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Ronald Reagan’s ‘A Time For Choosing’ Is 50 Years Old Today: Does It Hold Up?


October 27, 1964. The Saint Louis Cardinals had just beaten the New York Yankees in seven games to win the World Series. “I Want to Hold Your Hand” by The Beatles was the number-one song of the year. In politics, Arizona Republican Barry Goldwater was one week away from an electoral thumping at the hands of Lyndon B. Johnson in the presidential election.

President Johnson’s campaign had likely scored the knockout blow with his campaign’s famous, perhaps infamous, Daisy television ad. A young girl is seen plucking petals from a daisy just prior to a nuclear mushroom cloud exploding, implying that Goldwater was reckless and dangerous. Later in life, Goldwater opined that this ad started the barrage of personal attack ads that became standard operating procedure in political campaigns.

The Goldwater campaign and the Republicans needed something. That something came in the form of Ronald Reagan’s landmark televised address, which would become known as “A Time for Choosing.” As we mark the 50th anniversary of the address, it is appropriate to reflect on its content and significance.

The overarching significance of the speech is that it set the stage for Reagan’s later political success and outlined his core political philosophy of limited government. Even beyond the generalities of the proper relationship between the citizen and the state, it is amazing how the actual details of the issues Reagan discussed are still relevant today.

Consider the finances of the federal government. Reagan noted that the federal government had not balanced a budget in 28 of the past 34 years and maintained deficit spending of $17 million per day. This predicament should sound very familiar to the contemporary observer. Our current 2014 projected federal deficit spending is $1.33 billion per day. Adjusted for inflation, our debt rises ten times faster per day, every day, than in 1964.

From 2008 to 2012, the U.S. federal government posted yearly deficits in excess of $1 trillion. Never in our history have we been so fiscally unbalanced. Even at the height of World War II, our highest yearly deficit did not reach the $1 trillion threshold in 2014 dollars. Reagan also discussed our national debt: after all, deficits are simply a pathway to debt. In 1964, our cumulative national debt stood at $316 billion . At the end of 2014, we will be carrying nearly $18 trillion in debt. Adjusted for inflation, our per-person debt is nearly four and a half times what it was in 1964.

Our debt is not a function of too little money flowing into the federal coffers. Federal receipts are at an all-time high. When adjusted for inflation, per-person receipts are more than double what they were in 1964. Washington’s ability to rake in more and more money is not shared by the American family, which has seen its real income fall every year since 2007. It is no wonder that Gallup recently found that Americans believe the federal government wastes 51 cents of every dollar it spends.

Beyond the pragmatic matter of fiscal mismanagement, Reagan used the address to highlight larger issues in the political discourse of the day, which are still a matter of great importance now. Key concepts such as the balance of freedom versus security and limitations to state authority over the citizens are woven throughout the speech.

Reagan cited the founders when he noted that a government can’t control things without controlling people and that controlling people requires force and coercion.

Sen. William Fulbright, best known now by the eponymous Fulbright program of education grants, made his way into Reagan’s remarks. Reagan cited the senator’s lament at Stanford University that the Constitution is outmoded, antiquated, and unnecessarily restrictive of centralized executive power. These fundamental concepts of the meaning and application of the Constitution in today’s modern world are still with us. Are you in the original meaning camp? Do you read the language of the document and believe its framers meant what they said? Or, do you believe, like Fulbright did, that the Constitution has outlived its usefulness? These questions are beyond the scope of this dissertation. However, consider that many constitutional questions, such as the Affordable Care Act, may be very narrowly decided, say 5-4 by the Supreme Court. In essence, one person, one person out of 320 million, functionally decides what the government can compel of a citizen.

Reagan clearly was worried about this relationship, this critical interaction between the citizen and the state. He noted that the founding fathers sought to minimize the power of the centralized government. Reagan cited the founders when he noted that a government can’t control things without controlling people, and that controlling people requires force and coercion. He discussed the nature of regulation and bureaucracy as a source of this coercion.

1964 was the height of the Cold War, and the Cuban missile crisis was fresh in the public’s mind, so it is not surprising that Reagan dealt with foreign affairs in the address. His main argument was against the notion of fighting the Soviet threat to a draw. Detente with the Soviets was not Reagan’s end goal. Since 1964, countries formerly under the control of the Soviets, such as Poland and East Germany, have emerged from the Russian shadow. But here we are 50 years later and the Russian Bear is again showing its teeth. There is trouble in Ukraine and a passenger jet has been shot out of the sky.

Despite the deteriorating state of American and Russian relations, one of the 2012 presidential candidates saw fit to mock the other who expressed concerns about the Russian threat. Reagan famously referred to the Soviets as an “Evil Empire.” Despite some criticism and backlash against the Evil Empire speech at the time, Reagan once again proved to be right.

If you are like me, one of the 220 million Americas not yet alive in 1964, I recommend you watch Reagan deliver the address. It is readily available online and equally, or perhaps more, relevant today than when he gave it. Fifty years later, our world in many respects is remarkably the same. Our challenges have not changed, only amplified. History tends to repeat itself. The Cardinals nearly made it to the World Series and Paul McCartney is still making music.

Reagan closed powerfully, succinctly, and with clarity. “You and I have a rendezvous with destiny. We’ll preserve for our children this, the last best hope of man on earth, or we’ll sentence them to take the last step into a thousand years of darkness.” Would you disagree with this poignant observation today? Are we currently fulfilling that promise to our children, or are we paving for them the road to darkness and despair?

Dr. Brent Moody is a dermatologist with a specialty in Mohs surgery. Dr. Moody is board certified in dermatology by the American Board of Dermatology and has been practicing in Nashville since 2003.