The Speech

David Stokes
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Posted: Oct 26, 2008 12:00 AM

Words matter.  It was said that Lyndon Johnson had little regard for “the integrity of words.”  Sadly, that is how it is with many politicians.  But at the end of the day, though we have many ways to examine a particular candidate, it comes back much of the time to words.

The spoken word, as in “speech-making,” is still relevant.  Would, for example, Barack Obama be running for the presidency if he had not been tapped to give that keynote address at the Democratic convention in 2004?  

We really have not changed that much in our history.  For all of our technology, and the gadgetry of the Internet age – we are still moved by a good speech.  Like the one Sarah Palin gave at the Republican National Convention in September.

So, here we are in late October – going through our quadrennial ritual.  We are tracking polls.  We are listening to talking heads.  And we are bracing ourselves for the final verbal assault. 

Speeches rarely snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.  History tells us that great political oratory happens, for the most part, away from the partisan environment that tends to characterize a fiercely fought campaign’s final days.

The most memorable phrases – those that have become part of our history – have been uttered either very early in a career (“a star is born”), or to mark a celebratory or somber occasion. 

“Fourscore and seven years ago…”

“The only thing we have to fear...”

“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall…”

“Ask not what your country can do for you…”

“The greatest honor that history can bestow is the title of peacemaker…”

There have just been a few times when a speech launched a career.   I have already noted one - in the case of Mr. Obama.  Abraham Lincoln at Cooper Union comes to mind as another example of such a speech.

The 1896 Democratic National Convention, held that year in the Chicago Coliseum, was the scene for one such great and transformational speech.  A thirty-six year old man from Nebraska, William Jennings Bryan, won the heart of his party and its presidential nomination.  He would lose the election that November, and two more (1900 & 1908), but he was a significant political leader in America for a generation.   When he shouted: “You shall not crucify mankind on a Cross of Gold” - he became a national figure.

But only once has a speech in the final week of a campaign made much of a difference, and it was by a man not even running for office.  Yet.

I must confess something.  I have not really watched a lot of the speeches this year.  I endured all four debates in their entirety, but I have had a hard time staying focused for the speeches.  I completely missed Barack’s Denver moment.

In fact, I have only watched two speeches in their entirety this whole political year.  Just two.  I watched Governor Palin speak to the RNC – and I was glad I did.  That speech may be one we come back to again in the future.

And I recently watched (again) a speech from 44 years ago.  The video is grainy.  The audio is a little rough in spots.  But I barely noticed the technical difficulties.   It was a speech broadcast on NBC on October 27, 1964 – and it was by a non-candidate for office that year - Ronald Reagan.

The Goldwater campaign of 1964 has been called everything from a “fiasco” to a “glorious disaster.”  He had, in 1960, asked conservatives to “grow up.”  They did and Barry was nominated four years later.  But they faced forces of history, sympathy (in the wake of the Kennedy assassination), and the personality and methods of President Johnson. 

It was a lost cause.  But like a bright star against the backdrop of a dark sky, someone who would eventually shape history stepped onto America’s political stage that year.  And it all began with a speech.

The Speech.”

Ronald Wilson Reagan’s journey from Hollywood to Washington included a pivotal transitional period where he came into the homes of millions of American’s each week as the popular host of GE Theater.  The timing could not have been better, because Americans were abandoning movie houses in droves for the simplicity of the living room television. 

In his wonderful book about Mr. Reagan, The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism, Dr. Paul Kengor chronicles this vital period in the life of the future president: “The show took off, eclipsing I Love Lucy only weeks into its debut, and attracting the very best actors: Ethel Barrymore, Joseph Cotton, Bette Davis, Jimmy Stewart, James Dean, Natalie Wood, Alan Ladd, Jack Benny, Lee Marvin, Charles Bronson, Angie Dickinson, Vincent Price, Walter Mathau, Charlton Heston, Donna Reed, Greer Garson, David Janssen, to name a few.”

Reagan himself often acted, as well.   And he leveraged his role on television – his celebrity – in ways that enabled him to speak out on issues of the day.  He was passionate about politics, particularly the idea of limited government and fierce anti-Communism.

By the time he left GE Theater (he was on the show from 1954 to 1962), Ronald Reagan had established himself as an eloquent spokesperson for the fledgling conservative movement.  Using a series of speeches, such as one called “A Foot in the Door,” he warned fellow-citizens about the dangers of the enemy abroad and within – including what he saw as a trend toward socialism in America.  By 1962 he was receiving as much as $10,000.00 per speech before audiences sympathetic to his message.

In 1964 he became co-chairman of the California Goldwater campaign.  This gave him more and more opportunities to speak out.  That fall, as the presidential campaign moved toward an emerging Lyndon landslide, Reagan spoke at a $1,000.00 per plate Republican fundraiser at the Coconut Grove in Los Angeles, hosted by Holmes Tuttle - a very successful car dealer.  His speech was such a success that a group of party donors, led by Tuttle, came up with the idea of broadcasting the speech nationally.  They would put up the money to pay for it.

Years later, Mr. Reagan reflected: “I said yes and suggested that, instead of just having me in a studio alone, they bring in an audience to get a little better feel.  They readily agreed.”

The Goldwater camp, however, was less than enthusiastic about this.   Key members of the campaign team were very much opposed. 

As Reagan recalled:

“A few days before the speech, Senator Goldwater himself called me and mentioned canceling the address. His people told him that I talked about social security, and he'd been getting kicked all over the place on the issue. I explained to him that I'd been making the speech all over the state and nobody had ever said anything.

His people apparently wanted to repeat some show of former president Eisenhower and him strolling around fields at Ike's farm outside Gettysburg. I said, ‘Barry, I can't just turn the time over to you, because it's not mine to give. A private group bought this time.’

Well, he said, ‘I haven't seen the speech or heard it, let me call you back.’ So he got a copy of the sound track and listened to it. I'm told that when he heard it, he said, ‘Well, what the hell's wrong with that?’”

In the speech (called at the time “A Rendezvous With Destiny” – now known as “A Time for Choosing, “ or simply – “The Speech”), Mr. Reagan talked about the hot-button issues of the time, from Vietnam, to the welfare state, to taxes and the federal budget.  

He said things like:

“No nation has ever survived a tax burden that reached a third of its national income.”

“Do they mean peace, or do they mean we just want to be left in peace?”

And my favorite:

“Well, the trouble with our liberal friends is not that they are ignorant, but that they know so much that isn’t so!”

The speech did not change the outcome of the election, of course.  But it did make an impact – short term and long term.  First, it led to a last minute frenetic flow of donations to the nearly bankrupt Goldwater campaign.   It also “electrified” the nation – though not all at once. 

Nielson ratings showed that nearly 4.3 million viewers watched the speech on October 27, 1964 – about an 8.1 percent share.  But, in a day and age long before YouTube, it went viral – at least in a ‘60s sense.  Though completely ignored as a news item by the mainstream media of the day, and with the initial audience not being all that large, it would find its way into more homes over the next week. 

The Republican National Committee – though initially reluctant about the project – paid to have it broadcast nationally two more times during the final week of the campaign.  And, beyond that, Goldwater groups paid for hundreds of rebroadcasts in local markets.  Somewhere in this process it reached my little home in the suburbs of Detroit.

On election night, Barry Goldwater was trounced by Lyndon Johnson, who won by promising not to expand the war in Vietnam like that scary Goldwater would.  There are, however, indications that Ronald Reagan’s speech may have helped to close the gap by five or more percentage points.  Not a big deal in a blowout – but this would be significant in a closer race.

For years, people talked about how “The Speech” impacted them.   Some still do.  But no one was influenced by its success more than the speaker himself: 

“The night that the tape of the speech was to air on NBC, Nancy and I went over to another couple's home to watch it. Everyone thought I'd done well, but still you don't always know about these things. The phone rang about midnight. It was a call from Washington, D.C., where it was three a.m. One of Barry's staff called to tell me that the switchboard was still lit up from the calls pledging money to his campaign. I then slept peacefully. The speech raised $8 million and soon changed my entire life.”

Well, Mr. Reagan, it changed a lot of lives.