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Reagan Runs for Governor of California

Ronald Reagan had made an impressive appearance as a supporter of Barry Goldwater in Goldwater's bid for the presidency in 1964. Immediately after Goldwater lost the election a committee of Republicans formed to support Reagan for the next round of presidential elections. Reagan and his wife Nancy were not interested in that or in appeals to run for governor of California. They relished their comfort. But he agreed to speak across the state to help California's Republican Party.

In various communities, grass roots Republicans urged him to run in the 1966 gubernatorial election. He wrote in his autobiography of the opinions he heard:

People were tired of wasteful government programs and welfare chiselers; and they were angry about the constant spiral of taxes and government regulations, arrogant bureaucrats, and public officials who thought all of mankind's problems could be solved by throwing the taxpayers' dollars at them. (p 147)

Reagan decided to run, telling his wife Nancy that he did not think they could "run away from it." And he won the Republican primary, against the former mayor of San Francisco, Warren Christopher. Then it was Reagan against Governor "Pat" Brown, the man who had won against Richard Nixon's run for governor in 1962.

Reagan appeared before groups and took a lot of questions, knowing that his responses would appear less scripted than a speech. Contributing to his election were those who were disturbed as Reagan was by what was happening on the Berkeley campus. In his autobiography Reagan described California's public universities -- in the plural – as "going up in smoke" with students "literally setting fire to them." note35

In Berkeley at the time, and working on campus, I was close to the events there, and to me Reagan's view appears inaccurate. Many of the students were radical and against the war but they saw no point in destroying campus property. It was not a student who set fire to Wheeler Auditorium. Reagan failed to differentiate between campus radicals and the off-campus anarchist types who joined in demonstrations and protests and did meaningless acts such as breaking glass with stones, setting bonfires and chanting "pigs."

Reagan was a supporter of United States military intervention in Vietnam, believing the intervention would halt Communist expansion. He was opposed to all forms of lawlessness. He was watching the crime rate rise during the rise of the counter-culture, which included a new respect among young people, including a few radical students, for "ripping off the establishment." Reagan spoke against hoodlums, lazy professors and vacillating university administrators. Specifically, he was upset with Clark Kerr for having compromised with the Free Speech Movement. During the campaign he spoke of his respect for UC Berkeley as a great institution but that he was "sick" at what had happened there, that he was sick of the "sit-ins, the teach-ins and the walkouts." He said that as governor he would organize a "throw out" and that Clark Kerr would head the list.

Reagan ran as a non-politician – a creature created by people with their own rather than the traditional definition of what politics was about. Reagan claimed that he would become a special kind of politician: a "citizen" politician. He labeled his opponent, Governor Brown, as a professional politician – while Brown, as honorable a citizen as anyone, believed that talk of taking politics out of government was like talk of taking flour out of bread.

Brown had been popular, and he appeared to be a happy man, without any of the pomposities in manner or speech that one sometimes sees in politicians. At first he thought Reagan would be easy to defeat. Reagan had no experience in running any kind of government – city or state. But soon Brown was running scared, as Reagan was painting his administration as soft on student riots and soft on lawlessness in general. Brown was actually a tough law and order man. But Reagan made himself look tougher than Brown, while Brown was supporting Fair Employment, Fair Housing, Equal Opportunity and Social Justice. Some taxpayers were also unhappy with the amount of money that state government was spending on support for the poor, and Reagan won their votes by criticizing state spending.

Reagan complained in his autobiography that Brown "stuck to his one-note campaign of attacks on me as 'that Hollywood actor in makeup.'" He wrote that he was not wearing makeup and had not for years and that he took joy in appearing on "Meet the Press" and finding Brown and the reporters in make up.

Brown's suggestion during the campaign that Reagan was a racist angered Reagan. He had always wanted equality for blacks. Reagan had told an audience in 1965 that he supported the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and that it should be enforced "at the point of a bayonet if necessary."

Reagan won the election and stepped into the governor's office in early 1967. Radicals were ready to begin demonizing him – rather than focus their concern on the opinions of the public that had elected him. Educating the public, however, was not their thing.

Meanwhile all of the disturbances that Reagan had complained of during his political campaign became more pronounced. During 1967 there was more rioting by blacks in urban centers. In California it was the year of the anti-draft riot in downtown Oakland and the spread of upheaval from Berkeley to other college campuses. Governor Reagan could no longer blame disturbances on the state's governor, but he still had his other targets.


Copyright © 1998-2018 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.