Thursday, June 20, 2013 – Essay #89 – “A Time for Choosing” by Ronald Reagan – Guest Essayist: The Honorable Jim Miller, President Reagan’s Chairman of the Federal Trade Commission, Director of the Office of Management and Budget, and Member of his Cabinet
It’s all there! That was my reaction when I reread Ronald Reagan’s “A Time for Choosing” – commonly known as “The Speech” – toward the end of the President’s second term. Presidential assistant Martin Anderson had compiled Reagan’s various campaign speeches and policy papers, so the President’s positions on the issues were readily available. But nothing summarized the Reagan message quite so succinctly and boldly as The Speech.
Reagan’s view of the world evolved during the two decades following World War II, first as president of the Hollywood Screen Actors Guild, where he came to see international communism as the greatest evil in the world, and later, in the late 1950s and early 1960s as a roving ambassador for the General Electric Company in connection with his hosting of the GE Theater on TV. In his ambassadorial role, Reagan made hundreds of appearances before GE’s employees, customers, and public-spirited organizations at GE locations throughout the country. Reagan used this period to research public policy, to formulate a coherent philosophy, and to hone his presentations.
The Speech reflects Reagan’s development of extraordinary communications skills, but also his transformation from liberal to conservative. It was given on behalf of Senator Barry Goldwater’s campaign for president late in the contest – October 27, 1964. It electrified the nationwide TV audience and brought Goldwater a needed boost in public appeal and donations. Although Goldwater lost to President Johnson, The Speech launched Reagan to local and national prominence, as two years later he won the governorship of California in a landside, and eventually the presidency by a similar margin.
Just what do we see in The Speech? First, it is compact and beautifully written. This is not surprising, as Reagan had given versions of the text many times before. Second, it addresses controversy head-on (“I am going to talk of controversial things. I make no apology for this.”). Reagan was not one to sugar-coat things. Third, The Speech calls upon us to recognize American exceptionalism – that we have a very special place in history and are the bulwark to freedom in the world.
Reagan asks us to look past ideological differences and to avoid name-calling. He says the choice is not between “left” and “right,” but only between “up” and “down.” “Up” he characterizes as maximum individual freedom consistent with law and order, whereas “down” means the “ant heap of totalitarianism.” Accordingly, Reagan weighs in against the notion that government can solve all problems and still preserve individual liberties. “[Y]ou can’t control the economy without controlling people,” he warns. The choice, he says, is that we “accept the responsibility for our own destiny, or we….confess that [government] can plan our lives for us better than we can plan them ourselves.” Years later, Reagan would put this more bluntly: “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”
There’s a note of urgency in The Speech, which applies today as well. “Already the hour is late. Government has laid its hand on health, housing, farming, industry, commerce, education, and, to an ever-increasing degree, interferes with the people’s right to know….Because no government every voluntarily reduces itself in size, government programs once launched never go out of existence. A government agency is the nearest thing to eternal life we’ll ever see on this earth.”
The Speech soars at the end in quintessential Reagan style: “You and I have a rendezvous with destiny. We can preserve for our children this, the last best hope of man on earth, or we can sentence them to take the first step into a thousand years of darkness. If we fail, at least let our children and our children’s children say of us we justified our brief moment here. We did all that could be done.”
Jim Miller served President Reagan as Chairman of the Federal Trade Commission (1981-1985) and as Director of the Office of Management and Budget and Member of his Cabinet (1985-1988).