Former US President Ronald Reagan (1911 - 2004) in Poland, 16th September 1990. (Photo by Georges De Keerle/Getty Images)

What were the great turning points of the cold war? You could make a case that one was 50 years ago on Monday when Ronald Reagan gave a speech, “A Time For Choosing”, in support of the Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater.

The speech – or The Speech, as it became known – helped make Reagan’s political career. Shortly afterwards he was nominated to run for governor of California – which led on to the White House, the partnership with Margaret Thatcher, detente with Mikhail Gorbachev, perestroika, impromptu wall-demolition in Germany, and all that jazz.

So what made “the Great Communicator” such a great communicator? There are abundant examples in this speech. Wherever you stand on Reaganomics, here is a lucid, cogent and fiercely persuasive statement of the case for small government and market freedoms, and a refusal to accommodate with communism.

One thing any business communicator can learn from is how it deals with statistics. It is packed, at least in the first half, with facts and figures: a turn-off in unskilled hands. They are given persuasive life by Reagan. Here is folksy style; aphoristic wit; and above all a clever use of metaphor – which provides an easily grasped interpretive framework for the statistics.

The most quoted passage is the pivot: “You and I are told increasingly we have to choose between a left or right. Well I’d like to suggest there is no such thing as a left or right. There’s only an up or down – [up to] man’s old-aged dream, the ultimate in individual freedom consistent with law and order, or down to the ant heap of totalitarianism.”

Here, introduced with that seductively informal “you and I” (inviting us into collusion against the bossy “they”), is a spatial metaphor that cunningly loads the dice: reframing right versus left as up versus down. “Left” and “right” are relatively un-loaded terms – they articulate a political disagreement; whereas “up” and “down” carry universal connotations. The gutter is down and the stars are up. And – as Reagan hints with his ant heap image – we talk of the Ascent of Man.

Also, instead of attacking the Democrats as a threat, he treated them as idiots who missed the point of a greater threat. His sonorous high style was reserved for the communist menace; the Democrats, he patronised. In fact, he made fun of them. That’s far deadlier.

In a splendid reductio ad absurdum, he quoted an optimist on the $298bn hole in the Social Security budget: “He said there should be no cause for worry because as long as they have the power to tax, they could always take away from the people whatever they needed to bail them out of trouble.”

Another gem: “For three decades, we’ve sought to solve the problems of unemployment through government planning, and the more the plans fail, the more the planners plan.” One more: “Well, the trouble with our liberal friends is not that they’re ignorant; it’s just that they know so much that isn’t so.”

What did this brilliant speech do for Goldwater? He lost the election by miles. People concluded that someone had the vision thing; and that someone was Reagan rather than Goldwater. Which offers an extra lesson: don’t – figuratively speaking – pick a bridesmaid who’s much prettier than the bride.

The writer is the author of ‘You Talkin’ to Me?’ Rhetoric from Aristotle to Obama
artofpersuasion@ft.com

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