(OpEd by Dr. James Finck, who is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma in Chickasha. He is Chair of the Oklahoma Civil War Symposium. Follow Historically Speaking at www.Historicallyspeaking.blog.)
Now that the national conventions are over, it is time for the Republicans to comment on the number of Hollywood celebrities who spoke and performed at the Democratic Convention. Of course, this is not new. Hollywood has always supported the left much more than the right, and Democratic conventions and rallies can parade out an endless stream of celebrities to tell us what to think. While this is true, arguably the most famous celebrity speech that ever happened was in 1964 and was for the Republicans.
1964 was an interesting election year. Just the year before the very popular president, John F. Kennedy, had been assassinated. Kennedy’s VP-now-President, Lyndon Johnson, was running for the Democratic nomination on his own account. The Republicans ran a man named Barry Goldwater. With these two men, the modern-day parties were set. There will no longer be any question which party was liberal and which was conservative, or, as Goldwater put it, there was “a choice, not an echo.”
Goldwater was an old school conservative, who wanted to reduce the size of government and cut taxes. Really, he was running against the New Deal. He also claimed the Democrats were soft on communism and had failed to contain it. Johnson was a liberal with a strong record on civil rights and social reform.
There was never really any doubt who would win. Johnson was still feeling the effects of FDR and Kennedy and he blew out his Republican competitor. Yet, when the election was only a couple of days away, the Republicans tried a last-ditch effort to win some votes by purchasing TV time and running a speech by actor Ronald Reagan.
Ex-Democrat Reagan was not a popular actor at the time. It had been a stretch since his last major role. He was more known as a spokesman for G.E. and host of a weekly NBC show called General Electric Theater, but that had ended in 1962. Yet he gave such a memorable speech that it catapulted him within two years to being elected Governor of California and ultimately to the White House.
His speech in 1964 was a complete denunciation of the Democrats and liberal policy and was as divisive as any speech that year. Like today, the main attack was the size of government and America becoming a socialist state. These same arguments have been made for fifty years.
Reagan said, “This is the issue of this election: whether we believe in our capacity for self-government or whether we abandon the American Revolution and confess that a little intellectual elite in a far-distant capitol can plan our lives for us better than we can plan them ourselves.”
Reagan’s skills as a speaker made him relevant again and his ideas became the playbook for Republican politicians, even today. In fact, this speech was so important that the only other political speech by a Republican that is comparable is Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.
It is true that the Democrats rely on their celebrity endorsements more than Republicans, but historically speaking the most important Republican speech in the past fifty years also came from a Hollywood actor.