CPAC 2019 held two historical moments in the convention’s history. For one, it had the largest attendance ever. Over 19,000 people showed up to the event, including over 9,000 watching from three campuses across the nation.
The second was more significant. This year marks the 55th anniversary of the speech that highlighted the beginning of the conservative revolution. Between panels, large screens at the Potomac Ballroom at the Gaylord Convention Center played a black-and-white film. An old-fashioned microphone picked up the voice of a younger Ronald Reagan, speaking before the public about his stance on American politics.
“Not too long ago,” said Reagan. “Two friends of mine were talking to a Cuban refugee, a businessman who had escaped from Castro, and in the midst of his story, one of my friends turned to the other and said, ‘We don’t know how lucky we are.’ And the Cuban stopped and said, ‘How lucky you are? I had someplace to escape to.’ And in that sentence, he told us the entire story. If we lose freedom here, there’s no place to escape to. This is the last stand on earth.”
It was an excerpt from Reagan’s “A Time for Choosing” speech, filmed on Oct. 27, 1964 to promote Barry Goldwater’s presidential campaign. What served as a last effort to prevent Goldwater’s inevitable loss in the race became the force behind Reagan’s presidency.
“He was a famous actor and entertainer,” Matt Schlapp, chairman of the American Conservative Union, told Townhall. “But he had also spent all his time explaining his political philosophy. So they saw both sides of Ronald Reagan, but that speech helped put them together.”
Reagan’s 1964 speech, along with the rest of his speeches that were actually made at CPAC, were recently compiled by Schlapp and analyzed by today’s central figures in the conservative movement, including Ben Shapiro, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), Towhhall’s Katie Pavlich, Ronald Reagan's son, Michael Reagan; and even Vice President Mike Pence. “Reagan at CPAC: The Words That Continue to Inspire a Revolution” was showcased at CPAC 2019 and went on sale Feb. 26.
When reflecting on Reagan’s “A Time for Choosing” speech, Schlapp provided context behind how the speech was shared with the American people.
“I think that the speech was interesting for a couple of reasons,” Schlapp said. “From my understanding it was televised at a time when you didn’t have many channel options. I remember growing up at a time when you had three channel options and UHF.”
It wasn’t just the new medium that brought people to Reagan though. He was already a well-known figure in the acting business.
“It’s easy for people to forget today that Ronald Reagan was a movie star,” Schlapp said. “Ronald Reagan had been nominated for an academy award. Ronald Reagan was a television star. Ronald Reagan wrote a regular column that a lot of Americans read.”
Though it can be concluded that “A Time for Choosing” left an indirect impact on the birth of CPAC, Schlapp provided a different perspective.
“Which came first, the chicken or the egg? Which came first? Ronald Reagan or CPAC?” Schlapp asked rhetorically. “When you go back and talk to the people who were around at the time, they’ll tell you one of the reasons for CPAC was to push the national candidacy of Ronald Reagan. And thank God they did that. But almost 50 years later, it’s more about a movement from politicians. Separate from individuals.”
Schlapp said CPAC’s goal today is to positively impact Donald Trump; to help him understand what conservatism means in public policy, as well as be reminded that people will follow him when he makes big decisions for the movement.
“As he (Trump) came to think about issues and the stances he would take,” Schlapp said. “He came to realize that the conservative base has come to backbone his presidency.”
Schlapp talked about how today’s CPAC and political issues are different beasts from Reagan’s time, but also seem to repeat history.
One thing that’s different is the audience that CPAC is bringing in. Reagan's conservative views and his understanding of traditional values were fueled by his Christian beliefs. While these values remain true in many right-wing voters, more young people are coming to CPAC, holding fiscally right-wing values, but not necessarily socially and morally similar values.
“It’s interesting,” Schlapp said. “Our founders believed that our democracy would only succeed if we had a well-educated and religiously-oriented populace. And obviously the vast majority of those people were Christian. I wouldn’t say that all of our founders were strong Christians. But I would say that almost every single one of them believed that having strong Christian beliefs and religious beliefs accredited to America’s benefit. It was hard to think of America separate from that.”
Growing up, Schlapp said Christian conservatives used to push for prayer in schools and went out of their way to establish their beliefs in every way they could. But now he thinks that’s changed significantly.
“But I think overall," he said. "Because progressives have done such an outstanding job of hijacking the federal courts and the supreme court, and really perverting most of the Constitution in almost every single way imaginable, I think most of them actually don’t have a vigorous agenda in terms of trying to dictate how other people live their lives.”
The age that’s coming in to CPAC is also changing. Schlapp wrote in the book that the convention today is getting a huge slew of younger students to attend.
“It’s cause and effect,” he said. “It’s being caused by the radicalization. They’re not coming to CPAC just because we did a successful job at recruiting them. They’re coming to CPAC because they are persecuted and they’re just trying to get an education. We’re all paying our property taxes to teach our kids how to read and write and think and understand history. We are not sending them, we’re not paying all these taxes, so they can learn about global climate change activism or gun control activism. This is a perversion of what education is supposed to be about.”
But issues that have been brought up recently were talked about in the past by Reagan. Schlapp said one of his favorite speeches from the former president was his “Let Them Go Their Way” speech from 1975, where he warned conservatives not to create their own party but instead to become the new face of the Republican party.
“The conservative movement is the heart and soul of the republican party,” Schlapp said.
“Reagan at CPAC” is more than just a historical archive of speeches. It’s a conversation-starter. Much like how the Constitution places the fundamentals for discussion on freedom and balanced representation, Reagan’s speeches reflect the fundamentals of conservatism. His political legacy allows us to reflect on what it means to stand for our founding principles and opens up discussion on how that can be preserved in the future.