Conservatives often like to refer nostalgically to “The Speech,” a nationally televised address Ronald Reagan gave in support of Barry Goldwater on the eve of the 1964 presidential election. They rarely quote it, though, and for good reason. The Speech, later officially titled “A Time for Choosing,” is a frequently hysterical, frequently hilarious rant. It’s not just loaded with such Reagan trademarks as wildly exaggerated statistics on government spending and spurious anecdotes about government bureaucrats (“sixty-six shiploads of grain headed for Austria disappeared without a trace”) and mothers having seven children and getting divorced so they can get a little more welfare. Nor is it just completely callous toward anyone below the poverty level (“We were told four years ago that seventeen million people went to bed hungry each night. Well, that was probably true. They were all on a diet!”). More important, The Speech revealed complete ignorance about the most fundamental ways in which American government and society worked. This included farm price supports (he claimed the Johnson administration “asked for the right to imprison farmers who wouldn’t keep books as prescribed by the federal government”), youth programs (“we re going to put our young people in…camps”), Medicare (“France admitted that their Medicare program is now bankrupt. They’ve come to the end of the road.”), the Federal Reserve Board (“our government |must| give up its program of deliberate planned inflation”), and foreign aid (“we bought a two-million-dollar yacht for Haile Selassie. We bought dress suits for Greek undertakers, extra wives for Kenya government officials. We bought a thousand TV sets for a place where they have no electricity. In the last six years, fifty-two nations have bought seven billion dollars’ worth of our gold, and all fifty-two are receiving foreign aid from this country”). To top it all off, Reagan appropriated an FDR line, saying, “You and I have a rendezvous with destiny,” and somehow failed to attribute it.
The popular wisdom is that The Speech was at least a seminal moment in the modern conservative movement, the archetype for what would be Reagan’s standard stump speech and the star turn that first won him wide recognition. Reagan himself would write, with his usual exuberance: “The speech raised eight million dollars and soon changed my entire life.” In fact, it drew little notice outside right-wing circles and would be entirely remodeled by the time its author was running for President. As Reagan thundered, out of the blue, near the crescendo of The Speech, “Somewhere a perversion has taken place.” Uh-huh.
William Jennings Bryan is a case study in what happens when you live too long. Bryan’s late-life shenanigans—peddling land in Florida, prosecuting evolution in Tennessee—have led many to write off his earlier political efforts as mere bluster and buffoonery. Yet the “Cross of Gold” speech, delivered in Chicago on July 8, 1896, during the Democratic party’s platform debate, is still a great speech. It is certainly a fighting speech against the adherents of the gold standard. “We have petitioned, and our petitions have been scorned; we have entreated, and our entreaties have been disregarded; we have begged, and they have mocked when our calamity came. We beg no longer; we entreat no more; we petition no more. We defy them.” But unlike so much current oratory, it never seeks to smear or mock, but to persuade. Bryan only punctured his opponents’ arguments, and he did so with a ready erudition that made reference to the careers of Jackson and Jefferson, Cicero and Napoleon.
The tragedy of the speech—and of Bryan’s campaign—is that it too often narrowed the great goals of populism down to a dubious pitch for bimetallism. The other specific positions he champions in the speech, and which we now take for granted, including the government’s exclusive right to print money and the right to impose an income tax (“When I find a man who is not willing to bear his share of the burdens of the government which protects him, I find a man who is unworthy to enjoy the blessings of a government like ours”). Yet Bryan is most eloquent— even poetic —in the greater cause he pleads, the fundamental equality of all Americans before the law, despite the ascendancy of what was then called “the money power”: “Ah, my friends, we say not one word against those who live upon the Atlantic coast, but the hardy pioneers who have braved all the dangers of the wilderness, who have made the desert to blossom as the rose—the pioneers away out there, who rear their children near to Nature’s heart, where they can mingle their voices with the voices of the birds—out there where they have erected schoolhouses for the education of their young, churches where they praise their Creator, and cemeteries where rest the ashes of their dead—these people, we say, are as deserving of the consideration of our party as any people in this country.”
What’s more, he wrote the whole thing himself.