In the summer of 1968, at the Republican National Convention in Miami, having been governor of California, the only elected office he’d ever held, since January, 1967, Ronald Reagan announced that he was a candidate for his party’s presidential nomination. Although Richard Nixon won the nomination and the election, Reagan, who hadn’t entered a single one of the year’s thirteen primaries, performed respectably.
What amazed me then and amazes me now is that Reagan, in spite the thinnest of resumes, engendered so much support. How, first of all, had a B-list Hollywood actor get elected governor of California? And how did he get support in his last-minute run for the GOP nomination for president?
The answer is simple: The Speech.
In 1964, Barry Goldwater was the Republican standard bearer. The father of modern conservatism, the Arizona senator, was about to meet defeat in November, when, opposing President Lyndon Johnson, he won only six states.
The only bright spot in Goldwater’s ill-fated run for the White House was a fund-raising speech by Reagan, then a mostly has-been actor and then host of the syndicated 40-Mule-Team Borax’s Death Valley Days. The response, both in terms of viewing audiences’ approval and fundraising, was so stunning, that the Goldwater camp ran the speech over and over again.
With that one speech, Reagan became a darling of the incipient Republican conservative cause. In 1966, backed by a few millionaire friends, he defeated a Democratic incumbent governor. Reagan rode The Speech to Sacramento and on that foundation, in 1980, he eventually won the presidency.
His 2008 candidacy, let’s be frank, was propelled by a single speech. Like Reagan’s 1964 speech, Barack Obama’s Keynote Address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention was given in service to a losing campaign, that of John Kerry for president. But it made Obama a darling of many not only within the Democratic Party, but also of independents and many who are normally politically disaffected.
Of course, as Reagan learned in 1968, it takes more than oratorical skills, which he undeniably possessed, to become president. It was only after Reagan had spent some time in office and developed an outstanding political team that, twelve years later, he was able to claim the Oval Office.
But it was his ability as a speaker and that electrifying speech that served as the foundation for all his subsequent successes.
I was skeptical about Obama’s presidential prospects in 2006, in part because I underestimated the depth of his experiences as a politician, garnered both as a community organizer and a state legislator before being elected to the US Senate.
But I also underestimated his capacity to turn his oratorical skills into a first-class political organization.
Obama won the Democratic presidential nomination because he did more quickly what Ronald Reagan, the preeminent political operator of the past three decades, was able to do: Convert his capacity to eloquently express the hopes, the angers, and the beliefs of a good chunk of the American people into a presidential nomination just four years after he became a national political voice.
Can Obama win in November? The odds are in his favor. But that’s five months away.
[This has been crossposted on my personal blog.]