October 28, 2014

Reagan's "Time For Choosing" - when people watched politics on television

Just so we're clear from the outset, it's not my intent here to make an ideological point.  As always, what matters most is our analysis of the influence that television has on the American culture.  If you'd still rather skip the politics, come on back Thursday - I'll see what I can do for you.

For the rest of you: yesterday was the 50th anniversary of what has been called the "Time For Choosing" speech delivered by Ronald Reagan on behalf of Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater.  Contrary to what you might read from some on the Internet, this speech was not given at the Republican Convention (which was held in July), nor was it coverage of a speech that Reagan was giving out on the stump.  It was, in fact, a made-for-television program, with a live audience to give it some atmosphere.

The speech was given during the final days of the campaign (Election Day was, as it is this year, November 3), and as far as influencing the outcome of the race, its impact was negligible - the incumbent, Lyndon Johnson, pounded Goldwater 61%-39%, the sixth-most lopsided presidential race in history.  In other ways, though, the speech was a sensation.  It raised over $8 million for the cash-strapped Goldwater, which as this columnist points out would be about $60 million in today's money.  Washington Post writer David Broder compared its impact to William Jennings Bryan's famed "Cross of Gold" speech in 1896.  Most important, it catapulted Reagan, who two years before had been a Democrat and was hitherto best known as a movie star and the host of GE Theater, to national political prominence.  Two years later he would be elected Governor of California, and he would seek the Republican presidential nomination in 1968 and 1976 before winning the presidency in 1980.*

*And you can read more about that in this coming Saturday's TV Guide.

Again, the point here is not to look at Reagan's political legacy - what fascinates me is the impact this televised speech had.  It's rather difficult today to imagine a televised political appearance being this influential, given the disdain most of us have for politicians, and the lengths to which many of us will go to avoid seeing them on TV.*  But this speech, a variation on a speech he'd been giving to groups throughout California, defined Ronald Reagan politically and made him a force to be reckoned with for the remainder of his political life.

*I suppose then-state Senator Barack Obama's speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention is the closest we've come since.

We've seen how the advent of television has changed politics, for better or worse.  Keep in mind that four years before Reagan's speech, the inaugural televised debate between Kennedy and Nixon had been the highest-rated broadcast of all time, and that eight years before that, Nixon's "Checkers Speech" (likewise the largest television audience at the time) had saved his spot on the ticket with Dwight Eisenhower, with telegrams of support overwhelming Republican headquarters.  In the sense that today's political campaigns are geared for the mass audience as opposed to the more intimate style that personified previous generations, the effects of television apply equally to all candidates.  Some, like the Kennedys, Reagan and (arguably) Obama, use it to better use than others, but they all play under the same rules.*

*Witness the number of times you hear it said of a candidate that "if he (or she) could personally meet every voter, he'd win in a landslide."  Some people just do better in person than on the tube.

Nowadays we live in cynical times; virtually every source of authority has been discredited and is looked upon with deep distrust, so it's unlikely that a single television appearance nowadays - as part of a paid political advertisement, no less - could have the effect of Reagan's speech.  And that's what makes it so extraordinary; that on that night in October 1964, a great many people sat around their television sets and watched Ronald Reagan give a political speech.  They liked what they saw and heard, and they remembered it.  It may be one of the last example of its kind, the use of television to capture the political imagination of the public, and thereby to shape the nation's political future.

Here, in its entirety, is the "Time For Choosing" speech from October 27, 1964.  See what you think.

2 comments:

  1. " It's rather difficult today to imagine a televised political appearance being this influential, given the disdain most of us have for politicians, and the lengths to which many of us will go to avoid seeing them on TV"

    I'm sure you know this, but I'd guess that it's not the disdain that people have, but the choices. Back then, when we only had three (four if counting PBS) networks to choose from, an impact a speech like this would have was huge. There was no where else to turn to (unless you just decided to turn off the set). But now with the multitude of choices on cable, on satellite on the internet, a speech like this would be tantamount to that oaf just another voice in the wind. Those who agreed with it's perspective would watch and those who didn't wouldn't bother to tune in (there'd be plenty other things they could watch) Our choices these days have made impact TV less and less.

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    1. Agree completely - in fact, I'd say that your comment about choices has a double meaning. There are in fact more choices for viewers to watch - and I think they've also become more jaundiced by the choices they have among candidates. Excellent point.

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