essays

Sep 1, 1980

The Speech

“If Ronald Reagan is the knight of modern conservatism, [it’s] time someone pointed out that the armor is tarnished, the joints creaking, and the sword dulled.”

RONALD REAGAN CATAPULTED to national prominence in 1964 when, in the waning days of the Gold-water campaign for the presidency, he took to the airwaves in a brilliant, masterful speech on Goldwater’s behalf. “A Time for Choosing,” it was called, and it was, as commentators noted, the most exceptional political speech ever given on television. In it, Reagan lambasted the legacy of the New Deal, the welfare state which had grown to then-gigantic proportions, tying the hands of the American people with red tape and the rope of government regulation. The speech was militaristic, as has become traditional with the American Right, but its overall thrust was sharp and clear: individualism was its theme, and the state stood out starkly as our enemy. Since then, Reagan has given “The Speech,” as it has come to be called, thousands of times. It is that speech which skyrocketed him to the governorship of California in 1966, gave him a shot at the nomination in 1976, and led to his nomination in 1980.

After President Ford’s nomination at the Republican Convention in 1976, he delivered an acceptance speech which stood out as the best speech of his political career. Then something odd happened: the crowd saw Reagan in the gallery and began chanting for him. Reagan bowed, then sat down, but the furor mounted. In an unusual gesture, Ford asked him to come down to the podium. Reagan did so, asked if he could say a few words, and then delivered, in five brief minutes, the most eloquent speech heard at that or any other convention. The issue was freedom, he said, and the question was whether our grandchildren would live to see any of it left. He ended by referring, in terribly moving fashion, to the “shining city on a hill” that America once had been, and could be again. In those brief moments, there must have been hundreds of delegates who wondered if they had done the right thing in choosing Ford over Reagan. For he had simply taken the crowd into his heart. Even Walter Cronkite was moved nearly to tears.

Ronald Reagan has never been anything remotely close to a libertarian, but at his best he has always borrowed heavily from libertarian rhetoric, his speeches shining with concern for liberty, his practical political actions showing nothing but callousness toward that ideal and vision. Next month we will take up the Reagan record and the horrible truth about his actual positions on political issues. But for now, a word about the acceptance speech he was finally allowed to give at the 1980 Republican Convention in Detroit.

It has always been said among Reagan advisors that you can do anything to or for Ronald Reagan—except tamper with the original 1964 Speech. Touch that Speech, and you court trouble. Thus it is that the continued efforts (by John Sears and others) to “package” Reagan have usually broken down when their kind of campaign—moderate, centrist, offending no one — collided with that damned Speech. And Reagan’s instincts have largely proven him correct: every time he allows himself to be “packaged,” his candidacy begins to fade. But as he feels his campaign failing, he delivers The Speech, audiences rise in excitement, and he begins to gain. He lost to Ford in New Hampshire in 1976 because Sears did not want Reagan to give that Speech on television, lest voters be reminded of Reagan’s past as an actor. His wife, Nancy, told Sears to go to hell, talked Ron into using the Speech on television in North Carolina, and Reagan swept to victory. He narrowly lost that campaign to Ford, but stirred excitement in the Republican rank and file by his promise to run a striking campaign; as he put it, he would unfurl a banner of bold colors, with no pale pastels.

In 1980, Reagan was given his chance. He threw off the early packaging of Sears, Sears resigned, and Reagan had it his own way, sailing to victory. He won the nomination handily. And he had the opportunity, before an audience of tens of millions of people, to give the speech which would, he hoped, launch not a campaign for the presidency, but a crusade.

Yet his acceptance speech was, arguably, the worst speech he has ever given. Gone was The Speech, and in its place a carefully crafted, politically centrist speech written, not by Reagan, but by four neoconservative “ghosts.”

It was a speech of pale pastels, and no bold colors. Few of Reagan’s hard-hitting one-liners were present, even in the oblique warmongering sections of the address, and there was not one iota of fire, passion, or vision in the whole thing. Reagan’s delivery was equally bad: he was tired and worn, his voice hoarse and dry, showing little emotion. He blew several lines, and stepped on his own applause. There was no ringing call to arms, nothing to get excited about, and, really, no crusade at all. Reagan’s closing said it all. Instead of ending with his usual “shining city on a hill,” an ending of vision, this acceptance speech ended with a moment of silent prayer. Silence was what that speech deserved, for it was cowardly, artificial and packaged to death. It was a business-as-usual speech, filled with cliches, talking about “family, neighborhood, work, peace and freedom,” about a “shared community of values” (what values?) and concerned about doing something which he called “renewing the social compact.” It ended with Ronald Reagan quoting Franklin Roosevelt, which is a disgusting indication of how far Reagan has travelled, spiritually, from that speech of 1964.

If Ronald Reagan is the knight of modern conservatism, then it is time someone pointed out that the armor is tarnished, the joints creaking, and the sword dulled. Conservatives have made their peace with the New Deal, with big government and the war economy. Sixteen years ago, at the age of fifteen, I was an anti-Cold War Goldwaterite who loved Goldwater’s call to strip government to the bones, but was repelled by his sabre-rattling. I looked upon the 1964 Reagan 6 speech as a call to arms. Now, I look upon him as I look upon that 1980 acceptance speech: tired, hackneyed, cliched, compromised, and deserving of contempt. He is an empty shell, symbolizing betrayal.

Those who support Ronald Reagan ought to do some soul-searching. Given the hawkish bellowing at the Republican convention this year—a convention whose theme should have been “War in Our Time”—we can only hope and pray that the conservatives’ march to the grave doesn’t drag the rest of us into the grave with them.

—Roy A. Childs, Jr.