Tuesday, October 27, 2009

This Day in Presidential History (Reagan Speech for Goldwater Boosts Own Cause)

October 27, 1964—One week before one of the worst electoral disasters in its history, the Republican Party found a new hope in aging matinee idol Ronald Reagan, whose speech supporting doomed nominee Barry Goldwater ended up starting a boomlet for his own cause.

Two years before the half-hour address, “A Time for Choosing,” that thrust her husband onto the political stage, Nancy Reagan, according to Laurence Leamer’s 1983 biography of the couple, Make-Believe, confided to a college friend: “Not a day goes by when someone doesn’t come to the house and ask Ronnie to run for senator or governor or even President of the United States. It boggles the mind but maybe it’ll get me out of the carpool.”

Right after the carefully edited tape of Reagan’s Phoenix studio appearance from a week earlier had broadcast on NBC, however, a group in Owosso, Mich., moved a step forward toward getting Mrs. Reagan “out of the carpool” by establishing a Reagan for President committee.

Here’s the amazing thing: the speech almost didn’t come off, for two reasons:

* The GOP star in that year’s Presidential drama, Goldwater, didn’t want to be upstaged by the putative supporting player, Reagan—a personality quirk that must have made the veteran thespian chuckle when he heard about it. The candidate’s finance chair, Henry Salvatori, weighed in on Reagan’s behalf, according to Reagan: The Hollywood Years, by Marc Eliot.

* Two weeks before it was scheduled, the Goldwater campaign couldn’t come up with funds to pay NBC for airtime. To prevent the threatened cancellation, a group called The Brothers for Goldwater supplied the money. The chair of the group, John Wayne, saw in Reagan someone who could voice his own beliefs but without his significant liabilities, including his recent battle with cancer and questions over his nonservice in the military in WWII.

What came to be known as “The Speech” had evolved over the last 10 years, much of which Reagan spent as a PR spokesman for GE. No wonder, according to journalist Joseph Lewis’ What Makes Reagan Run? (1968), the actor told Goldwater, “There isn’t one kooky thing in the speech—it’s the same one I have been giving up and down the country for years.”

Well, not quite. Goldwater was rightly concerned how Reagan’s criticism of how Social Security evolved would be interpreted. In the end, it seems, he was persuaded to let Reagan go ahead because any gaffe the actor might commit wouldn’t be any worse—or more numerous—than the ones the candidate himself had already committed. (For instance, his televised comments about using the nuclear bomb had given many viewers the shakes already.)

The idea for Reagan’s address to the American public took root in earnest when Goldwater couldn’t make a $1,000-a-plate fundraiser at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. Reagan’s friend Holmes Tuttle asked him to fill in.

“Dutch” Reagan was happy to oblige. He had already met and liked Goldwater and his policies, and had enlisted his brother Neil, an advertising man, to help the candidate frame his message with commercials.

(What a thankless task for Neil, by the way. A couple of years ago, HBO ran a documentary in which one person after another admitted, now that he was dead, what a fine fellow Goldwater was. Even Hillary Clinton copped to being a “Goldwater girl” in ’64! Back in the day, though, it was different. That scowl looked so ingrained on the Arizona Senator’s face that only surgery could remove it. He was not an inviting candidate--put it that way.)

Anyway, the response to Reagan’s speech at the Ambassador was rapturous. His friends then made their plea: He’ll juice up the passages about the candidate and will be ready for a prime-time address. With nothing to lose, Goldwater and his advisers at last bought into the idea.

The speech Americans heard on NBC appeared to be live, but was in fact a carefully edited version of what had already taken place in a Phoenix studio. It fit exactly into the 30-minute format that NBC allotted for commercials. But Reagan needed little editing. From long years of practice, he knew where to put the strategic pauses and emphases, when to insert a mocking one-liner, how the flow of words should be paced.

Over and over again throughout Reagan’s career, opponents made a critical mistake: underestimating him as simply a glorified pitchman. Joseph Lewis, for instance, was perfectly correct in noting that “A Time for Choosing” featured a frightening amount of eye-glazing statistics. But he didn’t adequately appreciate the way Reagan’s poetic phrasemaking resonated with Americans.

A few other points are worth mentioning about “The Speech”:

* Reagan’s speech subtly evoked the hero of his youth, Franklin Roosevelt, but then sought to undercut his legacy of affirmative government. Toward the end of his address, the actor told his audience, “You and I have a rendezvous with destiny.” A significant percentage of his audience would have recognized that last phrase from FDR’s speech accepting renomination at the 1936 Democratic Convention. But earlier in the speech, he recalled how Alfred E. Smith had left the party in the mid-1930s over its move to the left. Reagan’s criticism of Social Security and agricultural price supports, in fact, took on two of FDR’s programs.

* Like The Right today, he summoned the bogeyman of “socialism”—but, unlike today’s fire-eaters, he appeared so amiable he could get away with it. “It doesn't require expropriation or confiscation of private property or business to impose socialism on a people,” Reagan warned darkly—though he forget to add that it sure would help. At the same time, the smiling demeanor, the aw-shucks manner, and the acknowledgement that many liberals were “well-meaning” took the edge off what he said.

* The heart of Reagan’s appeal was the belief in American exceptionalism. The conservative alliance with the religious right would come in the mid-to-late 1970s, and the fears of moral decline and of disorder in society had not yet taken root. But Reagan was already tapping into the long-held mystical belief that America was carved out for greatness--"A city upon a hill," in John Winthrop's phrase in 1630--and that those who stood with him were part of something far greater than themselves. “We'll preserve for our children this,” Reagan predicted toward the endof his speech, “the last best hope of man on earth, or we'll sentence them to take the last step into a thousand years of darkness.” That phrase, “the last best hope of man on earth,” evokes Lincoln’s plea, in his 1862 message to Congress, about the necessity to adopt his plan for compensated emancipation as a means to save the Union: “We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth.”

In his primary campaign, Barack Obama was attacked by Bill and Hillary Clinton for saying that Ronald Reagan had “changed the trajectory of America.” He was not making a value judgment—if anything, his entire political career opposed most of Reagan’s policies—but merely stating an indisputable fact. The governor of California and President of the United States halted and reversed the liberal tide in America, becoming the benign, grandfatherly face of Goldwaterism. For better and worse today, we live in the aftermath of the vision he espoused in “A Time for Choosing.”

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