Ronald Reagan's first great victory, in the 1966 California governor's race, seemed to come from nowhere and has long since confounded his critics. Just two years earlier, when Barry Goldwater lost to Lyndon Johnson by a landslide, the conservative movement was pronounced dead. In California, Governor Edmund "Pat" Brown was celebrated as the "Giant Killer" for his 1962 victory over Richard Nixon. From civil rights, to building the modern California system of higher education, to reinventing the state's infrastructure, to a vast expansion of the welfare state, Brown's liberal agenda reigned supreme. Yet he soon found himself struggling with forces no one fully grasped, and in 1966, political neophyte Reagan trounced Brown by almost a million votes.
Reagan's stunning win over Brown is one of the pivotal stories of American political history. It marked not only the coming-of-age of the conservative movement, but also the first serious blow to modern liberalism. The campaign was run amidst the drama of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement, terrible riots in Watts, and the first anti-Vietnam War protests by the New Left. It featured cameo appearances by Mario Savio, Ed Meese, California Speaker Jesse "Big Daddy" Unruh, and tough-as-nails Los Angeles Police Chief William Parker. Beneath its tumultuous surface a grassroots conservative movement swelled powerfully. A group that had once been dismissed as little more than paranoid John Birchers suddenly attracted a wide following for a more mainstream version of its message, and Reagan deftly rode the wave, moving from harsh anticommunism to a more general critique of the breakdown of social order and the failure of the welfare state. Millions of ordinary Californians heeded his call.
Drawing on scores of oral history interviews, thousands of archival documents, and many personal interviews with participants, Matthew Dallek charts the rise of one great politician, the demise of another, and the clash of two diametrically opposing worldviews. He offers a fascinating new portrait of the 1960s that is far more complicated than our collective memory of that decade. The New Left activists were offset by an equally impassioned group on the other side. For every SDS organizer there was a John Birch activist; for every civil rights marcher there was an anticommunist rally-goer; for every antiwar protester there were several more who sympathized with American aims in Southeast Asia. Dallek's compelling history offers an important reminder that the rise of Ronald Reagan and the conservatives may be the most lasting legacy of that discordant time.
The so-called Reagan revolution, according to Dallek, did not begin in 1980 when Reagan won the presidency, but in 1966 when the conservative Hollywood actor, a former FBI informant with no political experience, won a landslide victory in the California gubernatorial race against two-term Democratic incumbent Pat Brown. In this briskly readable, insightful but unsurprising study, Dallek (who has been a columnist for Slate and a contributor to the Atlantic Monthly, Salon and other publications) argues with some justification that the California election was a watershed event. Reagan, positioning himself as a champion of law and order, and as a bold-thinking conservative with fresh ideas and programs, distanced himself from the Republican Party's extremist right wing. Tapping into widespread frustration over high taxes, crime and bloated budgets, genial, telegenic Reagan--and the conservative movement--learned how to push the right buttons on key issues, turning welfare, urban riots and student protest into cudgels that could be used to bash liberals. Meanwhile, Brown greatly underestimated Reagan's appeal, and though Brown had a strong record on education and civil rights, his faith in the ability of big government to solve social ills was being challenged by entrenched poverty, the Watts riots and campus sit-ins. In Dallek's analysis, Reagan benefited immensely from a liberalism that had moved too far in a direction most voters were unwilling to go; Reagan's rhetorical commitment to smaller government and his support for a strong military budget would resonate for decades. Dallek's evenhanded, incisive critique will compel both liberals and conservatives to rethink their strategies.