Most of us today know that the speech that propelled Barack Obama into the national spotlight was his 2004 speech at the Democratic National Convention.
But not many of us remember or learned that Ronald Reagan, the real father of what we know as the Tea Party (even though he’d have a hard time getting a tea bag to wear on his cap today) gave a similarly empowering speech in 1964—a speech that helped make him first governor of California and then president.
Many people refer to this televised address in support of Barry Goldwater simply as “The Speech,” but I call it the “Thousand Years of Darkness” speech because of the warning Reagan presented regarding the 1964 presidential election:
You and I have a rendezvous with destiny.
We’ll preserve for our children this, the last best hope of man on earth, or we’ll sentence them to take the last step into a thousand years of darkness.
Message: Elect Lyndon Johnson and expect ten centuries of pitch-black socialism. Yes, he really suggested that. Sort of makes Newt Gingrich sound reasonable, doesn’t it?
Here is another famous passage from that speech, which demonstrates how seriously the extremists in the Republican Party in those days took poverty in America:
Each year the need grows greater; the program grows greater. We were told four years ago that 17 million people went to bed hungry each night. Well that was probably true. They were all on a diet.
Now you know where Rush Limbaugh gets it.
In any case, Reagan’s reference, of course, was to Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty,” which was introduced that year and which helped reduce American abjection, but was attacked by right-wingers in those days the same way the welfare state is attacked by right-wingers these days.
But the passage in Reagan’s speech I want to focus on is this one:
Not too long ago, a judge called me here in Los Angeles. He told me of a young woman who’d come before him for a divorce. She had six children, was pregnant with her seventh. Under his questioning, she revealed her husband was a laborer earning 250 dollars a month. She wanted a divorce to get an 80 dollar raise. She’s eligible for 330 dollars a month in the Aid to Dependent Children Program. She got the idea from two women in her neighborhood who’d already done that very thing.
It wasn’t until the 1976 presidential campaign, when Reagan was a GOP primary candidate, that the term “welfare queen” became a code word on the fanatical right. He said of this strange being, as reported by The New York Times (quoted on Wikipedia):
She has eighty names, thirty addresses, twelve Social Security cards and is collecting veteran’s benefits on four non-existing deceased husbands. And she is collecting Social Security on her cards. She’s got Medicaid, getting food stamps, and she is collecting welfare under each of her names. Her tax-free cash income is over $150,000.
Anyone, Democrat or Republican, would obviously get outraged over that example, which may have been based on a real case in Chicago. But other than pointing out that some folks are criminals, what does it really mean? For the right-wing, it was intended to convince the voting public that a goodly number of folks on welfare were and still are undeserving of help, and are abusing the system because the system itself breeds such abuse.
Well, a health care company once paid a $1.7 billion fine for committing Medicare and Medicaid fraud—and the guy who ran the company while the fraud was going on was fired and received millions of dollars in severance and over $300 million worth of stock. And to put political icing on his cake, the guy, teapartier and Republican Rick Scott, is now the governor of Florida. That $1.7 billion worth of fraud could purchase over 11,333 of Reagan’s welfare queens, but Republicans have yet to invent a code word for corporations that defraud the government.
In thinking about all this, a parable came into my mind:
A boat capsized near a small town and most of the people swam to shore, saving themselves. But several people remained in the water, huddled together, holding on to whatever they could find to stay afloat, a short and swimmable distance from shore. Presumably, these folks either couldn’t swim or could not swim well enough to let go and give it a try.
Now, in the community nearby where the boat capsized, it happened that a raging debate had been going on involving the town’s rescue budget. For years the town had funded rescue crews and purchased equipment due to the large number of boating accidents just off its shore. Many people had been saved because of the town’s diligence.
But new folks had moved into the community, rugged individualists who were responsible for themselves and expected everyone else to take care of themselves, too. These folks stirred up anger at the high tax rates used to fund the rescue efforts and began running for and winning political office. They advocated for slashing the rescue budget, insisting that a lot of the folks rescued in the past were careless boaters, many of them merely out on the water partying and having a good time.
“Why should we encourage their recklessness,” these good Americans would say. “Many of the people we have saved were on party boats!” some would shout at town hall meetings, “And if they know we will always be here to save them they will just take advantage of us.”
Some of the people at the meetings reminded the townsfolk that surely not all the people needing help were reckless or were taking advantage of the town’s unselfishness, and they argued that it is not easy to discern during a rescue mission just how deserving the folks in the water are. And besides that, they would argue, “Are we just going to stand on shore and watch these people drown? Is that what kind of community we want to be?“
Whether this election year will be “a rendezvous with destiny,” as Ronald Reagan said so long ago, is, I suppose, up to each voter. But certainly either way we choose to go will not be “to take the last step into a thousand years of darkness.” That silly rhetoric represents a rather diminished view of America’s ongoing potential.
But this election will be a snapshot of what kind of national community we are and what kind of obligations we believe we have to those folks clinging to their capsized boat or what is left of it. Is there a majority among us who will walk away and leave them to sink or swim?