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"A Time for Choosing": a Rhetorical Analysis of Ronald Reagan’s Springboard Speech

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Ronald Reagan was the 40th president of the United States. While there are many who can recall Reagan as both an actor and as the governor of California, younger Americans don’t know much about this man prior to his presidency. Most currently working on an undergraduate degree weren’t even alive to witness any part of his presidency, having only learned about him in history and civics classes. Most people are aware that President Reagan was a Republican; however, few Gen-Z are aware that until 1962, Reagan was a Democrat. While his shift in politics isn’t particularly note worthy, the fact that within two years of his change in party affiliation, he was catapulted from a B-movie actor to a Republican political contender. “A Time for Choosing,” commonly referred to as “The Speech, “is a speech that was researched and written by Ronald Reagan, himself (Edwards, 2014). On October 27, 1964, Reagan delivered his very impassioned speech in support of the then presidential candidate, Barry Goldwater. This thirty minute, nationally televised speech raised one million dollars for the Goldwater campaign (Cannon, 2004). It also raised Goldwater’s voter percentage, but not enough to give him a win in his presidential race. Reagan meant for the speech to bolster the floundering Goldwater campaign; however, it is seen as the event that launched Reagan’s political career (Schweizer, 2007, p. 42). In 1966, Reagan was elected the Governor of California, a post that the Republican party would not have supported him for had it not been for the speech he gave in 1964. Reagan’s almost instantaneous political success due to this single moment in time, with this single thirty minute speech warrants rhetorical analysis. This paper will study how the five facets of Kenneth Burke’s “Dramatism” caused this speech to affect Reagan’s career and political discourse at the time.

“A Time for Choosing” was a speech that was perfected over the course of eight years. Reagan adjusted the speech as he interacted with employees at various General Electric facilities and factories. As his experiences changed his philosophies, “The Speech” evolved.

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This analysis will utilize Burke’s “Dramatism.” Burke claims that any human situation can be described by answering five questions. These questions include: what was done (act), when or where was it done (scene), who did it (agent), how he did it (agency), and why (purpose) (Burke, 1945 p. xv). The pentad is a valuable critical method. Its relevance is particularly clear when applied to “The Speech.” It would be exceptionally easy to answer the question of who the agent was regarding “A Time for Choosing” if Ronald Reagan’s name was simply given as the man who delivered the speech; however, the pentad requires a more detailed look at the speaker and how his background and experiences relate to the other questions in the pentad. The pentad also requires a more detailed exploration of the speaker’s agency.

“The Speech” was the launch of Reagan’s Republican political career. Reagan both researched and wrote “The Speech.” To analyze this speech, it is necessary to understand the author, and then to focus on the development of his rhetoric. Ronald, the second son of John and Nelle Reagan was born on February 6, 1911 in Tampico, Illinois. His father, was an itinerant shoe salesman who moved his family from town to town before finally settling down in Dixon, Illinois. Ronald and his older brother, Neal, attended high school in Dixon, and regarded it as their hometown. In 1965, Reagan published an autobiography, “Where’s the Rest of Me?”, in which he describes his childhood as “a rare Huck Finn idyll” – indicating that he had a childhood remotely similar to Huck Finn. Reagan also related that his father’s drinking was a recurrent problem throughout his childhood. Reagan’s family was almost destroyed by the Depression. Jack Reagan had to close his shoe store. Reagan’s mother had to go to work at a dress shop earning fourteen dollars per week. Reagan worked for seven summers as a lifeguard. After graduating high school, he attended Eureka College near Peoria, Illinois. He was an indifferent student, but he very much enjoyed being a radio announcer. Ronald Reagan graduated from college in the depths of the Depression. His mother, father, and older brother were surviving on his mother’s. Reagan ultimately landed a staff announcer’s job in Iowa, making one hundred dollars per month. Reagan’s older brother, described him as having a photographic memory. Reagan found that memorizing his lines before he went on air gave him the ability to sound more spontaneous. While covering the Chicago Cubs spring training in California, Reagan was given a screen test. He quit his radio job and moved to California in 1937.

During that same year, he made his film debut. In his early years, in California, Reagan was fairly liberal. During that time, he joined some publicly unacceptable groups like the United World Federalists. Upon discovering that the organizations he had associated with were communist fronts, he publicly withdrew his membership. Bill Boyarsky, in his biography of Reagan, discussed the change in Reagan’s political philosophy toward the conservative ethic and linked it to his clash with the Hollywood communists (Boyarsky, 1968 pp. 24-26). Reagan was elected president of the Screen Actor’s Guild twice. During his time as SAG president, he learned diplomacy and the art of negotiating (Reagan, 1965 p. 233). In 1954, Reagan moved from movies to television. He became the host of a television series for General Electric Corporation (Boyarsky, 1968 p. 99). This time in television was invaluable for Reagan. He reinforced his national image, and increased his exposure. Part of his contract with G.E. included travel and working as a motivational speaker at various G.E. plants and facilities. Reagan states that, more than television, his time speaking with G.E. employees is what really started changing his way of thinking (Reagan, 1965 pp. 262-264). In his autobiography, Reagan discussed the development of “The Speech,” stating: As the years went on, my speech underwent a kind of evolution, reflecting not only my changing philosophy but also the swiftly rising tide of collectivism that threatens to inundate what remains of our free economy. I don’t believe it was all just a case of my becoming belatedly aware of something that already existed; the last decade has seen a quickening of tempo in our government’s race toward a controlled society (Reagan, 1965 p. 266).

During his eight years of motivational speaking for G.E., he gave the same speech over and over. He made minor changes as his philosophy changes, but “A Time for Choosing” is the speech that he gave repeatedly during those eight years. By the time he gave “The Speech” for Goldwater in 1964, he had perfected it. The trials of Reagan’s youth instilled a conservative ethic that is deeply rooted. His years in the Hollywood movie arena built a lasting hatred of both communism and liberalism. These influences along with his nature and wholesome image have impacted his rhetoric which will be supported during the analysis of the speech. V. ACT / SCENE Without an understanding of act and scene, the critic would not be able to reach any conclusions about the success or failure of the speaker. In this criticism, the act was the delivery of “The Speech.” The scene was simply October 27, 1964, Ronald Reagan delivered a speech of his own composition on nationwide television (Shadegg, 1965 p. 252). As revealed in his biographical data, Reagan had several influences. Because of the impact of his childhood and his disillusionment with Hollywood, he developed a solid conservative ethic and an absolute hatred for communism and liberalism. Reagan’s all-American, “small town boy who made good” image simply strengthens his appeal.

While this scene could be reduced to simply the T.V. studio, it would be lacking in substance. As this speech was delivered in support of Barry Goldwater, it is important to note that Reagan did not give this speech on his own behalf. Goldwater became the voice of frustrated Americans. Goldwater’s campaign was floundering due mostly to the fact that he was not able to relate his message to the people. Goldwater was known for making statements that scared people. Reagan was the perfect person to deliver a motivational speech for the Goldwater campaign. The fact that he had been giving the same speech with slight differences gave him a comfort level that relayed to the viewing audience. “The Speech” was Reagan’s political debut. A detailed analysis of act and scene is relevant and necessary. VI. PURPOSES / RHETORICAL PROBLEMS Every speech is a creative effort to produce that arrangement of appropriate ingredients that will best serve the speaker’s purpose (Cathcart, 1966 p. 4) When Reagan finally delivered “The Speech” for Goldwater, it had been perfected to Reagan’s primary purpose. His position on the Goldwater campaign, in California, was that of “fund raiser” which was aided by Reagan’s celebrity status. However, there may have been additional reasoning for selecting Reagan. By October of 1964, Goldwater had developed serious image problems. It appears that Reagan may have been selected to deliver the speech because his message was very similar to Goldwater’s, and there may have been hope that the image barrier could be penetrated.

Reagan faced several rhetorical problems in attempting to raise money, deliver an appeal for conservative ethics, and circumvent Goldwater’s barriers. Goldwater was seen as a dangerous right wing radical with an ineffective conservative message. The Goldwater committee saw Reagan’s job as simply promoting Goldwater; however, Reagan had his own image problem to address. Reagan felt that the political arena was closed to him because he was an actor. Reagan had two very diverse purposes. First, he must penetrate the hostility surrounding Goldwater. Second, and more importantly for Reagan, he needed to change his “actor” image.

Kenneth Burke suggested that an examination of the agency would ask questions like what “means or instruments” were used by the speaker, or how did the speaker attempt to accomplish his goals (Burke, 1965 p. xv). Reagan needed strategies that would affirm his own political image while promoting the Goldwater credo, fund raising, an circumventing the barriers to messages of conservative doctrine. Since Reagan was trying to change or create his personal image, Walter Fisher would describe his “motive situation” as one of “affirmation” (Fisher, 1970 p. 131)

Reagan used two strategies: condemnation and unification. Condemnation Reagan’s strategy was to condemn both liberal philosophy and big government.His purposes in this approach included the promotion of conservative ethic; he needed to promote Goldwater as the man to resolve the issues of big government; he needed to attack the liberal philosophy of President Johnson; and he needed to affirm his own political potential. The main focus of his speech was the attack on big government. Reagan divided the speech into areas. “The Liberal Philosophy: Planned Economy,” “Government Programs Self-Perpetuation,” “How well Does the Farm Program Work,” “ Social Security: Insurance Program or Tax?,” and “Foreign Aid: Cost vs. Accomplishment” (Reagan, 1964 pp. 1-10). The probability that his entire audience could identify with the values, morals, and ideals established in the Constitution, Reagan said: “The ‘power of centralized government’ was the very thing the founding fathers sought to minimize. They know that the government cannot control things. The government cannot control the economy without controlling people”(Reagan, 1964 pp. 2-3). Reagan presented the government as inefficient and unnecessarily large. Reagan painted a picture of a deceitful, inefficient, bungling government. Reagan overwhelmed his audience with statistics, a plethora of examples, over-simplification, and appeals to the public’s fear of loss of individualism.

Considering what was going on in the world at the time and the national climate, his appeals were well chosen. If Reagan’s evidence is examined closely, the strength of the appeals deteriorates. Additionally, he used “devil terms” and “God terms” ultimately making government a “devil term.” While Reagan may not have had proof of his assertions, he was never low on examples. He implied that the government was inefficiently giving away money and the public’s freedom. Considering that the Cuban missile crisis occurred in 1962, Reagan awakened old fears against socialism and communism. Reagan presented a formidable argument against the government and the liberal establishment. He also successfully created a mechanism to enhance his own political image. Once he completed his attack, Reagan needed to implement his second strategy. Unification Reagan’s unification strategy was a direct off-shoot of his condemnation strategy. Reagan smoothly discredited liberals while promoting the conservative doctrine. Implicitly stating his political message created an illusion of non-partisanship. He made an appeal for a fair hearing and unity in his opening statement.

Reagan’s approach appeared sensible to the average listener. Reagan used pride and patriotism in contrast to the fear of losing all America had achieved. Because the appeals for unification were hitting fears and values were held almost universally by all member of his audience, they transcended party lines. Even though one of the purposes for Reagan’s speech was to repair Goldwater’s image, there is little in content to indicate that Reagan made a serious attempt to purify Goldwater’s image. It appears that the person who reaped the greatest benefit from the appeals was Ronald Reagan. Given the analysis of the agency, and the social-political setting, a critical perspective has been constructed. Regan’s success or failure in overcoming his rhetorical problems can be evaluated.

Reagan had two purposes tied to image problems. He had to fulfill his responsibilities as a fund raiser, and he had to try to mitigate the hostility surrounding Barry Goldwater. Of most importance to Reagan was his desperate need to change his own image from that of a movie/T.V. cowboy to a politician. Burke suggested that you persuade through identification of attitudes proclaiming a unity among men (Bryant, 1958 pp 171-172). Though Goldwater and Reagan had identical conservative messages, Reagan was able to relate the message in a way that invited his audience to walk the path with him. A comparison of the Reagan v. Goldwater approaches, published in the Saturday Evening Post stated: There is not the faintest discernible difference between Reagan’s view on all major issues and Barry Goldwater’s. But there is all the difference in the world in how those views are expressed. Barry Goldwater used to say his say with a harsh candor which often made him sound like God’s angry man, and which certainly cost him millions of votes. Ronald Reagan is the television Good Guy come to life and his answers even to tough questions are about as harsh as pablum (Alsop, 1965 p. 18). Considering his telecast resulted in one million dollars in grass-roots contributions to the Goldwater campaign, and he overcame the public’s predisposition against a conservative message, it could be concluded that Reagan was successful. However, if Reagan’s purpose was to “purify” Goldwater’s image he failed. In The Making of the President in 1964, Theodore H. White said, “Ironically enough, it was the same election campaign which destroyed Barry Goldwater as a political figure that promoted another conservative to a position of political prestige” (White, 1965 p. 313). Reagan’s use of persuasion was very successful in achieving his personal goal of launching his political career. Life Magazine reported “Nearly every objective student of politics who heard it (the speech) agrees it was a starmaking performance”(Dulahan & Lambert, 1966 p. 71).


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