President Ronald Reagan, who would have turned 100 on Sunday, was a bold and inspirational conservative visionary. His ability to effectively communicate both the failures of bureaucratic central planning and the virtues of a free market are unparalleled in modern American political history. To commemorate Reagan’s birth, General Electric is sponsoring the two-year Reagan Centennial Celebration, which coincides with GE’s release of a short documentary on the anniversary of Reagan’s famous “A Time for Choosing” speech.
In addition to the millions spent in promoting the Reagan Centennial, GE will provide $5 million in the form of 200 college scholarships for students “who embody the vision and values personified by President Reagan.” At first glance GE’s involvement seems commendable, but given the present state of the company in our political discourse, it would be more aptly described as tragically ironic.
In “A Time for Choosing,” delivered at a televised Goldwater for President fundraiser in 1964, Reagan praised conservative nominee Barry Goldwater and bemoaned the wastefulness of big government. The rhetorical juxtaposition of the speech was powerful: “You and I have a rendezvous with destiny,” Reagan said in closing. “We’ll preserve for our children this, the last best hope of man on earth, or we’ll sentence them to take the last step into a thousand years of darkness.”
Reagan spoke in anecdotes about that “last step,” expounding on how government had slowly crept into our free society. He spoke of how one in six of the nation’s workers were employed by the government, how the need for government programs never lessened but always grew, and how the creation of new programs was duplicating, never replacing, existing ones. While this speech could not get Goldwater elected president, it successfully launched Reagan’s own political career, one which would take him to California’s governor’s mansion in 1967 and eventually to the White House.
But what is less well known is that much of the content of “A Time for Choosing” had been presented dozens of times before 1964 by Reagan as an address simply known as “The Speech.” While employed by General Electric as an ambassador and host of General Electric Theatre from 1954 to 1962, Reagan gave this speech in banquet halls, Rotary Club meetings and at local chambers of commerce.
Some of the content of the speech, however, proved controversial for GE, in particular Reagan’s opposition to the Tennessee Valley Authority. In The Education of Ronald Reagan: The General Electric Years and the Untold Story of His Conversion to Conservatism, author Thomas Evans reveals that a government official had complained to GE CEO Ralph Cordiner about Reagan using the TVA as an example of government waste, suggesting that a $50 billion government contract might go elsewhere. GE pressured Reagan to remove any reference to the TVA from his speeches. It was the first of many conflicts of interests that led to GE firing him in 1962. After leaving GE, Ronald Reagan switched his party affiliation from Democrat to Republican.
While it’s hard to blame GE for looking out for the bottom line, their fearfulness is a classic example of the problem our democracy faces when the government has the wealth, power and influence to force companies to capitulate to its demands. GE’s rent-seeking, as it’s called in economics, is based on the belief that business should align closely with government to exploit favorable legislation, exemptions and contracts for ill-gained profit. Or as GE CEO Jeffrey Immelt told The Atlantic, business and government should “work in concert.”