Forty Years Ago: 'The Speech' that Launched a Career and Changed the World

If there is one myth that needs to be dispelled, it is that Ronald Reagan led a serendipitous life; that he floated along from opportunity to opportunity, never really touching reality, never really having to fight for anything. Indeed, most of Reagan’s life was a struggle, often over his being underestimated by his opponents and his allies including Barry Goldwater.

Though his 1964 landmark speech for Goldwater, broadcast on NBC forty years ago, was his first real national introduction to the American people as a political leader, Reagan had been speechifying against communism and for freedom all through the fifties and the late forties, as the five time president of the Screen Actors Guild and on the “mashed potato” circuit for General Electric. Reagan also read extensively and met often with scholars and authors. He was never the intellectual lightweight his enemies would charge him with. In fact, Reagan thought and wrote extensively as we are just beginning to discover, now that many of his letters are being released.

Goldwater was initially opposed to Reagan giving the speech or “The Speech” as it has become known as to those of us who watched that night and those who appreciate it’s place in Reagan’s and America’s political history. Reagan’s landmark speech at the time would be billed as “A Time for Chosing” and the later record album would be named “Rendezvous with Destiny.”

As Lee Edwards points out in his book, Goldwater, The Man Who Made a Revolution, Reagan and Goldwater were never really close friends and the only thing they really shared was ideology, although Goldwater came from the more libertarian strain. One would have thought that with their love of jokes, the outdoors and horses, the might have become good friends but it was not to be.

Though Reagan had given a speech at the Republican Convention in San Francisco, Goldwater and his staff were of the opinion that somebody else should give the national address to help jumpstart the flagging Arizonan’s presidential campaign. They though Reagan wasn’t up to it intellectually and fretted about his references to the problems with Social Security.

Goldwater was far behind the incumbent, Lyndon Johnson, due to his own intemperate remarks, the dirty tricks being played on him by LBJ’s campaign (long before Clinton’s “War Room” Johnson had his own called the “five o’clock club”) and the memory of a dead president.

Reagan had been approached by some prominent Californians asking if he would be interested in giving a national address to attract support for Goldwater and Reagan immediately said yes. But Reagan suggested that instead of a “talking head” half hour speech, he speak before a live audience. They approved including Holmes Tuttle and Henry Salvatori who put up the money. Both would go on to become charter members of the “Reagan Kitchen Cabinet.”

Goldwater’s men were queasy about the speech and told the Senator as much. They said it was “emotional” and “unscholarly.”Reagan called Goldwater to make the case for airing the speech and Goldwater told Reagan frankly his concerns but also that he hadn’t actually seen the tape of the speech. Goldwater did looked at it and, according to Edwards, said to his staff, “What the hell’s wrong with that?” Goldwater called Reagan and assured him the speech would air which it did, described by many journalists as the one bright spot in an otherwise desolate campaign. Time called it “The one bring spot in a dismal campaign” and it raised several million dollars for Goldwater while bringing untold voters into the Goldwater column.

Reagan’s speech was laced with humor: “The problem with out liberal friends isn’t that they are ignorant; it’s just that they know so much that isn’t so.” Or this one: “We are going to solve the dropout problem by re instituting the old CCC camps??¢â???¬ ¦we are going to spend each year just on room and board for each young person that we help $4,700 a year! We can send them to Harvard for $2,700 a year. Of course, don’t get me wrong; I’m not suggesting that Harvard is the answer to juvenile delinquency!”

And facts on the farm program, national defense, welfare and, of course, anti communism were all in Reagan’s speech. And, a moving close: “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 will sentence them to take the last step into a thousand years of darkness.”

Goldwater lost in one of the biggest landslides in American history, but it could have been worse. In polls around the time of the Reagan speech, the Republican nominee was only getting support from 30-35 percent of the American people. Goldwater eventually got nearly 40 percent. Anyone in politics will tell you one can rationalize losing 60-40 but on one came rationalize losing 70-30. Additionally and even more importantly, those of us who have worked in politics know the difference between losing campaigns that mean something and losing campaigns that mean nothing. Gerald Ford’s losing campaign in 1976 did not leave any sort of legacy for the GOP or American. But no one can argue that Goldwater’s campaign was meaningless. It was anything but.

In hindsight, some people erroneously think Reagan’s speech for Goldwater in 1964 was the single reason he ran for Governor in 1966. In fact, Reagan had been contemplating a run for office for sometime, though he had not yet focused on the Executive Mansion in Sacramento. But the reaction to the speech did galvanize support for Reagan and allow voters to see him through a different prism than the one they seen him through for the previous thirty years. Also, the surprising win in 1964 of his old friend, song and dance man George Murphy, running for the US Senate against the appointed Senator, Pierre Salinger, helped convince Reagan he too could make the transition to politics successfully. Reagan himself wrote in Speaking My Mind that his speech, “changed my entire life.”

This, as well as the outpouring especially in California, helped him make up his mind to seek public office, always as a “citizen politician.”

Reagan ran in 1966, swamped his liberal opponent in the primary, swamped the incumbent, Pat Brown in the general, and won handily again in 1970. Still, had not Reagan emerged from the ashes of the Goldwater debacle, it is not a metaphysical certitude that he would have run for Governor. And had he not run for Governor, he would never have been elected president. And the world would have missed the “Reagan Revolution.”

Even today, I still enjoy listening to the album of the speech that launched a career that changed the world though the jacket cover is framed with Reagan’s autograph to my daughter Taylor on it. And I still remember my father coming home in 1965 with the album, making my brother John and I sit down and listen to it and declaring afterwards, “This man Reagan himself should be president!”