Forty-eight years ago today, Ronald Reagan delivered a speech on behalf of Barry Goldwater. The speech has become known as “A Time for Choosing.”
Listen to the speech. Listen to all of it. Speeches which have any sort of historical legs all seem to share one attribute: You can listen to them, or read them, decades, generations later, in some cases centuries, and they still read fresh. The ideas and the concerns and the hopes they capture transcend the verities of the moment. From Washington’s Farewell to Webster’s Second Reply to Hayne to the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural, through to Churchill’s Beaches and Finest Hour: They are all immediate to us now.
We still struggle with the problems brought by entangling foreign alliances; we watch what happens when men who deny any God higher than themselves assume the helm of state. The fact of union, from out of many lands and peoples, and what that means for the hope of the world, is at the very center of gravity of civilization. We forever exhort ourselves to grant this last, best hope of the earth a new birth of freedom, and highly resolve that our honored dead shall not have died in vain. As we struggle over whether to depose blood-soaked tyrants half a world away, and as we fondly hope and fervently pray that the scourge of war may quickly pass from us, we still try to balance a heart bearing malice towards none and charity for all against that necessary firmness in the right, as (we hope) God gives us to see the right, that will permit us to finish the great work we are in. And when we are attacked, we vow that we shall fight our enemies every step of the way, from behind every fence, every shop building, in every ditch and at every creek and river crossing. We hope that when our remote descendants examine us under the cold, unforgiving light of history, knowing then what we cannot know now, they will say of us that ours was the finest hour (although we’d be mighty proud if we never are asked to prove it up).
I don’t mean to suggest that Reagan achieved the towering heights of Lincoln or Churchill. I am no student of rhetoric, but I do question whether snippets of his will still be part of our civil DNA 100 years hence. What I do mean to suggest is that in much the same matter-of-fact voice of Washington, he outlined for us the choices presenting themselves to us, and that his foresight of these choices and his description of them and their portent is in its own way every bit as prescient as Washington’s in 1796. Here then, is Ronald Reagan in 1964, almost twenty years before he dared Mr. Gorbachev to tear down this wall: