- Historic Sites
THIRTY YEARS AGO A HARD-FOUGHT gubernatorial campaign heralded the third great political upheaval of our century
October 1996 | Volume 47, Issue 6
In early 1966 Brown felt so good about his chances against Ronald Reagan that he did what many politicians in his position would have done: He played dirty to help Reagan get the Republican nomination. George Christopher, the moderate Republican former mayor of San Francisco, who was challenging Reagan in the primary, had been convicted in 1940 of violating milk-pricing laws. It was a minor transgression and had done little damage to Christopher’s political career. Until 1966. The Brown campaign got wind of the scandal, and in the two months before the June primary Brown’s people spoon-fed the story to reporters. In early May the governor’s team hit pay dirt when the syndicated columnist Drew Pearson wrote two ferocious articles about the milkcontrol-law violation. “Pearson’s putrid piece… ,” one prominent Christopher supporter said, “can be laid right at the door step of Pat Brown’s political outhouse. Brown, of course, wants to … destroy George Christopher, and thus have Ronald Reagan nominated.” Don Bradley, one of Brown’s top campaign aides, responded: “Mr. Christopher is a cry baby. … George Christopher’s arrest record … [is a matter] of public record which Mr. Christopher has yet to explain adequately. Mr. Christopher has been ducking the truth for years.” It was a blow from which Christopher’s candidacy never recovered.
It was also a classic miscalculation. In the 1950s and 1960s liberal politicians and journalists dismissed conservatives as “kooks” and “crackpots” with no hope of winning political power. “Republicans,” a typical article read in 1966, “try to make the voters afraid of the world.” Right-wingers, another explained, liked to “complain about the twentieth century.” Pat Brown could not have agreed more. In 1964, during the fight over Proposition 14, a move to repeal the Brownendorsed Rumford Fair Housing Act, the governor described his conservative opponents as fascists: “There have been echoes in this state of another hate binge which began more than thirty years ago in a Munich beer hall. These echoes come from a minority of the angry, the frustrated, the fearful. They do not represent California or its people. But what they do represent—the spasm reaction of hatred—does exist not only in California but elsewhere in our nation and in our world.”
BERKELEY, October 1, 1964: the thirty-two-hour standoff launched a decade of student protest.
When Brown heard Reagan might oppose him, he was at once incredulous and delighted: “Ronald Reagan for Governor of California?” Brown wrote in 1970. “We thought the notion was absurd and rubbed our hands in gleeful anticipation of beating this politically inexperienced, right-wing extremist and aging actor in 1966.” In January 1965 one of Brown’s secretaries sent Jack Burby, his press secretary, an article predicting that Reagan would run for governor. “Bring him on,” Burby scribbled in the margin.
But before Brown could do battle with Reagan, he had to contend with Sam Yorty, the maverick mayor of Los Angeles, who was running against Brown in the Democratic primary. Yorty was the George Wallace of California politics, an acid-tongued conservative Democrat, who had become known for his scalding attacks on liberal elites. In early 1966 Yorty concentrated his fire on Pat Brown: The governor coddled leftwing radicals, did nothing to halt the proliferation of drugs, stood by while Communist agitators fomented riots on campus, and had lost touch with the common man.
Worst of all, Brown had failed to crack down on black rioters in Watts. Imposing law and order, Yorty thundered, was the only way to quash the violence in South Central L.A. Yorty’s police chief backed him all the way. “We are interested,” Chief William Parker declared, “in maintaining order.” When Watts erupted, Parker explained the disorder this way: “One person throws a rock and then, like monkeys in a zoo, others started throwing rocks.” Yorty returned the favor to the chief posthumously when at Parker’s funeral in 1966 he crooned, “God may not be dead, but his finest representative on earth has just passed away.”
Berkeley was also a favorite subject of the mayor. During the campaign a reporter asked Yorty what he thought of a report on the situation there recently issued by a state senate committee. He hadn’t had a chance to analyze it, Yorty responded; then, said the San Francisco Chronicle , he “launched into a lengthy dissertation on ‘filth’ on the campus.”