By Robert Mann
Other than perhaps Abraham Lincoln’s February 1860 speech at New York’s Cooper Union, no speech was more important to the career of a future president than the one Ronald Reagan delivered on national television the night of Oct. 27, 1964.
Before he spoke for Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater, most Americans knew Reagan as a fading film star and the former host of TV’s “General Electric Theater.” When he finished speaking, millions of American realized they had just seen something new and powerful in American politics.
In Reagan, they heard the first rumblings of the conservative message that would influence American politics for the rest of the century. They also saw the messenger who would lead the conservative movement to the White House 16 years later.
Reagan had traveled the “mashed potato circuit” for years, serving up conservative red meat to small-town audiences, usually places where a General Electric plant was located. As GE’s TV host, and its goodwill ambassador, Reagan was a household name for his acting in and hosting the popular Sunday-night half-hour drama series that aired from 1954 to 1962.
Thousands in America’s heartland knew of Reagan’s skill in delivering the conservative message. While they had thrilled to his eloquent, patriotic themes, they also went away worried because of his warnings about the threat the Soviets posed to U.S. national security and the danger federal bureaucrats posed to American democracy.
However, until Reagan delivered his address on national television—a speech he had been refining for years—most Americans knew him only as an actor. His confident, eloquent delivery this night would prompt his audience to see him in a new light.
Here was a man who had outshone Goldwater—explaining and .defending conservatism in a way few had ever heard. Where the flinty Goldwater had forced his bitter medicine on the nation, Reagan had laced his dosage with sugar and spice. It was the same prescription, just far more palatable coming from the avuncular Reagan.
How Reagan came to this moment and what he made it of it is among the most fascinating and telling periods of his life and the turning point in his pre-presidential life. Before “The Speech,” there was Reagan the actor who occasionally gave political speeches. After “The Speech,” there was Reagan the political leader, who once was an actor.
This is the story of the speech that set Reagan on his path to the White House:
Now that Goldwater was the nominee, Reagan was eager to play a larger role in his friend’s presidential campaign. He would attend the Republican convention as an alternate California delegate. He would applaud as his candidate embraced the extremist label in his acceptance speech. “I would remind you,” Goldwater said to wild, sustained applause, “that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.”
Reagan would enlist completely in Goldwater’s fall campaign, so much so that he expected to chair Goldwater’s general election effort in California. That decision forced Reagan into a brief confrontation with Philip Davis, a prominent Southern California business executive and former state assemblyman, who also wanted the position. The two reached a compromise: Reagan and Davis would serve as co-chairmen for Citizens for Goldwater in California. Reagan described the arrangement: “While another cochairman managed day-to-day operations of the campaign, my job was to travel around the state speaking on behalf of Barry and to help him raise campaign funds.”
As he campaigned around California for Goldwater, Reagan usually offered little more than warmed-over versions of the speech he had delivered to audiences across the country for the past decade. To a Goldwater event at a high school in Santa Cruz in late September, Reagan repeated his shopworn lines about Communism. “We are at war with the most-evil enemy of all time—the Communists—and we are losing that war because most Americans don’t believe we are in it.” Audiences and local journalists, even if they knew they were hearing a well-worn speech, did not care. As the reporter covering the event wrote, “The handsome speaker, glancing only occasionally at his notes, held the audience spellbound.”
Reagan’s speeches in these small California towns dazzled audiences. “If Oscars were passed out for articulate spokesmen, the odds are almost certain that the 1964 winner would be a man who has never run for political office,” reporter Bill Strobel wrote about Reagan in the Oakland Tribune on October 30. “What Reagan has to say about Goldwater, about freedom of the individual, and about constitutional government has, according to one GOP official, ‘set off the most amazing response I’ve ever seen in any political campaign.’”
Everywhere Reagan went, especially in the small towns in rural California, local papers promoted his appearances and greeted him like a major celebrity or significant political figure. “Political monologue replaced movieland dialogue at a Republican dinner at Redwood Acres last night as actor Ronald Reagan turned all guns on the Democratic Administration of President Johnson,” the Eureka Humboldt Standard reported on October 6 after Reagan’s visit to that northern California seaside city.
A few weeks earlier, Reagan had charmed the crowd at a major Goldwater fund-raising event in Los Angeles at the Cocoanut Grove, a tropical-themed nightclub in the Ambassador Hotel. Holmes Tuttle, a prominent Southern California Ford dealer and longtime Reagan friend and admirer, had helped organize the $1,000-a-plate event (more than $8,000 in 2019 dollars) to raise money for Goldwater’s campaign.
A tall, balding, soft-spoken man, Tuttle had been a force in California Republican politics since 1956. That year, he had supported President Dwight Eisenhower’s reelection and, with good friend and drugstore magnate Justin Dart, raised money for Republican candidates while quietly asserting himself within the party. For the event’s speaker, Tuttle wanted one headliner who could draw a crowd and inspire an audience. He quickly settled on Reagan. Goldwater would address the crowd by film, while the candidate’s wife, Peggy, would attend but not speak.
On the night of the event, before an audience of about five hundred guests—some of the most influential and wealthy Republicans in Southern California—Reagan delivered precisely the speech Tuttle had expected. “I gave basically the same talk I’d been giving for years,” Reagan later wrote, “altering it slightly so that it became a campaign speech for Barry.” Reagan recalled he spoke of “the relentless expansion of the federal government, the proliferation of government bureaucrats who were taking control of American business, and criticized liberal Democrats for taking the country down the road to socialism.” Reagan did not regard his twenty-minute talk as remarkable. “It was a speech, I suppose, that, with variations, I’d given hundreds of times before,” he recalled.
However, the response from audience members, some of whom had never heard it, was overwhelming. They gave him a standing ovation. Watching from their table at the rear of the room were Tuttle and another friend of Reagan’s, Henry Salvatori, a prominent Republican fund-raiser and founder and CEO of the Western Geophysical Company, the world’s largest offshore seismic contractor. As Reagan basked in the applause, the two men glanced at each other in amazement.
When the dinner was over, Tuttle said attendees swarmed him, suggesting he find a larger forum for Reagan to deliver his message. “We were swamped with requests,” Tuttle said, remembering that people told him, “My God, these are the issues, these are the things that Goldwater has been missing. These are the things that we and all the people are concerned about today. He [Goldwater] has gotten himself into the position of always defending himself.” One person suggested putting Reagan and his message on television. The idea made sense to Tuttle and Salvatori.
After the crowd left the nightclub, they invited Reagan to drop by their table. Once seated, the group asked if he would deliver the speech on television if they could raise money for the airtime. “Sure,” Reagan replied, “if you think it would do any good.” As they discussed what such a program would look like, Reagan offered a shrewd idea. “If we did it, I suggested that instead of repeating my speech in front of a camera in a television studio, it might be more effective if I spoke to an audience in a setting similar to the one in which they’d heard it.” Reagan understood the advantage of speaking to a live audience that would respond to his words with applause and laughter, as opposed to talking to a cold, unresponsive camera in an empty television studio.
James Kilroy, a forty-two-year-old real estate developer best known as a champion yachter, had not been among those attending the Cocoanut Grove dinner. But he agreed to help raise the money to air Reagan’s speech on national television after public relations executive Robert Raisbeck told him about Reagan’s words and the audience’s enthusiastic response.
Reagan’s friends had created a Los Angeles–based, semi-autonomous organization, “TV for Goldwater-Miller,” in September, weeks before the Cocoanut Grove speech. From its California headquarters, the group sent out letters asking for funds to support producing and airing television programs on behalf of Goldwater’s campaign. The California committee had access to large sums of money, a reality that forced the Goldwater campaign to tolerate its efforts.
Kilroy and his partners next hired Raisbeck’s Los Angeles firm, P.R. Counsellors, Ltd., to produce Reagan’s program. The price of the first network production was substantial. When it would air on NBC the night of October 27, the half-hour of airtime would cost the group $115,236. That included $22,300 to preempt the network’s scheduled program hosted by David Frost, “That Was the Week That Was.”
Reagan had suggested taping one of his regular speaking engagements for Goldwater in California, but the logistics of staging a network-quality production outside a studio would have been daunting. Instead, Raisbeck rented an NBC studio in Burbank and created a space that would look to the television audience like a meeting hall or hotel ballroom. In front of about four hundred metal folding chairs arranged in theater style, Raisbeck designed a high stage, adorned with red-white-and-blue bunting, on which stood a large lectern outfitted with two microphones. Reagan would stand alone on this stage before a dark, draped background. On the wall to the right of where the audience would sit was a row of pleated drapes on which hung two large campaign posters featuring Goldwater’s image. Raisbeck would record the program with several RCA color cameras using videotape. This included one camera on a boom that would sweep across the room and focus on Reagan, at the podium, in the program’s first minute.
On Monday, October 12 (probably in the evening), Reagan took the stage to applause from the audience of Goldwater supporters and Republican activists. The television audience would later hear an announcer opening the program, “The following prerecorded political program is sponsored by TV for Goldwater-Miller’ on behalf of Barry Goldwater, Republican candidate for president of the United States. Ladies and gentlemen, we take pride in presenting a thoughtful address by Ronald Reagan.”
For the next thirty minutes, Reagan gave a modified version of the “mashed potato circuit” speech he had been giving small-town audiences for years. He warned of communism’s rise and freedom’s potential fall. He attacked a metastasizing federal budget and a government robbing citizens of their freedoms. And he told the audience that Barry Goldwater was the man to set things right.
Reagan closed with these stirring words: “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. This is the meaning in the phrase of Barry Goldwater’s ‘peace through strength.’ Winston Churchill said that ‘the destiny of man is not measured by material computation. When great forces are on the move in the world, we learn we are spirits—not animals.’ And he said, ‘There is something going on in time and space, and beyond time and space, which, whether we like it or not, spells duty.’
“You and I have a rendezvous with destiny. We will preserve for our children this, the last best hope of man on Earth, or we will sentence them to take the last step into a thousand years of darkness.
“We will keep in mind and remember that Barry Goldwater has faith in us. He has faith that you and I have the ability and the dignity and the right to make our own decisions and determine our own destiny.
Kilroy said the most difficult part of preparing Reagan’s television program for broadcast was persuading its star to approve a brief money plea at the end. Begging for money in political broadcasts would soon be common. In 1964, however, many candidates and their advisers viewed such pitches as unseemly or undignified. Once Reagan approved the appeal, Raisbeck edited the program down to exactly twenty-nine minutes.
Next, he, Kilroy, and the TV for Goldwater-Miller organization tested their show by airing it on television stations in at least four California markets and on one Chicago station. After assessing the early, positive reaction to the program, Kilroy and Raisbeck knew they had something powerful on their hands.
Within hours of the program’s first broadcast, viewers responded with telegrams of support to Reagan, the Goldwater campaign, and the California group. “This 30 minute speech is exciting revealing and factual and it holds the attention of the opposition,” A. P. Pawluk of Pomona, California, said in a telegram to RNC chairman Dean Burch on October 25, adding, “Are you making arrangements to review and telecast nationwide the speech?” Helen and Lyle Randles of Los Angeles also sent a telegram to Burch after they saw the early KNBC broadcast on October 23. “We firmly believe that the whole nation should have the opportunity to hear Ronald Reagan speak on national television,” they wrote. “He knows how to say what needs to be said. Give America a chance to hear and see him.”
After watching the speech on local television on October 23, Margaret Barstow of Los Angeles wrote in a telegram to the Southern California Republican Party headquarters: “Ronald Reagan is the most forceful and effective speaker we have. . . . If we could have him on nationwide television this election would be won. I am sending money.”
To Reagan, Mr. and Mrs. Robert L. Stevenson of Los Angeles wrote in a telegram: “Your speech [was the] greatest ever delivered.” Mr. and Mrs. Harold Babcock of San Bernardino wired TV for Goldwater-Miller: “Talk excellent. Already won Congress. Please repeat program. . . . Sending donation.”
In Washington, meanwhile, Goldwater’s aides learned of the California group’s plan to air the speech on NBC the night of Tuesday, October 27. They did not approve. The first sign of trouble had appeared in an October 19 memorandum to the RNC from Albert Tilt of the advertising firm Erwin, Wasey, Ruthrauff & Ryan (a subsidiary of McCann Erickson, the firm hired to produce broadcast advertising for the party and the Goldwater campaign). After viewing the Reagan program, the agency concluded, “This would appear useful only in its full length as a half-hour for local use.” The next day, another memorandum asserted the Reagan broadcast would be “a violation of an agreement between the agency and the TV Committee.”
While they opposed the thirty-minute program, Goldwater’s campaign staffers were not oblivious to how Reagan could help them. As early as late September, Goldwater’s advertising firm had approved and aired a sixty-second spot that Reagan recorded, defending Goldwater against attacks of extremism and warmongering.
Reagan’s effectiveness in a sixty-second spot, however, did not mean the campaign wanted him to star in a thirty-minute national program. As late October approached, Goldwater’s campaign manager, Denison Kitchel, and policy adviser William Baroody noted the Reagan speech and the plans his California associates had for airing it on NBC. Annoyed with the California group for its impertinence in having bought national airtime on Goldwater’s behalf, Kitchel and Baroody reviewed the speech transcript and demanded the California group kill its program. Reagan’s discussion of Goldwater’s plans for a voluntary Social Security system violated everything Baroody wanted Goldwater to communicate in the campaign’s closing days.
Outraged that Goldwater aides in faraway Washington were conspiring to cancel Reagan’s broadcast, Walter Knott, a leader of the California group, phoned Goldwater’s advisers to offer them a choice: If the Goldwater campaign wished to air another program on NBC the evening of October 27, it must raise the money for it. TV for Goldwater-Miller, he said, would only pay to run Reagan’s speech.
Perhaps hoping to perform an end run around the California group, Kitchel and Baroody urged Goldwater to call Reagan. Goldwater phoned on Sunday, October 25, to speak with Reagan about the upcoming Tuesday evening broadcast. “He sounded uneasy and a little uncomfortable,” Reagan recalled, adding that Goldwater told him his advisers suggested substituting another program for Reagan’s speech. “He said they were afraid my speech, coming so close to the eve of the election, might backfire on him because of references in it to problems with the Social Security system.” Reagan protested. “Barry, I’ve been making the speech all over the state for quite a while and I have to tell you, it’s been pretty well received, including whatever remarks I’ve made about Social Security. I just can’t cancel the speech and give away the airtime; it’s not up to me.” Reagan noted the California group had raised the money for the program. “They’re the only ones who could cancel or switch it.”
Goldwater said he would view the film and call Reagan again. After Goldwater heard the speech’s audio, he asked his staff, “What the hell’s wrong with that?” Goldwater called Reagan and told him to proceed. Reagan admitted the episode rattled him. “Who was I to tell a presidential candidate what he should or shouldn’t do in his campaign?” he wrote. “After Barry’s second call, I thought for a while of calling the group who had purchased the airtime and asking them to withdraw my speech. Barry’s advisors had shaken my confidence a little.” Then Reagan remembered the times he had given that speech and the positive response it always received. After a sleepless night, he resolved to proceed.
Like other Goldwater programs that fall, the prime-time broadcast of Reagan’s October 27 speech was promoted in advertisements in newspapers across the country. “Tonight Don’t Miss ‘A Time for Choosing’ with Ronald Reagan,” read the standard advertisement of the TV for Goldwater-Miller Committee. Some papers published advance news stories about the speech.
On the night of the broadcast, Reagan and his wife, Nancy, watched from the home of a friend in Los Angeles. The speech aired at 9:30 p.m. (in New York and California). When it was over, Reagan said, “The others in the room said I had done well. But I was still nervous about it and, when I went to bed, I was hoping I hadn’t let Barry down.” Around midnight, Reagan recalled, the phone rang. It was a call from Washington, where it was 3 a.m. “The call was from a member of Barry’s campaign team,” Reagan said, “who told me the Goldwater-for-President campaign switchboard had been lit up constantly since the broadcast.”
In its first national showing, the speech was not a ratings juggernaut, but it was the most-watched television program the Republicans or Goldwater’s campaign would air that fall. According to the Neilson ratings company, the October 27 show drew 4.26 million households, representing 13 percent of that hour’s television audience. When TV for Goldwater-Miller aired it again on NBC the night of October 31 (before a less-remembered thirty-minute program for Goldwater hosted by actor John Wayne), it attracted 4.05 million households or 14.2 percent of the nationwide television audience.
More impressive to Goldwater’s campaign aides and the Republican National Committee staff was the outpouring of contributions and thousands of phone calls, letters, and telegrams that Reagan’s speech produced in the days after its first showing. Reagan told one interviewer in 1967 he had received 25,000 messages about his speech. Clifton White, the national director of Citizens for Goldwater-Miller, sent a telegram to Reagan the next morning: “Phones ringing round the clock here since your telecast. Our deepest thanks and congratulations for a magnificent presentation.”
Eisenhower was among those who watched the speech. On October 30, back in Gettysburg after a weeklong hospital stay in Washington, he called his former attorney general and political adviser, Herbert Brownell, to discuss the “fine speech by Ronald Reagan.” Later that day, he spoke with another former aide, Bryce Harlow, and told him, “Reagan’s speech was excellent.”
Average citizens sent telegrams to Reagan at his home or in care of the California group. “Just heard your speech,” wrote Roy Carney of Lake Forest, Illinois, in a telegram the night of October 27. “It was thrilling, the best speech of the campaign. We are sending a check to your committee.” R. Bell of Brooklyn wrote to TV for Goldwater-Miller the next morning: “Greatest political speech we’ve heard. You are the strongest thing going for Uncle Goldie. You touched all the bases.” Wrote Chester Tripp of Chicago: “[Your speech] is by far the best of the crop. Trust it can be heard again by millions within the next few days.” Mrs. Bruce Willard Turner of Baltimore told the California group that Reagan’s was the “most thrilling and spellbinding speech I have ever heard. Can’t we have it again before election?” From Hawaii, movie director John Ford wrote, “Great Ronnie great.”
Most of Goldwater’s top aides, who had opposed a washed-up actor speaking on national television for their candidate, finally grasped the impact of Reagan’s words and his powerful presentation. Except for Baroody, they now endorsed the program, and they voiced strong support for the California group’s plans to broadcast it several more times before Election Day. And the financial appeal that Reagan and Nancy had worried about proved a bonanza for the California group’s ability to keep showing the speech. Checks poured into the committee’s Los Angeles post office box.
This money allowed the California group to air Reagan’s speech again on national television and in dozens of local markets around the country. In some markets, local Republican organizations paid to air the speech, which suggests TV for Goldwater-Miller had shipped copies across the country before the October 27 national showing.
The continued showings prompted even more telegrams and phone calls of praise. “Listeners are spellbound and many loyal contributors to Barry Goldwater have expressed their desire that you continue to use Mister Reagan from now through Monday night,” Mr. and Mrs. Burt Ford wrote to Burch from their home in Dallas. From Atlanta, C. G. Fulton wired the Republican National Committee to say, “Repeat Ronald Reagan on national TV Monday. Most wonderful speech I have heard.”
In Ohio, an unnamed columnist for the Sandusky Register noted on October 30, “The Goldwater campaign has suffered in getting its basic message across to Americans everywhere.” He complained that “countless words have been crammed down the citizens’ throat” and “most of us are getting pretty sick and tired of it.” However, the writer gushed, “Actor Reagan took the whole issue in perspective. It was terrific!”
Chicago Tribune reporter Larry Wolters also noted the positive response to Reagan’s speech. “Citizens for Goldwater headquarters in Chicago reported yesterday,” he wrote on October 31, “that more than 5,000 requests for copies of the Reagan address and for repeat presentation have been received and that more than 3,000 copies already have been sent out with other thousands still to follow.”
In a postelection review for a book he would publish in 1965, Goldwater aide Stephen Shadegg collected impressions from politically active friends and associates around the country. Several correspondents mentioned Reagan’s speech as the campaign’s highlight. “If the Ronald Reagan presentation had been used earlier and reiterated . . . the race would have been much closer,” a Goldwater supporter from Lansing, Michigan, told Shadegg. A Republican activist from Defiance, Ohio, wrote: “Had the Senator been able to present his case as effective[ly] as Ronald Reagan did for him, it would have been a great help.” The unfavorable comparison of Goldwater to Reagan was a recurring theme. From Denver, a correspondent told Shadegg: “[The] TV appearance of Ronald Reagan [the] last week in [the] campaign brought almost unanimous response: ‘This is what we wanted to hear!’ or ‘Why didn’t Goldwater talk like that’ or ‘Why isn’t he [Reagan] running for president[?]’” Another writer, from Winter Park, Florida, complained about Goldwater: “The only complaint I would have about his campaign would be his speeches. When Reagan spoke everyone said, ‘Why didn’t [Goldwater] say it that way?’”
A few days after Reagan’s speech, Goldwater lost in a landslide to Lyndon Johnson. To some, the conservative movement appeared dead. In California, meanwhile, Republicans turned immediately to the next big challenge: finding a candidate to challenge Gov. Edmund “Pat” Brown for reelection in 1966.
They didn’t need to look long. Within weeks, at the urging of Tuttle and other party leaders, a new political star was already preparing to run. Two years later, Ronald Reagan would defeat Brown, capturing the governor’s office by a million votes.