The Speech was the speech that Reagan gave on prime-time television on October 27, 1964—fifty years ago this week—as a campaign address in support of Barry Goldwater, the Republican Presidential nominee. It accomplished less for Goldwater than it did for Reagan himself; it propelled him, immediately and justifiably, into a kind of stardom that he had never quite achieved in Hollywood. That half hour on NBC did for Reagan and modern conservatism what “The Ed Sullivan Show,” six months earlier, had done for the Beatles, rock music, and popular culture: it drew a bright line between the past and the future. The Speech—rechristened, for that occasion, as “A Time for Choosing”—helped to define the G.O.P. and conservative politics for more than a generation.
There is a tension between being the “next Ronald Reagan” and being one’s own person. Some Republicans recognize this. “Ronald Reagan is dead. Accept it,” Ford O’Connell, a Party strategist, wrote, in a recent book. “The Reagan fixation is a drag on the future success of the GOP.… It undermines the candidates because it becomes a crutch for their inability to articulate an actual agenda or a forward-looking vision.” Michael Gerson, George W. Bush’s chief speechwriter, has cautioned that “the next GOP presidential nominee cannot be … prone to Reagan-era rhetoric about tax rates and regulatory burdens.”