully painted as a war-monger by his opponent, Lyndon Johnson, exacerbating his situation by casually talking about using nuclear weapons on the battlefield; he opposed the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which lost him any hope of capturing any significant share of the Black vote and in fact intensified Black numbers for Johnson; and, finally, Goldwater was a poor campaigner, who spoke unguardedly, lost his temper, and made himself an easy target of disapproval for the press.

But the very things that made him unsuccessful in the general election made him highly appealing as an insurgency candidate for his party’s nomination. His opposition to the Civil Rights Act and particularly its undoing of the right of association, which Goldwater thought to be unconstitutional; his militant anti-communism, his dislike of the welfare state, his candid assertions. All of these made him the darling of the conservative movement. Here was someone who was truly offering, to borrow Phyllis Schlafly’s phrase, “a choice, not an echo,” not a Republican who was offering to be a better manager of liberalism and the welfare state but someone who wanted to dismantle it. The American electorate was not quite ready for that in 1964. It would be in 1980 when Reagan would win the GOP nomination.

Reagan’s speech on behalf of Goldwater in 1964 was an 11th-hour attempt to breathe life into the campaign, which, in fact, it briefly did. Reagan was taking a risk coming out for Goldwater, who was considered outside the political mainstream, for some, an extremist. But Reagan, knowing, as everyone did, that Goldwater was going to lose, stood to inherit a political constituency, stood to become the voice of an ardent political movement, understood that he could be a better version of Goldwater, more urbane, someone who could appeal more to mainstream voters, particularly disaffected Whites who were not inclined to vote Republican just then but could be persuaded later, as the Democratic Party would become, in the eyes of many, more the party of minorities and less the party of the White ethnic working-class. Reagan made his last film in 1964, a role he would regret, playing a villain in The Killers.

His speech for Goldwater was not new. It was not even particularly for Goldwater. He had given it many times before to workers at General Electric. From 1954-1962, he traveled across the country for GE, talking to over 250,000 workers during that time, extolling the virtues of the company, of capitalism, of the American system. He sometimes spoke to as many as fourteen audiences a day. It was the experience, not acting, that gave him the ability to give a good speech, to hobnob with people, to deal with disagreeable people in the audience, to sell himself by selling the company. And, of course, this gave him the stamina to endure meeting endless numbers of strangers in a day and discipline to stay on message, both essential for a successful politician.

The speech, beautifully delivered and persuasively written (for those who wished to be persuaded), summarized conservative complaints as well as expressed their aspirations: anti-communism, stopping the growth of the welfare state, praising individual freedom, suspicious of federal government power over the states, the usual laundry list. He squeezed Goldwater in here and there, but the speech would have been successful with his audience had he never mentioned Goldwater. Instantly, Reagan became a political star. In two years, he would be governor of California. In sixteen years, he would be president of the United States. When Reagan ran for the 1980 GOP nomination, Goldwater supported Gerald Ford.