Editor’s note: This article is adapted from the introduction to Reagan’s 1968 Dress Rehearsal: Ike, RFK, and Reagan’s Emergence as a World Statesman, which was published earlier this month.
Ronald Reagan turned over in bed the night of October 27, 1964, to kiss his wife Nancy good night, but he was worrying about the speech, “A Time for Choosing,” he had given on behalf of the Republican candidate for president, Barry Goldwater. It had been recorded in advance and was aired on national television earlier that evening. “I was hoping I hadn’t let Barry down,” he wrote in his autobiography. The Reagans had returned home after watching the speech at the home of some friends (who later became his political supporters).
A scant two hours after going to sleep, shortly after midnight, Reagan was awakened by the shrill ring of their telephone. It was the operator from Citizens for Goldwater headquarters in Washington, D.C. She could barely contain herself, yelling, “The switchboard has been lit up ever since you signed off. It’s 3 a.m. and there’s been no letup!” Political operative Clif White, running the office, was amazed by the speed and intensity of the popular response to Reagan’s speech.
Some politicians didn’t watch it. George Romney was on a speaking tour in Michigan. Robert F. Kennedy, running for the Senate as a New Yorker and busy campaigning on Long Island, was conversing with President Johnson. Former vice president Richard Nixon, however, the losing 1960 presidential nominee, did tune in. Nixon was grateful to Reagan for campaigning on his behalf two years earlier, when Nixon ran for governor of California and lost.
Nixon had keen political insight and knew political talent when he saw it. He could spot a potential political competitor as well. Immediately after the speech, Nixon noted that the one Republican winner emerging from the Goldwater debacle was not even on the presidential ballot: Ronald Reagan. Nixon likely started to mull the ramifications of the speech. He may have begun to appreciate that Reagan’s clear call for individual freedom, coupled with his emergence into the political limelight, could threaten, from the conservative right, Nixon’s own ambitions: He was musing whether to seek the Republican nomination for president once again.
And of course many other, ordinary citizens also listened to Reagan’s speech and were deeply impressed. Like America as a whole and, for that matter, the world, the lives of those touched that evening by Reagan’s speech would never be the same. A few of these men and women would would become political operatives at the heart of Ronald Reagan’s first campaign for the presidency in 1968. Each of them had been transformed by the inspiring words they heard that October evening from Ronald Reagan four years earlier.