New Time for Choosing

Posted on Thursday, November 2, 2023
by AMAC, Robert B. Charles
Ronald Reagan speaks for presidential candidate Barry Goldwater in Los Angeles in 1964.

This time next year will be the 60th anniversary of Ronald Reagan’s famous “A Time for Choosing” speech, as timely now as then. The speech – and 1964 election – are worth recalling. We need that spirit again. Some messages are ageless, and one wonders if we are not quietly on an upswing.

The 1964 presidential campaign was interesting – Barry Goldwater, the Arizona Republican conservative, versus Lyndon Johnson, the Texas backroom arm twister. More interesting as the spirit of that year, a turning point.

Johnson, campaigner extraordinaire, slap-your-back guy skunked the austere, smaller government, lower taxes Goldwater. While Goldwater beat establishment Nelson Rockefeller for the Republican nomination, he was stiff, not nimble.

Unlike the swelling support for mature leadership, stability after JFK’s assassination in1963, Goldwater pushed tactical nuclear weapons, allowed himself to be endorsed by racists, and was slow to respond to Johnson’s attacks.

When Goldwater’s message began to resonate, people thinking of Eisenhower and glad for new hope, including from a young Ronald Reagan, Johnson attacked.

Johnson ran the now-famous “Daisy girl” ad, suggesting Goldwater would start a nuclear war. When Goldwater pushed the slogan “In your heart, you know he’s right,” Johnson mocked him with “In your guts, you know he’s nuts.”

But what happened in 1964 behind the scenes, was far more important than the glitz, gaffs, luck and muck of that election. Quietly. a spirit of hope was born.

What do I mean? Well, the young Ronald Reagan, not yet a governor, just a sincere conservative, gave that epic speech. It lit a fire, made an impact overnight.

Reagan spoke from the heart, but understanding communication only works if the receiver recognizes the transmitter, feels a common bond, here common hope.

Reagan was against a large, powerful federal government. Federal spending was at 118.5 billion dollars, deficit six billion, federal debt 311 billion. Today, Biden’s spending is six trillion annually, deficit two trillion, federal debt 33 trillion.

Said Reagan in 1964, “The Founding Fathers knew a government can’t control the economy without controlling people. And they knew when a government sets out to do that, it must use force and coercion to achieve its purpose. So we have come to a time for choosing.”

Reagan was specific, 20 years before his landslide re-election, 25 years before the Soviet Union collapsed.

“You and I are told we must choose between a left or right, but I suggest there is no such thing as a left or right. There is only an up or down. Up to man’s age-old dream – the maximum of individual freedom consistent with law and order – or down to the ant heap of totalitarianism.”

The truth Reagan spoke, what he saw, a titanic battle between those who defended individual freedom and those who wanted aggregation of power, resonated.

Yes, even in a time of division, anger building, and year when Johnson swept the floor with his opponent, conservatives were on the move, their truth gaining.

The year presaged a great awakening, which would take 20 years to put Reagan in power, but was arguably unstoppable. The message – get government down, respect the individual, protect the nation, put evil to rest – echoed.

Incredibly, the Washington Post wrote that Reagan’s heartfelt speech was “the most successful national political debut since William Jennings Bryan electrified the 1896 Democratic Convention with his ‘Cross of Gold’ speech.”

Notably, 1964 was a year of awakenings. The Republican National Convention – not Democrat – saw the first serious female contender for President, Maine’s Senator Margaret Chase Smith, famous for her “Declaration of Conscience” against McCarthyism, also a steady conservative.

Time passes fast, we know how things turned out: That spirit rose and rose like a helium balloon, bubble of fresh air from the depths. Reagan became president in 1980, won a huge landslide in 1984, ended the Soviet Union, defended freedom.

People began to think about life as in their own control not the government’s. Freedom took wing, people breathed easier. Pro-government Democrats fell from favor, pro-freedom Republicans gained a blue collar following.

We are there again, “a time of choosing,” which puts me in mind of the confidence, hope, and sense of optimism that attached to many in that early period.

In 1990, I finally interviewed Margaret Chase Smith at home. She offered a Maine kid her views. She was hopeful, thought politics could be less “mean,” was still a compassionate, optimistic conservative, her red rose pin on an elegant blue dress.

She was also bipartisan, which is to say All-American. She did not say that the Democrats were growing old, their message stale, freedom rising, but almost.

At 92, she looked me in the eye, said her friend, Maine’s Democrat Senator Ed Muskie, then 76, “looked old,” was worried about him. Looking back, he did – and she did not. She carried hope with her, knew freedom rises. We should too.

Robert Charles is a former Assistant Secretary of State under Colin Powell, former Reagan and Bush 41 White House staffer, attorney, and naval intelligence officer (USNR). He wrote “Narcotics and Terrorism” (2003), “Eagles and Evergreens” (2018), and is National Spokesman for AMAC.

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