The Toxic Legacy of Ronald Reagan and his “Time for Choosing” Speech 50 Years Ago Today


    50 years ago today (October 27, 1964), Ronald Reagan delivered his (in)famous “A Time for Choosing Speech” in support of Republican Presidential nominee Barry Goldwater over President Lyndon Johnson. Soon thereafter, LBJ went on to defeat Goldwater in one of the greatest landslides in U.S. history. So, in that respect at least, Reagan’s speech wasn’t toxic. But in most other respects, the speech – and Reagan himself – were a dangerous mix of dishonesty, demagoguery, delusion, and divisiveness. Let’s start with the speech, since Reagan-worshipping right wingers will undoubtedly be celebrating it today.

    First off, the speech clearly revealed Reagan’s hard heartedness towards the poor, hungry, etc. As part of his assault on the Great Society specifically, and on the very concept that we are all “our brothers’ keepers,” Reagan joked (seriously, he thought this was very funny): “We were told four years ago that 17 million people went to bed hungry each night. Well that was probably true. They were all on a diet.” Hahahaha, get it? People aren’t really hungry, they’re just on a diet. Yeah, not funny. At all. Unless, perhaps, your heart is as cold and empty as Ronald Reagan’s was (remember, this was the administration that thought AIDS was hi-larious! and did nothing about it while thousands died).

    What’s frightening is that it wasn’t just Reagan who thought that way back in 1964, nor has this type of thinking gone away in 2014. To the contrary, there are now tens of millions of Americans – Republicans and Tea Partiers mostly – who apparently believe that it’s fine (even highly desirable) to lavish taxpayer-funded welfare on corporations and the super-rich, yet not to give a helping hand to those who really need it (or even to mock them for needing that helping hand). If that’s not corrosive and dangerous, I don’t know what is.

    Second, the speech was classic Reagan in its utter dishonesty. For instance, Reagan claimed – without any evidence whatsoever, of course – “No nation in history has ever survived a tax burden that reached a third of its national income.” Of course, that’s not true in any way. For instance, some of the most prosperous and successful countries on earth today are well above the percentage Reagan tossed out in his speech. A few examples: Denmark (48.2%), Sweden (46.4%), Finland (43.1%), Norway (41.0%), Germany (37.0%), and the UK (34.3%). As for the U.S., we’re way down there, below Turkey and South Korea, as one of the LEAST taxed countries (as a percent of national income) in the OECD. So what was Reagan ranting about? Simple: it’s the corrosive, Big Lie that the United States’ budget problems are not the result of having such low taxes. Nope, in the eyes of right wingers, it’s all because we spend too much. Of course, when you ask rank-and-file Republicans and Tea Partiers, program by program, what they’d like to cut, they have no answer: the military (god no, they want to increase it!), “homeland” security (you must be kidding!), Social Security and Medicare (hell no, don’t touch that!), roads and other infrastructure (if anything, they claim to want more of that — they just don’t want to pay for it), etc, etc. The bottom line is that Republican philosophy, as summed up by Reagan in his “Time for Choosing” speech, is that they want everything but don’t want to pay for anything. The result: as President, Reagan talked tough but actually expanded government big time, cranked up the national debt several fold, pretty much violated everything he claimed to stand for in the “Time for Choosing” speech. Shocker, huh?

    Third, on foreign policy, this speech was downright dangerous, advocating for an end to “containment” of the Soviet Union and switching instead to an aggressive posture of rolling back communism, of liberating the people behind the Iron Curtain, etc. Which sounds great, at first glance, until you realize a few things: a) we had absolutely no way to do that using conventional force; b) if we had tried to do that, it almost certainly would have led to war (quite possibly the last mankind would ever wage, as we’d all be a smouldering ruin after it was over) with the nuclear-armed Soviet Union. Today, we see Reagan’s crazy legacy in the positions of Republicans like John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and many others whose foreign policy basically comes down to “bombs away!” It’s extremely dangerous, extremely costly (in both lives and treasure), and we’ve seen the disastrous results many times now. Thanks Reagan!

    I could go on all day critiquing this speech from hell, but I’ll just point out one other corrosive, vicious, dangerous aspect that we very much continue to see today: the demonization of government. Namely, according to Reagan and his ilk, any government program aimed at bettering peoples’ lives constitutes “socialism” (as Reagan called it in his speech; sound familiar?), the product of an insidious “little intellectual elite in a far-distant capitol,” (yep, gotta love anti-intellectualism) the “ant heap of totalitarianism” (hyperbole much?), the demise of “freedom” and capitalism (yada yada yada), and stemming in part from the evils of federal “bureaucrats” and the “bureaucracy.” Today, we see this attitude reflected in the likes of Grover “drown government in the bathtub” Norquist and everyone who’s signed onto his extreme, anti-tax pledge (note: here in Virginia, the list includes Scott Rigell, Randy Forbes, Robert Hurt, Bob Goodlatte, Morgan Griffith, Dave Brat, Barbara Comstock, and Ed Gillespie).

    Bottom line: Reagan’s “A Time for Choosing Speech,” not to mention his two terms as President, epitomizes everything wrong with the Republican Party (and its even worse spawn, the Tea Party). Now, at another “Time for Choosing,” I urge everyone who rejects the selfish, every-man-and-woman-for-themselves, we-are-NOT-in-it-together, “I’ve got mine so f*** you,” trickle-down, corporate-welfare-for-the-wealthy, know-nothing philosophy to: a) vote; b) vote Democratic; and c) make sure you encourage all your friends, families and neighbors to do the same. The future of this country, as always, hangs in the balance, and you the voter will decide whether we move “forward, together,” or backwards into the ditch.

    • ir003436

      True, Reagan’s “Time for Choosing” speech revealed a lot about him that is not pretty.  

      There is another speech that needs to receive as much attention, if not more attention, as the “Time for Choosing” speech and that’s his speech at the Neshoba County Fair in Mississippi, August 1980.  Let’s set the stage.

      Reagan was born and reared in a Middle American, middle-class community and family in Illinois.  He then went to California to seek his fortune.

      As the 1980 Republican presidential nominee he faced a choice:  Where would he make his first speech as the candidate and what would he say?   Would he go home to Illinois and make a flag-waving speech about God, Mother, and Apple Pie; or, would he speak in California, the Golden Land of Opportunity?


      He went to Neshoba County, Mississippi, the site of one of the most heinous, evil crimes of the civil rights era.  Three young men, working to register African-American voters, were kidnapped by local Klansmen (including two deputy sheriffs), tortured, murdered, and buried in an earthen dam.  Their bodies were not found for weeks and only after the FBI leaned on informants.  Everyone in the county knew who committed the crime, yet, the county and Mississippi refused to prosecute anyone.  Read about the 1964 murders here:

      So — Reagan made his first speech as the 1980 GOP presidential candidate to a shrieking, applauding, worshipful all-white crowd.  He told them “. . . I support states’ rights. . . ”

      Now, to you young folks and to you damnyankees, “states’ rights” means the Tenth Amendment, which delineates the rights of states and rights of the federal government.  Not so to us old Southerners.

      When you speak of “states’ rights” in the South you are not talking about the Tenth Amendment.  Instead, you mean — as an old Southern politician explained to me years ago — “the right of the states to treat our n*****s any way we see fit.”

      Reagan signaled to the South that he was continuing Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” and that the federal government had no interest in pushing forward the provisions of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts.

      So — you see — the current GOP attack on voting rights, led by the SCOTUS decision gutting the 1965 Voting Rights Act, is nothing new.

      I wish Reagan’s Neshoba County Fair speech and the implications thereof received the coverage they deserve.  However, in today’s environment where the GOP lie machine sets the boundaries of debate, you’ll never hear about Candidate Reagan and Neshoba County.

    • kindler

      …and was quite surprised when they cut in to say that this was Reagan speaking.  I thought for sure it must’ve been Nixon.  There was no folksy “Morning in America” optimism or anything positive in it — just pure red meat for the right wing dogs to devour.

      It was actually a very dark, mean, narrow-minded speech. While a fair number of Reagan’s actual policies (when in office) proved to be far more moderate than what the Tea Party is touting today, he demonstrated all the same malevolence, greed and intolerance that defines conservativism today.

    • amber waves

      Reagan would ultimately address the issue of AIDS on April 2, 1987 (near the end of his second term). When he spoke, More than 30,000 Americans suffered from AIDS and 20,000 had died. The disease had spread to 113 countries, with more than 50,000 cases. HIV infection was in the millions.

      His legacy of denial, neglect, and bigotry shall not be forgotten by those of us who lost so many loved ones.

      Yesterday, Obama hugs an Ebola survivor,Reagan couldn’t even say the word AIDS.