- 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
“The total crowd was in excess of 3,000, including a number of less-thancollege-age juveniles,” Reagan began. “Three rock ’n’ roll bands were in the center of the gymnasium playing simultaneously all during the dance, and all during the dance movies were shown on two screens at the opposite ends of the gymnasium. These movies were the only lights in the gym proper. They consisted of color sequences that gave the appearance of different-colored liquid spreading across the screen, followed by shots of men and women[;] on occasion, shots were of the men’s and women’s nude torsos, and persons twisted and gyrated in provocative and sensual fashion. The young people were seen standing against the walls or lying on the floors and steps in a dazed condition with glazed eyes consistent with the condition of being under the influence of narcotics. Sexual misconduct was blatant.”
This moral decline, Reagan continued, had begun in 1964, “when the so-called free-speech advocates, who in truth have no appreciation for freedom, were allowed to assault and humiliate the symbol of law and order, a policeman, on the campus; and that was the moment when the ringleaders should have been taken by the scruff of the neck and thrown out of the university once and for all.” The audience cheered.
Almost all the issues, in fact, fitted in with Reagan’s promise to restore order. On Vietnam? Reagan proposed simply that we “go in there and do it.” Antiwar demonstrators? Charge them with treason. Urban riots? Just invoke the law. Crime? Lock criminals in jail, and don’t handicap the police.
Meanwhile Reagan used racial issues to draw attention to what he saw as the dangerous excesses of big government. His position on California’s Fair Housing Act was typical. The law, he charged, embodied the dangers of an expansive and encroaching government. Yes, he said, he despised bigotry just as much as the next guy, but in the end the government had no right to tell people how to sell or rent their property. In 1966 welfare and taxes also became hot political issues. There were, Reagan said at one campaign stop after another, people moving to California not for the opportunity to work but for the chance to get on welfare: “You have to live in California for five years to be governor, but you can get on welfare in twenty-four hours.”
Pat Brown was a decent man. He cared about people, and he governed with the hope of improving their individual lives. But his sympathy for civil rights and student grievances and his concern for the growing urban poor gave voters the impression that he had encouraged many of the disruptive elements that had thrown California into its present turmoil. Even when he took decisive action—like calling out the National Guard to quell riots in San Francisco and Oakland—people wondered how he had let things get out of control in the first place. What, voters asked Reagan during the campaign, would he do “about those bastards at Berkeley”? More, he invariably replied, than Pat Brown ever would.
Nor could Brown count on the support of the more liberal members of his party. The Vietnam War and urban riots saw to that. As a staunch supporter of President Johnson’s Vietnam policy, the governor had an unprecedented problem on his hands in 1966: Si Casady, the head of the California Democratic Council (CDC), the party’s largest volunteer organization in the state, was encouraging young men to burn their draft cards. Under pressure from the White House, Brown forced Casady to resign. But the problem didn’t go away. Students who in other times could have been counted on to hand out leaflets and knock on doors for the Democratic nominee continued to protest the war, and even its more moderate opponents had trouble getting excited about re-electing a man so strongly identified with the policymakers in Washington.
The social upheavals of the early and mid-sixties had transformed the political climate. By 1966 Reagan’s antigovernment ideology had come to appear moderate, rational, and a force for order. Brown, by contrast, seemed allied to the radical left and the increasingly militant civil rights leadership. The governor admitted himself that he was caught in a “political vise” between a growing left-wing movement that attacked liberalism for not going far enough and a conservative revival promising, among other things, to restore order. It was not a good position to be in, because in 1966 the political center—which, as the historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., once put it, is “vital” to the preservation of freedom—collapsed.