After watching the Democrats’ get-out-the-vote telethon for a fading and tragic old man, it is almost impossible to avoid the conclusion that party conventions are now, officially, bereft of meaning and absent any virtue at all.
But it wasn’t always that way. On Aug. 19, 1976, Ronald Reagan, who had just lost a tough primary battle to President Ford, was invited by Mr. Ford to give an impromptu address to the delegates. He responded with the greatest speech in the history of conventions.
In freestyle remarks that captured the anxiety and opportunity of the moment perfectly, Reagan offered this:
“There are cynics who say that a party platform is something that no one bothers to read and is doesn’t very often amount to much. … I believe the Republican Party has a platform that is a banner of bold, unmistakable colors with no pale pastel shades. We have just heard a call to arms, based on that platform.
“I had an assignment the other day. Someone asked me to write a letter for a time capsule that is going to opened in Los Angeles a hundred years from now, on our tricentennial.
“It sounded like an easy assignment. They suggested I write about the problems and issues of the day. And I set out to do so, riding down the coast in an automobile, looking at the blue Pacific out on one side and the Santa Ynez Mountains on the other, and I couldn’t help but wonder if it was going to be that beautiful a hundred years from now as it was on that summer day.
“Let your own minds turn to that task.
“You’re going to write for people a hundred years from now who know all about us … We don’t know what kind of world they’ll be living in. I thought to myself, if I write of the problems, they’ll be the domestic problems of which the president spoke here tonight; the challenges confronting us, the erosion of freedom taken place under Democratic rule in this country, the invasion of private rights, the controls and restrictions on the vitality of the great free economy that we enjoy.
“These are the challenges that we must meet. Then again, there is that challenge of which he spoke that we live in a world in which the great powers have aimed and poised at each other horrible missiles of destruction, nuclear weapons that can in a matter of minutes arrive at each other’s country and destroy virtually the civilized world we live in.
“And suddenly it dawned on me: Those who would read this letter a hundred years from now will know whether those missiles were fired. They will know whether we met our challenge. Whether they will have the freedom that we have known up until now will depend on what we do here. Will they look back with appreciation and say, thank God for those people in 1976 who headed off that loss of freedom; who kept us now a hundred years later free; who kept our world from nuclear destruction.
“If we fail, they probably won’t get to read the letter at all because it spoke of individual freedom and they won’t be allowed to talk of that or read of it.
“This is our challenge and this is why we’re here in this hall tonight.
“Better than we’ve ever done before, we’ve got to quit talking to each other and about each other and go out and communicate to the world that we may be fewer in numbers than we’ve ever been, but we carry the message they’re waiting for. We must go forth from here united, determined …”
When he was done, the crowd, which had been deathly quiet for the duration of the remarks, remained silent for several seconds, in awe of the transcendence of the message and the skill of the messenger, and many thinking that perhaps they had nominated the wrong man. Then they erupted in an ovation.
It was a call to collective and individual greatness, and a transformative moment. Republican politics, which had always concerned itself with small beer such as taxes and regulation, would never be the same again. In those short five minutes, Mr. Reagan changed the party and the nation for good.
• Michael McKenna, a columnist for The Washington Times, is the president of MWR Strategies. He was most recently a deputy assistant to the president and deputy director of the Office of Legislative Affairs at the White House.
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