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Reagan Symposium Addresses "A Time for Choosing"

By Amanda Morad | February 10, 2014

Amity Shlaes kicks off the 2014 Reagan Symposium.
Photo by Alex Perry

On Friday, Feb. 7, Regent University's Robertson School of Government hosted the 9th Annual Reagan Symposium: "A Time for Choosing." Featuring a panel of seven experts, the event honored the 50th anniversary of Ronald Reagan's televised campaign speech given on behalf of Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater in 1964.

Known for its soaring rhetoric and no-nonsense approach to conservatism, the speech launched Reagan to national political prominence and helped set the tone for the next 25 years of his career.

Amity Shlaes, Forbes columnist and New York Times bestselling author kicked off the event with her paper, "The President Who Said 'No': Calvin Coolidge." Shlaes is also the chairman of the board of the Calvin Coolidge Memorial Foundation and drew parallels between Reagan and Coolidge in her presentation.

"Coolidge and Reagan both had times in their careers that made them say, it is now 'a time for choosing,'" she said. Both men switched political parties during their careers and held similar views on economics and public sector strikes. "They were bothered that the public sector promised to help the masses, but really only helped certain individuals," Shlaes explained. Both men took big risks, but in the end, "for men and women of character, at some point, you just have to say something. 'A time for choosing' comes for everyone."

Darren Guerra, associate professor of political science at Biola University, called Reagan the "Mr. Smith" of his time, referencing the classic Frank Capra movie, "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington." In his presentation, "Preserving Our Constitution: Reagan's Defense of Ordered Liberty," Guerra drew on the past and present threat posed by expanding judicial powers throughout the federal government. "This power undermines the document judges are sworn to protect," he said. "If unchecked, it can eventually destroy the constitution."

Guerra noted that Reagan institutionalized his views on judicial power by appointing more judges than any other president in U.S. history. "Even at the time, liberals openly lamented his effectiveness," Guerra said. "He was remaking a half-century of policy making and they knew his influence would stretch well into the 21st century."

Ryan T. Anderson, a William E. Simon Fellow at The Heritage Foundation and editor of the Witherspoon Institute's online journal Public Discourse, continued with his presentation, "A New Time for Choosing."

"The more things change, the more they stay the same," he said. "This new time for choosing is about politics and culture." Anderson delineated three aspects of the modern culture war that Reagan couldn't have foreseen at the time of his speech. "Our freedom has never been so fragile," he said. "Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness: These values have been challenged in the areas of rights to life, marriage and religion."

Claire Berlinski, freelance investigative journalist, biographer and novelist, launched the second panel with her presentation, "When Maggie Chose Ronnie—and When She Didn't." Focusing on the friendship between Ronald Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, Berlinski pointed out a significant difference between the two world leaders. "They believed the same things about domestic policy and that the moment in which they were living was an exceptional one," she said. But they differed about how to fight the Cold War.

"Ronald Reagan saw himself as the leader of the world," Berlinski said. "Thatcher was the leader of Britain. British sovereign territory was her only concern." Then Berlinski played devil's advocate between "Thatcherite" and "Reaganite" foreign policy.

"We should be concerned with sovereign American territory," she said. "But Thatcher was able to pursue a Thatcherite policy only because there was a Reagan pursuing a Reaganite policy. If we pursue Thatcherism, who will be our Ronald Reagan?"

Stephen Knott, professor at the United States Naval War College and an expert on presidential oral history, continued the panel with his presentation, "Reagan, the 'Reds,' and Nuclear Weapons." Reagan gave the "Time for Choosing" speech at the dawn of the atomic age and was active in the anti-nuclear movement before he came to office, Knott explained.

But his stance wasn't always popular. "Less than three months after his election into office, there was an assassination attempt on his life," Knott noted. "This president was a radical visionary, and yet a quarter of a century after his departure from the Oval Office most of his fellow citizens remain unaware of the depths of his radicalism."

Stewart McLaurin served as the executive director of the Ronald Reagan Centennial Celebration for the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation. In that position, he traveled to 6900 high schools and more than 100 colleges to show young people the "Time for Choosing" speech. He discussed his findings at the symposium in a presentation titled, "'A Time for Choosing' Then and Now: Ronald Reagan's Message and Young Americans."

"In their words, I heard how this speech still resonates 50 years later," he said. "Reagan was always popular with young people.... What they hear is boldness of leadership, clarity of conviction, and the ability to articulate it with passion. He spoke his mind and his heart and that's what resonated with young people then and today."

Joseph Loconte, associate professor of history at The King's College in New York City and author of several books, wrapped up the symposium with his presentation, "American Exceptionalism and the Reagan Doctrine: Recovering the Bedrock Belief that Won the Cold War." Quoting Reagan's "city on a hill" reference, Loconte explained that the president had "an unshakable confidence that American politics would prevail, especially during the cancer of Communism."

Reagan's legacy of American Exceptionalism followed on the heels of his predecessors. "The world cannot live without the ideals of American Exceptionalism&. It is hard to conceive of the nation's greatest achievements without it," he said. Loconte left the audience with a challenge: "If we hope for human flourishing, it seems that providence is not done with this most chosen country. Let us put aside our doubts and fears and be found engaged in this good work."

RSG also recognized winners of the second annual Reagan Essay Contest, which rewards young political minds in high school and college for their research on the life and legacy of Ronald Reagan.

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