Which makes it interesting that the GOP politician who will have the most prominent role in celebrating Ronald Reagan's 100th birthday here in Southern California this weekend is Sarah Palin. On Friday night, the 2008 vice presidential candidate, an unquestionably divisive presence among Republicans, will deliver an address at the Reagan Ranch Center in Santa Barbara -- an address modeled, no less, on Reagan's famous 1964 speech, "A Time for Choosing," that made him a star in the party.
"We can think of no one more fitting to honor our time's greatest defender of freedom, Ronald Reagan," says Ron Robinson, head of the conservative Young America's Foundation, which owns and runs Rancho del Cielo, Reagan's old ranch in the Santa Ynez mountains. "Governor Palin understands that freedom in our nation now stands on the precipice. She knows what Ronald Reagan knew: 'Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction.' "
Palin's high-wattage appearance at the Ranch Center event stands in contrast to events at the Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley. The library is the official, establishment repository of the Reagan legacy, and it will host veterans of the Reagan administration this weekend for a concert and military-flavored celebration of the centennial. There will be video tributes from both Presidents Bush, as well as appearances by close Reagan associates like Edwin Meese. But you won't see a hot-button presence like Palin.
The Ranch Center and the Library -- only 60 miles apart and both dedicated to serving Reagan's principles -- don't always see eye to eye. In some ways, the events that the groups are holding this weekend mirror a division both in the Reagan legacy and in the Republican party today: the continuing clash between establishment and insurgent conservatism.
There were plenty of divisions inside the Reagan White House. Some of the president's most iconic acts -- for example, the 1987 speech in Berlin in which he said, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall" -- were the subject of deep disagreements within his administration. "Most of his senior aides didn't want him to say it," writes Reagan biographer Steven Hayward. "Indeed, they tried repeatedly to talk him out of it." But Reagan rejected the safe advice, went bold, and his words are remembered as an act of greatness.
At the Ranch Center, Palin will take another iconic Reagan text as her subject. "A Time for Choosing" was Reagan's case for the presidential candidacy of Barry Goldwater, delivered a few days before the 1964 election. Speaking to a studio audience in Los Angeles, Reagan painted a stark choice between a government headed toward socialism and one dedicated to freedom. "This is the issue of this election," Reagan said. "Whether we believe in our capacity for self-government or whether we abandon the American revolution and confess that a little intellectual elite in a far-distant capitol can plan our lives for us better than we can plan them ourselves."
"It's time we ask ourselves," Reagan continued, "if we still know the freedoms that were intended for us by the Founding Fathers."
Does that sound familiar today? Watch Reagan's speech -- it's available on YouTube and elsewhere on the Web -- and you'll be struck both by the freshness of its message and the sternness of Reagan's delivery. This was not the soft-voiced grandfatherly man people remember from the White House years. This was Ronald Reagan in his prime -- he was 53 at the time -- delivering a hard-edged message.
It's also a message custom-fit for Sarah Palin.
But echoing Reagan's words and being Reaganesque are two different things. In 1964, Reagan was still 16 years away from becoming president. In that time, he not only served two terms as governor of California; he also devoted himself to studying the most important political questions of his day, carefully thinking through positions and gathering a team of advisers to work through a broad range of policy issues. It was a lot of preparation, and we haven't seen Palin doing that.
Will she ever develop the substance to back up the Reaganesque message she will deliver this weekend? She's got time -- Palin is six years younger today than Reagan when he delivered "A Time for Choosing" -- but she has a long way to go.
Byron York, The Examiner's chief political correspondent, can be contacted at email@example.com. His column appears on Tuesday and Friday, and his stories and blogposts appear on ExaminerPolitics.com.