Reagan, Goldwater and Rise of Conservatism

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Fifty years ago on Monday, the handsome, All-American actor Ronald Wilson Reagan jump-started his political career when his pre-recorded “A Time for Choosing” speech in support of 1964 Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater aired on television.

While never a star on the level of Clark Gable or Humphrey Bogart, Reagan’s acting career, his experience as a sports announcer, and a good sense of humor made him a likeable as well as a commanding public speaker. A prolific actor before, during, and after World War II, Reagan appeared in films ranging from dramas, including Kings Row, to military training films to comedies such as Bedtime for Bonzo. He became General Electric’s spokesman and the host of General Electric Theater, GE’s popular weekly radio and TV program from the 1950s to the early 1960s.

Originally a New Deal Democrat, Reagan campaigned for several Democratic candidates, including President Harry S. Truman. He served on the board of a union, the Screen Actors Guild, and then later became its president. However, as the 1950s progressed, his views became increasingly conservative. His second wife, Nancy Davis Reagan, had grown up in a conservative household, and GE’s executives, especially Lemuel Boulware, supported conservative principles of limited government, free markets, and anti-communism. By 1962, Reagan had changed from a Cold War liberal to a Republican when he famously remarked, “I didn’t leave the Democratic Party. The party left me.”

Reagan’s philosophical journey took place at a crossroads for conservatism. While we may associate the 1950s with Dwight D. Eisenhower, fears of communism, and the nuclear family epitomized by Leave it to Beaver, the future of conservatism did not look bright during this time. Marxist-Leninism was on the march in Southeast Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Conservatism was increasingly looked upon as backward and un-intellectual in academia. The Republican Party had largely cast itself as simply a watered down version of the Democratic Party, and, if you went further to the right, you might have run into the fringe John Birch Society, an organization filled with paranoia and, in many cases, anti-Semitism and other prejudices.

A conservative revival came out of this decade as William F. Buckley’s newly founded National Review became an outlet to promote conservative principles and to simultaneously reduce the influence of the extremists. Then a staunch, old-fashioned conservative from Arizona named Barry M. Goldwater began to shake the political establishment. A bespectacled, articulate figure, Goldwater was a fierce anti-communist and a critic of labor unions and the welfare state. After a long, bitter primary against the moderate New York governor, Nelson Rockefeller, Goldwater became the GOP presidential candidate against incumbent President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964. Reagan became Goldwater’s most consequential spokesman.

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