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Excerpt from 'Reagan: The Life'

"Reagan: The Life" by H.W. Brands (Doubleday, May

"Reagan: The Life" by H.W. Brands (Doubleday, May 2015) Credit: Doubleday




Don't miss "A Time for Choosing"

with Ronald Reagan

9:30 to 10:00, WNBC-TV Channel 4

Sponsored by T.V. for Goldwater Committee


Desperate times called for desperate measures. Barry Goldwater's campaign was nearly broke, and the candidate was floundering. His opponent, Lyndon Johnson, the craftiest politician in the country, had wrapped himself in the mantle of the martyred John Kennedy to launch a revolution in civil rights and had portrayed himself as the coolheaded commander in chief to parry a communist insurgency in Southeast Asia. In the process Johnson had made Goldwater look like a closet racist and a trigger-happy warmonger. Goldwater hadn't helped his cause by calling himself an extremist, albeit in the defense of liberty, and by suggesting that nuclear weapons be used in Vietnam. The more he spoke, the deeper his hole grew and the more remote his chances of victory. In his desperation, a week before the election he turned to a proxy speaker, a political unknown from California, Ronald Reagan.

Reagan faced desperation of a different kind, less public but more protracted. A washed-up actor last seen hawking the wares and bromides of corporate America, Reagan was at a turning point in his life. As a child he had discovered the allure of an audience, the soothing effect of applause on one's anxieties. He stepped from the stage of church skits and school plays to broadcast radio, which multiplied his audience into the hundreds of thousands, and then to movies, which put his face and voice before millions. But in Hollywood he hit the limits of his talent. He never captured the movie-house marquees, never cracked the A-list of leading men. By his mid-thirties he couldn't get good roles. He moonlighted in the politics of the film industry, representing actors in negotiations with the studios. But that gig ran out, and he was hard up for work. He took a job with General Electric that got him back on-screen, but the much-reduced screen of television, in the much-reduced role of series host. His contract required him to schlep the country for GE, speaking to company employees and to local business boosters about the blessings of big industry and its essential role in the American dream. His own dreams meanwhile faded, and when the GE job ended, they all but disappeared. The invitation to speak for Barry Goldwater came as a godsend, but one fraught with risk. It put him before an audience again and gave him a chance to be heard, but he knew if he flubbed this opportunity, he might never get another.

The Goldwater campaign didn't expect much. It bought a single-column notice on page 79 of the October 27 issue of The New York Times; comparable ads ran equally deep in papers around the country. In 1964 political campaigns were still figuring out how to employ television. They hesitated to use spot advertising, from fear that they would be seen as packaging their candidates like cereal or cigarettes. In this case the Goldwater campaign created a faux political event. It hired a hall in Los Angeles and enlisted a few hundred supporters who received Goldwater placards and signs. It placed Reagan on a podium draped in bunting the television audience took for red, white, and blue, though the broadcast was in black and white. He spoke as though at a campaign rally of the sort that had characterized American politics for more than a century.

But this staged event lacked the spontaneity of a genuine rally, and the speech started awkwardly. The audience awaited its cue, the name Goldwater, but Reagan spoke for many minutes before mentioning the candidate, and the audience sat mute. Reagan nervously talked too fast. His standard speech for the GE circuit was longer than this evening's television time allowed, yet rather than edit it down, he tried to pack it all in. The silence of his listeners caused him to talk through his laugh lines, making the awkwardness worse. During his years with GE he had abandoned the pro-government liberalism of his young adulthood in favor of a pro-business conservatism; in doing so, he accumulated notecard decks of statistics documenting government waste and excess. On this occasion he rattled the statistics off in numbing order. Then, without warning, he swerved from domestic politics to foreign policy, leaving his audience confused as to what the American federal debt had to do with the Castro revolution in Cuba. His gestures didn't suit his words, and his principal gesture, a wagging of the right index finger, looked decidedly schoolmarmish.

Yet something happened midway into the half-hour speech. A belated mention of Goldwater got the crowd to respond, and their encouragement calmed Reagan down. He gave his jokes their moments to sink in. "Anytime you and I question the schemes of the do-gooders, we're denounced as being against their humanitarian goals," he said. "They say we're always 'against' things -- we're never 'for' anything. Well, the trouble with our liberal friends is not that they're ignorant; it's just that they know so much that isn't so."

The audience perked up the more. American conservatives were a combative tribe who didn't speak of liberals as their "friends," but here Reagan did. His tone was serious, but it wasn't angry, the way Goldwater's often was. Reagan criticized Democratic leaders, but he didn't criticize Democrats. He condemned the direction the American government was going, but he professed confidence in the American people.

At the outset he had said that the Goldwater campaign had not provided him with a script; the words he spoke were his own. He didn't say they were words he had tested on hundreds of audiences. But the polish showed. "This idea that government is beholden to the people, that it has no other source of power except the sovereign people, is still the newest and the most unique idea in all the long history of man's relation to man," 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 capital can plan our lives for us better than we can plan them ourselves."

He made his points with images and examples. "We have so many people who can't see a fat man standing beside a thin one without coming to the conclusion the fat man got that way by taking advantage of the thin one," he said in a swipe at government redistribution schemes. Government welfare programs were a racket. "A judge called me here in Los Angeles. He told me of a young woman who'd come before him for a divorce. She had six children, was pregnant with her seventh. Under his questioning, she revealed her husband was a laborer earning $250 a month. She wanted a divorce to get an $80 raise. She's eligible for $330 a month in the Aid to Dependent Children Program. She got the idea from two women in her neighborhood who'd already done that very thing." A job-training program was typically profligate. "We're going to spend each year just on room and board for each young person we help $4,700 a year. We can send them to Harvard for $2,700!" He cracked a smile. "Of course, don't get me wrong. I'm not suggesting Harvard is the answer to juvenile delinquency."

The audience laughed and applauded. Some remembered to wave their Goldwater signs, but most were focused on the man in front of them. "No government ever voluntarily reduces itself in size," Reagan said. "So government programs, once launched, never disappear. Actually, a government bureau is the nearest thing to eternal life we'll ever see on this earth." The audience laughed again and clapped more loudly.

His pace hit a rhythm that swept them along. Government regulation was the creeping edge of socialism. "It doesn't require expropriation or confiscation of private property or business to impose socialism on a people. What does it mean whether you hold the title to your business or property if the government holds the power of life and death over that business or property? And such machinery already exists. The government can find some charge to bring against any concern it chooses to prosecute. Every businessman has his own tale of harassment. Somewhere a perversion has taken place. Our natural, unalienable rights are now considered to be a dispensation of government, and freedom has never been so fragile, so close to slipping from our grasp as it is at this moment."

The danger to freedom was double-edged, from communism abroad and from socialism at home. Both threats drew from the same liberal source. "Those who would trade our freedom for the soup kitchen of the welfare state have told us they have a utopian solution of peace without victory. They call their policy 'accommodation.' And they say if we'll only avoid any direct confrontation with the enemy, he'll forget his evil ways and learn to love us. All who oppose them are indicted as warmongers. They say we offer simple answers to complex problems. Well, perhaps there is a simple answer -- not an easy answer -- but simple: if you and I have the courage to tell our elected officials that we want our national policy based on what we know in our hearts is morally right."

Reagan had the audience in his hand. He let them cheer, then gave them more of the same. "We cannot buy our security, our freedom from the threat of the bomb by committing an immorality so great as saying to a billion human beings now enslaved behind the Iron Curtain, 'Give up your dreams of freedom because to save our own skins, we're willing to make a deal with your slave masters.' Alexander Hamilton said, 'A nation which can prefer disgrace to danger is prepared for a master, and deserves one.' Now let's set the record straight. There's no argument over the choice between peace and war, but there's only one guaranteed way you can have peace, and you can have it in the next second: surrender."

He borrowed from Patrick Henry: "You and I know and do not believe that life is so dear and peace so sweet as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery." He delved further into history: "If nothing in life is worth dying for, when did this begin -- just in the face of this enemy? Or should Moses have told the children of Israel to live in slavery under the pharaohs? Should Christ have refused the cross? Should the patriots at Concord Bridge have thrown down their guns and refused to fire the shot heard 'round the world? The martyrs of history were not fools, and our honored dead who gave their lives to stop the advance of the Nazis didn't die in vain."

He drew toward the close. "Where, then, is the road to peace? Well, it's a simple answer after all. You and I have the courage to say to our enemies: There is a price we will not pay. There is a point beyond which they must not advance." He quoted Winston Churchill: "The destiny of man is not measured by material computations. When great forces are on the move in the world, we learn we're spirits, not animals." Churchill again: "There's something going on in time and space, and beyond time and space, which, whether we like it or not, spells duty." He pivoted, surprisingly for a Republican, to Franklin Roosevelt. "You and I have a rendezvous with destiny," Reagan said. He finished with a nod to Lincoln: "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."


The speech came too late to rescue Goldwater, who lost in a landslide to Johnson. But it earned Reagan a future. His listeners in the hall leaped to their feet and stamped their approval as he finished; the reaction of the national television audience was almost as positive. Editorials and letters praised the energy and conviction this newcomer brought to the defense of American freedom at home and abroad. Many Republicans concluded that their party had nominated the wrong man. Reagan had never run for political office, but his name at once surfaced in discussions about the governorship of California. Conservatives in other states formed Reagan-for-president committees.

Reagan professed surprise at the sudden reversal in his fortunes. Perhaps he was surprised. But he wasn't unprepared. He had been honing his broadcast skills since his days in radio, and all those talks for GE had served like a long Off-Broadway run before a main-stage premiere. Seven years as head of the Screen Actors Guild had exposed him to a species of politics as conniving as politics could be. The decade when he thought he would never again reach a big audience had sharpened his hunger for the satisfaction only applause could bring.

Those who afterward read the transcript of his speech realized it could not have been better composed to draw attention to Reagan, rather than Goldwater. The most quotable lines had nothing of Goldwater in them, beyond the fact that Goldwater shared Reagan's conservative values. Reagan positioned himself as a spokesman for conservatism who happened to be campaigning for Goldwater. The Goldwater defeat, far from damaging Reagan, made him more appealing as the one around whom conservatives might rally.

Reagan couldn't know that his speech had launched one of the most remarkable careers in American politics. He couldn't know that he would be twice elected governor of the most populous state in the Union and twice elected president of the United States. He couldn't know that he would leave a deeper impression on the country and the world than any but a handful of other presidents. All he could know in the autumn of 1964 was that at a time of life when career doors begin to close, at a time in his own life when the obvious doors had already closed, he had suddenly kicked a new door wide open.

He got ready to step through. "I have never aspired to public office, nor looked upon a political career with any particular favor," he told reporters soberly. He said he still viewed government skeptically. But a patriotic American had to listen to his fellow citizens. "I'm honored and flattered that so many people would think of me in connection with public office." Their opinions deserved careful consideration. "I will review my thinking, and whatever decision I make will be based on what I think will provide the most good."

From "Reagan: The Life" by H.W. Brands. Copyright © 2015 by H.W. Brands. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House.

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