For 47 years, many American conservatives have met annually to regroup and realign the modern Republican Party at the Conservative Political Action Conference, which is meeting this weekend in Orlando, Florida.

In its inaugural year, on Jan. 25, 1974 — months before a Republican president would resign in fear of impeachment — CPAC attendees heard California Gov. Ronald Reagan urge them to remain united, as the Founding Fathers had, and that America’s responsibility as a world leader had been blessed by God.

Here’s a breakdown of the 37-minute speech by the former actor, and future icon of the GOP.

Honors Vietnam POWs who would later be famous

Reagan began his 1974 speech by introducing three naval aviators who’d been Vietnam POWs and had returned to United States the previous year. The men would go on to be a famous politician and senior military leaders. They were:

The three war heroes received such an ovation that Regan said he should sit down and end his speech there.

Woman to return POW bracelet to family
Former President Ronald Reagan arrives in Salt Lake City on February 16, 1991 for a speech at BYU. | Gary M. McKellar, Deseret News

Marketing, not management

Directing his attention to a reverend in the audience, Reagan told a story about he and wife Nancy’s flight to in the inaugural CPAC in Washington, D.C., from their home in California.

“When we were coming east here, we ran into some weather,” he said. “We were circling up there in the fog and being vectored into a landing pattern and things were getting a little hairy and a little bumpy.”

Reagan said there had been a clergyman on the plane with them.

“Nancy turned to him across the isle and said, ‘Can’t you do something about this?’” Reagan said. “I’m with sales, not management,” the clergyman told Nancy sarcastically, according to Reagan.

The audience laughed as the former actor’s tone turned more toward politics.

Unity of the Founding Fathers

Trying to unite the fractured Republican Party of the 1970s, Reagan spoke of the varying backgrounds of the Founding Fathers and the unity they found to sign the Declaration of Independence and later the U.S. Constitution.

“This had been a philosophical revolution. The culmination of men’s dreams for 6,000 years, and they formalized those dreams with a constitution. And that, too, was something of a miracle,” Reagan said.

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He acknowledge that other countries around the world had written similar documents, giving rights and guarantees to its citizens, but America’s Constitution was subtly unique.

“Those other constitutions say government grants you these rights and ours says you are born with these rights. They are yours by the grace of God and no government on earth can take them from you.” 

Warned of big government regulation

The West Coast governor told a story about a man in California who owned a small business. Reagan said government regulators had told the man that his business needed “men’s and women’s washrooms,” even though the business had only one other employee.

“And she’s his wife,” Regan joked, as the conservative audience laughed. “And at home they sleep in the same bed and use the same bathroom.”

The future president went on to discuss what he thought was wasteful government spending and then tried to lighten the mood again.

“I haven’t told you all of this to make you unhappy or discouraged. As a matter of fact, I feel quite the reverse,” Reagan explained. “You know, government extravagance is probably the only bright spot we have. Can you imagine how miserable we’d all be if we were getting all the government we were paying for?

Greatness is typical in America

Reagan closed his speech by reminding the attendees of the inaugural CPAC gathering that America was a great society.

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“We are not a sick society. A sick society could not produce the men that set foot on the moon or who now circle earth above us in Skylab (the nation’s first space station). A sick society — bereft of morality and courage — did not produce the men who went through those years of torture in captivity in Vietnam. Where did we find such men?” Reagan asked,

“They are typical of this land. As the Founding Fathers were typical,” he explained. “We cannot escape our destiny, nor should we try to.” 

The future two-term Republican president concluded, quoting Pope Pius XII: “The American people have a great genius for splendid and unselfish action. Into the hands of America, God has placed the destinies of an afflicted mankind.

“We are indeed. And we are today, the last best hope of man on Earth. Thank you.” 

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