THE BOOTLEG FILES: A TIME FOR CHOOSING Image

BOOTLEG FILES 378: “A Time for Choosing” (1964 paid political TV broadcast starring Ronald Reagan).

LAST SEEN: The full broadcast can be seen on several video sites.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: It is available on DVD from the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation & Library.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: No copyright on the broadcast.

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: It is on commercial DVD, but that won’t stop the dupes from turning up online!

Here’s the scenario: you are at the center of a presidential campaign that is tanking badly. With an electoral debacle looming and no credible strategy is available to ensure a miraculous turnaround, how do you approach your fate?

That was the scenario in the autumn of 1964, when Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater was facing a political catastrophe in his attempt to unseat President Lyndon B. Johnson. With time ticking away, the Goldwater campaign decided to face the final days of the campaign in a highly unusual manner: by recruiting a second-tier actor to deliver a speech that would be broadcast in prime time as a half-hour commercial. The strategy did not pay off Goldwater, who lost the presidential election in a landslide. But the speech startled many people and launched the second-tier actor into the national political forefront.

The broadcast took place on October 27, 1964, and was framed under the title “A Time for Choosing” – which the broadcast’s off-screen host introduced as “a thoughtful address by Ronald Reagan.” In the course of a half-hour, Reagan offered a startling articulation of the conservative cause in clear yet provocative language that was strangely absent from most of the Goldwater campaign addresses.

During the 1964 presidential campaign, Reagan presented various versions of “A Time for Choosing” on behalf of the Goldwater campaign before business and community groups. By the time he took the lectern before the studio audience gathered for the televised version, he had perfected the delivery of the speech with gusto. For viewers that were watching Reagan’s presentation for the first time – and who only knew Reagan as the amiable second lead in a number of old-time Warner Brothers movies – the speech offered a very, very different image.

In viewing “A Time for Choosing” today, what is most striking about the speech’s contents is the quantity of issues that are still gnawing at the U.S. socio-political spectrum. The speech touches on American soldiers dying in ill-defined foreign wars, the debt ceiling being raised repeatedly to accommodate federal financial woes, foreclosed properties, excessive government spending on programs that failed to solve economic deprivation, the financial problems burdening Social Security and a federal system that neither the Congress nor the White House is willing to scale down. Really, the problems of 1964 never seemed to truly vanish. Listening to the speech, one can easily recall the Santayana wisecrack about what happens to those who fail to remember history.

In terms of style, “A Time for Choosing” is fairly amusing in recognizing how Reagan’s speechmaking skills evolved. Anyone who recalls the grandfatherly elocution of the Reagan presidency will be surprised at the slightly impatient and much-too-serious tone of this address. For most of the speech, Reagan keeps a stern visage and speaks at a slightly faster-than-normal pace. It is not until the halfway point that he allows himself a smile. He also raised a few generous laughs, including one with a still-funny line about the inability to downsize government: ” Actually, a government bureau is the nearest thing to eternal life we’ll ever see on this earth.”

Reagan’s anti-Communist political streak is also clearly on display here, along with his ability to deliver dramatic words that take the East-versus-West conflict to a higher emotional plain. I am not certain who deserves credit for writing the speech, but it is hard not to be taken aback (either in a positive or negative manner, depending on your politics) when Reagan says, “If nothing in life is worth dying for, when did this begin—just in the face of this enemy? Or should Moses have told the children of Israel to live in slavery under the pharaohs? Should Christ have refused the cross? Should the patriots at Concord Bridge have thrown down their guns and refused to fire the shot heard ’round the world? The martyrs of history were not fools, and our honored dead who gave their lives to stop the advance of the Nazis didn’t die in vain.”

The audience for Reagan’s speech was made up of Goldwater supporters, with some sporting signs that read “Democrats for Goldwater.” Reagan also acknowledged his previous history as a Republican, though he ultimately sought to blur party lines by appealing to a broader population while emphasizing the rights of the individual. “I, for one, resent it when a representative of the people refers to you and me, the free men and women of this country, as ‘the masses,’” he states. “This is a term we haven’t applied to ourselves in America.”

Reagan, of course, did not forget Goldwater, and he uses several sections of the speech to call attention to Goodwater’s humanitarianism. The studio where Reagan spoke was decorated with several large posters featuring Goldwater. No mention, however, was made of Goldwater’s running mate, William E. Miller, an upstate New York congressman – except in the closing moments when the chairman of the TV for Goldwater-Miller committee followed Reagan on stage to request viewers send campaign contributions to a Los Angeles post office box address.

“A Time for Choosing” is best known today for the line “You and I have a rendezvous with destiny.” The line became ironic because this was not the last that people saw of the political Reagan – his dramatic presentation inspired Republican leaders in California to recruit him for the 1966 gubernatorial campaign. We all know what happened next: Robert Taylor was hired to replace Reagan as the host of “Death Valley Days.”

“A Time for Choosing” was broadcast without a copyright, which made the presentation a public domain title. The Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation & Library sells the full speech on DVD, but the speech can easily be seen in its entirety or in selected clips on a wide number of online video sites.

Whether you love Reagan or loathe him (he doesn’t seem to inspire indifference), “A Time for Choosing” is fascinating to watch. After all, very few standalone speeches have been responsible for changing the course of history.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free shits and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg videos and DVDs, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg videos is perfectly legal. Go figure!

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