US News & World Report

By Nicole Hemmer

Yesterday marked the 50th anniversary of what, in conservative circles, is known simply as “The Speech.” Airing a week before the 1964 election, The Speech marked the arrival of The Politician, Ronald Reagan. It is an origin story fitting for conservatism’s mythic hero: In the ruins of the Goldwater campaign were sown the seeds for the movement’s redemption.

Certainly that is how conservatives are remembering “A Time for Choosing,” Reagan’s 30-minute pitch for Barry Goldwater and the conservative principles for which he stood. “Conservative presidential politicians had a North Star in Reagan after that,” John Fund wrote this week for the National Review. Conservative commentator Monica Crowley likewise argued that The Speech “set the stage for the electoral triumph of Richard Nixon, and later, for the conservative revolution that brought Reagan to power in 1980.”

It is little wonder that, when it comes to Reagan, conservatives focus on the pure world of rhetoric rather than the messy world of politics. But even in the case of The Speech, focusing solely on the captivating rhetoric obscures its real significance to his political career, as well as its lasting impact on American conservatism.

Take, for instance, the role of industry in The Speech. Reagan developed it not on the campaign trail but on the mashed-potato circuit, as he stumped across the country selling free enterprise on behalf of General Electric. GE provided what historian Thomas W. Evans called Reagan’s “postgraduate education,” nine years of ideological schooling under the tutelage of Lemuel Boulware, who pioneered a number of innovative anti-union tactics as GE’s vice-president. From 1954 to 1962, Boulware helped transform Reagan from a run-of-the-mill New Deal liberal into a rock-ribbed Goldwater conservative.

Industry did more than educate Reagan, however. Businessmen who organized a $1,000-a-plate dinner at which Reagan spoke pressured the Goldwater campaign to turn his speech into a television ad. When the Goldwater campaign refused to pay for the network air time, two former GE executives and a GE employee found the funds to air it. And after the speech, the California entrepreneurs behind the ad organized “Friends of Reagan,” the group of advisers who would pave the way for Reagan’s 1966 gubernatorial campaign.

This context matters, because the reminiscences of Reagan’s speech present it as an expression of ideological purity. “Wherever you stand on Reaganomics, here is a lucid, cogent and fiercely persuasive statement of the case for small government and market freedoms,” Sam Leith wrote for the Financial Times. The rhetoric of free enterprise often comes in such wrappings, but it cannot be divorced from the practical business interests it advances. Reagan’s paeans to the free market and his invectives against government regulation did not arise from pure philosophical contemplations, but rather advanced a particular set of interests that favored industry.

Another problem arises when commentators divorce The Speech from The Politician. In an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times, Monica Crowley and Craig Shirley underscore Reagan’s devotion to individual liberties, arguing a return to Reaganism is necessary to counter the loss of civil liberties under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. But Reagan is a strange avatar for the defense of civil liberties. It was Reagan, after all, who testified as a friendly witness to the House Un-American Activities Committee. Reagan who signed the 1981 executive order that serves as the “primary source” authorizing the NSA’s spying powers. Reagan who launched the War on Drugs. Reagan Republicans may be many things, but “civil libertarians” is not among them.

In The Speech Reagan also denounced deficit spending and government growth, both of which exploded during his presidency. I mention this not to point to Reagan’s hypocrisy or failure to follow through, but to underline the dangers of focusing only on rhetoric. Reagan no doubt sincerely believed that government had grown too large and that deficits were undesirable. But when in office those beliefs did not translate into smaller government or balanced budgets. Why call for a new Reagan, when the old one didn’t achieve his goals?

And that’s the key to understanding the appeal of The Speech in conservative lore. An expression of ideological belief, it came at a moment when Reagan had not yet entered party politics, when he had not yet had to compromise. It is the Reagan myth in its most distilled form, a rendezvous with destiny still unsullied by the journey.

This article was originally published in the US News & World Report