SANTA BARBARA, Calif. — Monday marks five decades since 53-year-old actor Ronald Reagan entered the national political consciousness, giving a final, twilight boost to Sen. Barry Goldwater’s doomed presidential bid.
The speech, “A Time For Choosing,” led prominent Californians to beg him to run for governor of their state, which he won twice, raising his status to national contender and priming him for, eventually, the White House. Indeed, Mr. Goldwater may have lost that November, but in raising the status of leaders like Mr. Reagan — and conservatism itself — it was, as Ambassador Bill Middendorf writes, “A Glorious Disaster.”
But it’s been five decades, too. And ten years ago, Ronald Reagan the man left us here on our own. And since he gracefully exited the public arena years before then, whole generations of Americans have been born.
In the ensuing years, citing his name has become cliché. When challenged to name their political hero in the Republican National Committee chairman debate in 2011, candidates had to dig deep: They weren’t allowed to say Ronald Reagan. In the 2012 primary debates, citing Mr. Reagan as your guardian angel was as necessary an accessory as a flag pin, pressing audiences to wonder how Herman Cain, Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich can all be the one man that, for all their strengths, we knew they weren’t.
Today, MSNBC’s Chris Matthews fondly remembers an imaginary time when his boss, former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill, was a gentlemanly comrade to Mr. Reagan — a revision easily refuted by Mr. O’Neill himself. And even President Barack Obama has gotten in on the game, comparing himself favorably with the 40th president.
Worse yet, some on the right have hijacked Mr. Reagan’s mantle, claiming they represent a continuation of his policies when they simply do not. Some are easy for even casual historians to catch, most are more difficult to pin down conclusively, but when 26 years of Americans have been born since he retired Washington, it’s easy for the truth to be obscured. Which is dangerous. George Orwell’s warning has been repeated so often because it is correct: “Who controls the past, controls the future.”
So it’s worth cutting through the fog of time and politics to look at the ideas Mr. Reagan espoused in his 1964 national debut, not simply because they’re interesting, but because they are so timeless, he could speak them today without an alteration.
Mr. Reagan could have been eulogizing Jim Foley when he said, “There can be no real peace while one American is dying someplace in the world for the rest of us.”
Mr. Reagan could have been warning against the abuses of the National Security Agency or the Internal Revenue Service when he warned, “These proliferating bureaus with their thousands of regulations have cost us many of our constitutional safeguards. How many of us realize that today federal agents can invade a man’s property without a warrant?”
Mr. Reagan could have been warning against Obamacare when he said, “This is the issue of this election: Whether we believe in our capacity for self-government or whether we abandon the American Revolution and confess that a little intellectual elite in a far-distant capitol can plan our lives for us better than we can plan them ourselves.”
Or when he derided then-Sen. J. William Fulbright for saying the president is “hobbled in his task by the restrictions of power imposed on him by this antiquated document” called the Constitution, he could have been speaking to any one of the mouth-breathers dominating MSNBC’s daily commentary.
One of the reasons Mr. Reagan’s words speak to us so clearly, and with such moral authority, fifty years later, is because they weren’t merely political, nor were they simply contemporary. In some of his most famous lines from “A Time For Choosing,” he evoked past leaders on both sides of the aisle, and all sides of conservatism.
When Mr. Reagan challenged, “You and I have a rendezvous with destiny,” he evoked his hero, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who said, “To some generations, much is given. Of other generations, much is expected. This generation has a rendezvous with history.”
When Mr. Reagan said, “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,” he paid homage to President Abraham Lincoln, who nine months into the Civil War told Congress, “We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of Earth.”
He drew from heroes in both parties, as well as from libertarianism, anti-communism and Christianity, because while his 30-minute speech contained more facts and figures than we’re used to in our speeches these days, it was mainly about ideas. “It was always ideas,” Dr. Lee Edwards writes in a primer biography of the man, “that motivated Ronald Reagan.”
At a conference over the weekend at The Reagan Ranch Center, Young America’s Foundation gathered 90 students, and dozens of supporters and Reagan veterans, to explore the themes he espoused on Oct. 27, 1964; and in the series of videos above, inserted some of his more memorable lines into modern-day events.
And this is important. Because most of those students gathered in that hall were exactly the young Americans who never lived a day when Mr. Reagan spoke to America. As a figure who has entered history — like Thomas Jefferson, Mr. Lincoln or FDR – he is claimed now by all parties and factions, and that is inevitable, but in watching the strident urgency of his speech, it’s impossible to walk away without a clear view of the man’s very-concrete vision for an America rightly understood.
Yes, Mr. Reagan has left us here alone, but that doesn’t mean he has become a ghost for politicians to pin on their lapels— it means that in our still-turning world, young Americans owe it to themselves to study his life, learn of his ideas, and choose where our union is headed.
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Christopher Bedford serves as vice chairman on the board of governors of Young Americans for Freedom, a project of the Young America’s Foundation, and spoke at their 50th anniversary conference in Santa Barbara, Calif.