Reed reminisced about Reagan’s famous Oct. 27, 1964 speech entitled “A Time for Choosing” that laid out what would eventually become his governing philosophy of limited government and fierce opposition to totalitarianism.
Reagan himself later wrote that the speech “was one of the most important milestones of my life.”
“This is the issue of this election,” Reagan said five decades ago. “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 capital can plan our lives for us better than we can plan them ourselves.”
“I heard the Goldwater speech – which Reagan gave at the Coconut Grove in Los Angeles – sitting in a hotel room in Pittsburgh,” Reed told CNSNews.com. “At the time, I was very discouraged with the Goldwater campaign, it was a disaster, and all of a sudden there was this performance that was really stunning.
“And what was really impressive about the speech was that it was well-thought through. It included historical documentation of what American stood for, stark examples of what’s gonna happen if we don’t pay attention, and touches of humor. It was just well done.”
At that time, Reagan had “absolutely” no political ambitions for himself, Reed said.
“He gave the speech because he believed in the message Goldwater was trying to convey, and he believed that Communism was really a threat that was going to darken the United States – that was his line in the speech - that we were facing a thousand years of darkness.”
CNSNews.com asked Reed what ultimately led Reagan – a Democrat, Hollywood actor, and union official – to transform himself into a conservative Republican icon.
He replied that while president of the Screen Actors Guild, Reagan had received an anonymous threat to throw acid in his face if he did not stop standing up to the communists then trying to take over the union. That, Reed said, provided the “major push” for Reagan’s political transformation.
“The Burbank police said they would protect him, but they also authorized him to carry a concealed weapon. Most of his days as the president of the Screen Actors Guild, he carried a concealed weapon. It convinced him that the lofty ideals of Communism sound good, but it takes terror to make them work.”
However, Reed, now a historian and author of The Reagan Enigma and At the Abyss: An Insider’s History of the Cold War, added that while the threat of violence galvanized him, Reagan had been heading in the conservative direction for at least a decade.
“Reagan’s conversion or transformation from a product of the Depression and the New Deal to a conservative leader spanned about a decade.
“He was a product of the Depression. He was born in Illinois, his father basically had little work, and he believed that Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal saved the family. He believed that, and he then was a supporter of Harry Truman when Truman succeeded to the presidency,” he said.
“But Korea came along. And Korea ground on and on just like Vietnam did a generation later. Korea started in 1950; by ‘52, it was a meat-grinder, it was grinding up people, and by ’52 Reagan felt that this had gone on long enough and he communicated with Dwight Eisenhower that he hoped Eisenhower would run for president.
“Eisenhower did. Reagan became an Eisenhower supporter in ’52. He was also pursuing his career in the Screen Actors Guild, but in ’56 he again supported Eisenhower. In the ‘60s he supported [Richard] Nixon’s bid for the presidency because by then he’d really been convinced that the Democratic Party had left him.
“The really major push was his leadership of the Screen Actors Guild, where he learned that the lofty ideals of the Communist Party had to rely on terrorism to make it work. Very specifically, he was threatened with acid in the face if he didn’t stop boycotting and preventing the Communists from taking over the Screen Actors Guild,” Reed, who was also a former secretary of the Air Force, told CNSNews.com.
Reagan’s 1964 speech caught the attention of former President Eisenhower, he noted. “It’s not very well understood that Eisenhower was a mentor of Reagan,” Reed pointed out. “After ’64, Eisenhower began to think about how to rebuild the Republican Party. He started mentoring a lot of new talent, and amongst them was Reagan.
“Eisenhower got in touch with Reagan after he won the gubernatorial nomination of California in ’66. He invited him to visit his farm in Gettysburg. I joined Reagan on that trip, and it was really the beginning of serious conversations about how do you run, how do you welcome everybody into the big tent, really the beginning of the Reagan Democrats, and how do you govern.”
Reagan’s plan was simple. “You lay out your banner – ‘No pale pastel colors’ was an expression he used - and then lead the way and welcome whoever wants to join you,” Reed said. “And that’s what the Republican Party ought to do today.”
Unlike most politicians, Reagan did not have a deep-seated need for public office, he added.
“The very strange thing about Ronald Reagan is he was essentially devoid of political ambition. He knew what he believed in and he articulated it well… but he did not have this burning desire to be president. On the other hand, he was very competitive. Nobody has ever seen a competitor like him. Second prizes were absolutely unacceptable.”
Although the press attacked him constantly throughout his presidency, Reagan managed to inspire great affection among the public because he “did not change his beliefs…. He wasn’t a politician that had focus groups and shifted gears all the time,” Reed explained. Although he was “very complex and not easy to know, he connected with the people. I think that was his talent as a candidate, as a governor, as a president.
“People dismissed him as a dumb actor. Absolutely not. Ronald Reagan had a mind that was huge, retentive, and fast beyond one’s ability to believe. He also had a great sense of humor… The press disliked him because the basic question in his political view was that government should leave people alone to solve their own problems. But he just laughed [media attacks] off. He enjoyed [being president] but not the way Nixon did and not the way [Lyndon] Johnson did. He thought the perks of power were funny,” Reed said.
But because of his earlier experience as head of the actors' union, Reagan was very serious about defending the country from the communist threat.
”Ending the Cold War was clearly his greatest accomplishment as president. He believed in peace through strength, and that if the U.S. built the military up, the Soviets would negotiate. And they did.”
“I guess my fondest memory is sitting around the Cabinet table in April of 1983 when we’re talking about the decision memorandum, the war plan for how we’re going to end the Cold War,” Reed recounted. “And I was the staffer putting that plan together, and we were talking, gee, maybe this and maybe that. And he was very decisive. Then he smiled over his glasses and said, ‘You know, they’re going broke, and we’re going to push them over backwards.’”
Reed added that Reagan is now deservedly considered one of top ten U.S. presidents and counted among the “greats of American history.”
“He defused the nuclear threat and ended the Cold War,” Reed noted. “That’s quite an achievement.”