- 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
Holden, who was in the audience, watched appalled, then managed to reach Reagan at home and pleaded with him to return to the event: “Why don’t you come back and have a drink with the delegates? It will ease a lot of hurt feelings.” Reagan eventually did so, but his advisers were aghast. Nothing frightened them more than the charge of extremism. The issue had helped sink Goldwater in ’64, and it could do the same to Reagan in ’66. Another outburst, they warned, could doom his campaign and end his political career. Reagan promised that it would not happen again.
It didn’t. In August 1966 California Democrats released a twenty-nine-page paper, “Ronald Reagan, Extremist Collaborator.” Reagan was not a moderate Republican, it claimed, but actually a dangerous radical, his campaign was “riddled” with members of the John Birch Society, he accepted money from extremist groups, and he opposed government programs like Social Security and federal aid to education. Serious charges, but they didn’t stick. When Democrats presented Reagan with a press release claiming that Spencer-Roberts—his own political consultants!—had once identified him as an “extremist,” the candidate coolly called the move a “diversionary tactic to avoid campaigning on the issues.” In the end Reagan just seemed too good-looking, too upbeat, and too witty to be a member of any lunatic fringe.
He had, in short, all the markings of a candidate with a finely tuned political campaign, something that conservatives, for all their ideological fervor, were unaccustomed to. He also represented a movement that, by the mid-sixties, was hell-bent on winning political power.
After the election was over, the Los Angeles Times reported: “Don Bradley, the governor’s campaign chairman, said Brown was the victim of a national movement toward conservatives that resulted from voter resistance to Negro gains.” Race, of course, has almost always played a central role in American politics. In the eighteenth century the Constitutional Convention nearly disbanded over the issue of slavery; less than a century later the question re-emerged with such force that it took six hundred thousand American lives to settle the issue; in this century the great black migrations from the rural South to the urban North helped thrust civil rights to the center of national debate; and in the 1960s the growing disillusionment with the black struggle for freedom gave conservatives a powerful issue with which to pry lower-middle-class Americans from the Democratic coalition.
Reagan’s campaign was no exception. His stances on fair housing, urban riots, crime, and welfare all appealed to whites increasingly resentful (and fearful) of blacks and members of other minorities who seemed to be getting “special privileges.” Race was a central issue. But it was not, as some have suggested, the only one. Rather it fitted into a larger set of ideas about the iniquities of big government. The two issues were so intertwined that to understand Reagan’s campaign —and the rise of the right—we must understand how the issue of race fitted in with and reinforced conservatives’ broad antigovernment message.
Throughout the campaign Reagan repeatedly charged that the bureaucratic welfare state coddled minorities, raised middle-class taxes to meet the growing costs of welfare, threatened individual liberty, and failed to impose order on the small but dangerous numbers of radicals, dissidents, and criminals. In 1966 events helped reinforce Reagan’s ideas.