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The Real Impact of Reagan’s “A Time for Choosing” Speech

Ronald Reagan and Barry Goldwater

Last night many of our conservative friends celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of the broadcast of “A Time for Choosing,” Ronald Reagan’s now-mythic TV address on behalf of Barry Goldwater.

(Links at the end of this article)

As CHQ Chairman Richard A. Viguerie recounts in his book TAKEOVER: The 100-Year War for the Soul of the GOP and How Conservatives Can Finally Win It, the broadcast of “A Time for Choosing,” up against Pettycoat Junction and Peyton Place, raised some $6 million for Goldwater. 

The ad ran multiple times, and while it has entered the realm of myth today, it sparked little interest or comment in the media at the time.

Even in The Los Angeles Times, which leaned Republican in those days ( ! ) Reagan’s now mythic speech only made Hedda Hopper's Hollywood gossip column.

And October 27, 1964 wasn’t even the first time Ronald Reagan delivered “A Time for Choosing.”

Reagan traveled the country on behalf of General Electric and as a dinner speaker. He had delivered a speech titled “A Time for Choosing” to business and political groups a number of times over the course of almost two years—it was a message he wrote, he believed in and that he knew well.

By the way, can you imagine the GE of today or any of the other leading members of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, such as Microsoft, Facebook or Boeing, sponsoring someone like Reagan to travel the country giving the principled conservative message of “A Time for Choosing” today?

One of the reasons conservatives celebrate “A Time for Choosing” is that its themes are so fresh and relevant even today. Substitute radical Islam for the references to world communism and “The Speech,” as it came to be known, still works fifty years after it was broadcast.

The title “A Time for Choosing” derives from a paragraph in the speech in which Reagan set before his audience a choice between self-reliance and the welfare state:

“So we have come to a time for choosing. Either we accept the responsibility for our own destiny, or we abandon the American Revolution and confess that an intellectual elite in a far-distant capitol can plan our lives for us better than we can plan them ourselves.”

Reagan delivered the now famous TV version of “A Time for Choosing” to a national television audience on behalf of Senator Barry Goldwater’s faltering presidential campaign just a week before the election.

As CHQ Chairman Richard A. Viguerie recounts in TAKEOVER, Goldwater’s inner circle initially opposed the idea of a national broadcast of “A Time for Choosing,” but Houston, Texas, banker Jimmy Lyons threatened to pay for it himself.

Eventually the controversy made its way up the food chain to Senator Goldwater, who watched the video and liked it, so Goldwater’s campaign staff reluctantly acquiesced to airing the ad, if for no other reason than to maintain control.

In “The Speech” Reagan went straight at Goldwater’s name-calling detractors in both Democrat and establishment Republican circles by saying, “Those who deplore use of the terms ‘pink’ and ‘Leftist’ are themselves guilty of branding all who oppose their liberalism as right-wing extremists.” (Sound familiar?)

But Reagan took the argument a step beyond party politics by asking, “How long can we afford the luxury of this family fight when we are at war with the most dangerous enemy ever known to man?”

Suddenly Reagan wasn’t just talking to Republicans or conservatives, he was talking to all Americans—and he was selling conservative ideas about the dangers of Communism and the loss of freedom that was sure to follow the growth of the welfare state.

One of the reasons "A Time for Choosing" remains so powerful today is that it set forth a conservative manifesto that was certainly grounded in Goldwater’s analysis of the shortcomings and dangers of the welfare state and appeasement of the Soviet Union, but was somehow deeper and more appealing than mere criticism of Great Society liberalism and the establishment elite's "softness" on Communism.

A week out from what was to be an electoral defeat of epic proportions, what the media thought of the impact of that last-ditch ploy by the Goldwater campaign wasn’t really important. What was important was that in its content and in Reagan’s smooth and reassuring delivery, “the Speech” landed like a bombshell in the midst of the conservative movement.

In so doing “A Time for Choosing” established Ronald Reagan’s political brand as the preeminent communicator of conservative ideas, and as Mr. Viguerie observed in TAKEOVER, in some sense, for the next twenty-five years Reagan never deviated from that script.

Here’s a link to the text of “A Time for Choosing”

Here’s a link to the video of “A Time for Choosing”

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