- 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
When the primary returns came in on June 7, Brown was shaken. He had won, of course, but it was a near thing. Yorty had received almost a million votes, 38 percent of the Democratic total. One thing was immediately clear: If Yorty’s supporters decided to vote for Ronald Reagan, the Republican nominee, in the general election, Brown would probably lose. Though a massive defection of voters from one party to another was unlikely, the governor was worried; he had to keep Yorty Democrats in the party fold.
The California Democratic party’s leaders gathered less than a week after the primary to discuss their strategy for the general election, and they came away from the meeting confident that liberalism was alive and well. Reagan, who had walloped Christopher by more than seven hundred thousand votes, had “got a free ride” during the primaries, Robert L. Coate, the Democratic state chairman, announced. That would soon change, Eugene Wyman, California’s Democratic National Committeeman, predicted, when the actor was exposed as a “staunch defender of the far right … a disgrace to the Republican Party and a threat to the politics of moderation which has given this state wise and able leadership in the past two decades.”
In 1964 Lyndon Johnson and the Democratic party had succeeded in painting Barry Goldwater as an extremist who would jeopardize national security and gut popular federal programs. In 1966 Pat Brown and his Democratic supporters thought they could do the same thing to another fierce conservative who despised most government involvement in the marketplace and took strong lawand-order stands on crime, social unrest, and immorality.
But by the mid1960s Ronald Reagan was not, nor did he appear to be, an extremist. Reagan spent much of the 1950s sharpening his conservative philosophy as a spokesman for General Electric; he travelled from plant to plant, promoted the company’s image, and spoke to workers and businessmen about the evils of high taxes and big government. “The Speech,” as his standard talk came to be called, interspersed lively and entertaining stories with political tidbits about the wonders of the free-enterprise system.
The year 1964 proved pivotal for both Ronald Reagan and the conservative movement. Having already become a well-known figure in California right-wing circles, he agreed to serve as state co-chairman of Citizens for Goldwater. His big moment came in the closing days of Goldwater’s campaign. In a last-ditch effort to sway voters, Reagan went on national television to speak on behalf of Goldwater. The speech, “A Time for Choosing,” did little to help the Republican presidential candidate, but conservatives found Reagan’s performance so stirring that they immediately hailed him as one of the rising stars of the Republican right.
Holmes Tuttle and Henry Salvatori, two wealthy Southern California businessmen, liked what they saw so much that they asked Reagan to run for governor in 1966. Don’t just say no, Tuttle pleaded; take some time to think about it. Reagan agreed, and the Friends of Reagan, the campaign’s fundraising arm, was organized. From the outset the candidate had the backing of many wealthy Angelenos. More important, he had shrewd political advisers who thought they knew how a conservative could win the governorship. Stu Spencer and Bill Roberts, California’s top political consultants, advised Reagan to avoid illtempered remarks and to work with moderate Republicans; they designated him a “citizenpolitician” and started calling his reform program the Creative Society, in hopes of blunting voters’ fears of conservatives as out-of-touch naysayers; and they hired two behavioral psychologists, Kenneth Holden and Stanley Plog, to help Reagan with the issues. “He knew zero about California when we came in, I mean zero,” Plog recalled, but Reagan was a quick study and knew how to convey his ideas in a clear and forceful manner.
He was also careful to avoid the more radical ideas and statements that had so harmed other conservatives. Goldwater, during his presidential campaign, had threatened to “lob [missiles] into the men’s room at the Kremlin.” During his race Reagan spoke of a better California. “Our problems are many,” he said in the speech announcing his candidacy, “but our capacity for solving them is limitless.” When pressed about his support from radical right-wingers, Reagan explained that they were buying his philosophy, not the other way around.