There is an edge to it that seems, at least to those of my generation, to be mildly shocking. Growing up in the 1980s the Reagan we knew was a genial though tough grandfather. There is something oddly unsettling about seeing him so young, so fiery and at times almost angry. This is a man ready for a fight. That fight would come and, improbably, lead him to the White House less than a generation later.
It became known almost immediately as The Speech. A sweep of American society from housewives to factory hands to Ayn Rand was tremendously impressed. The pre-recorded program broadcast on October 27th, 1964 transformed a B-movie actor with a fading career, he would star in one more film before retiring, into a political celebrity and in just over two years into the 33rd Governor of California. Not since Lincoln had so relatively inexperienced a politician been catapulted into high executive office.
The fiftieth anniversary has produced a small flury of commemorations:
Reagan delivered a deeply ideological speech, with strong attacks on liberalism and its vessel, the Democratic Party of LBJ's Great Society era. "In this vote-harvesting time," Reagan said early in the speech, "they use terms like the 'Great Society,' or as we were told a few days ago by the president, we must accept a greater government activity in the affairs of the people."
At the same time, Reagan made great efforts to transcend partisanship by portraying his views as common sense: "You and I are told increasingly we have to choose between a left or right. Well, I'd like to suggest there is no such thing as a left or right. There's only an up or down: man's old, old-aged dream, the ultimate in individual freedom consistent with law and order, or down to the ant heap of totalitarianism."
Financially, it raised a stunning $8 million (over $60 million in today’s money) for the flailing Goldwater campaign, most of which couldn’t be spent in those days when checks were delivered by regular mail. But as former Reagan aide Jeffrey Lord reminds us, “the real importance of the speech was that Reagan had looked Americans in the eye and stood for something.”
In the half century since that speech, some of the policy debates Reagan discussed have changed while others have not. But every single one of the principles he outlined is just as relevant today as in 1964. I believe the modern conservative movement can find its roots in that speech, but I also believe it can find its blueprint for the months and years ahead, starting with the election next week.