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IN SEPTEMBER 1961 PAT BROWN hunkered down in front of a television set to watch an announcement he did not wish to hear. Richard Nixon, the former vice president of the United States and a man who had come within a hairbreadth of winning the Oval Office, was standing before dozens of reporters and cameramen in the Statler Hilton Hotel in Los Angeles. The state government in Sacramento, Nixon declared, was "a mess." California's government was too big, its crime rate too high, its economy too sluggish. As for the "amiable but bungling man who presently is governor," he was incapable of finding the solutions. So Richard Nixon would take the job. He would run for governor of California in 1962. Republicans, Nixon vowed, would "beat Pat Brown to a pulp."
The would-be pulp watched with dread. Brown's first term had featured an ironic combination of policy successes and political setbacks. His achievements-the water project, the new college campuses, the tax increase that helped to pay for it all-were more deeply appreciated with the passing of time. The failures, by contrast, were immediately obvious. His debacles in dealing with the death penalty and national politics had left many Californians believing their governor a weak and vacillating figure, the amiable bungler described by Nixon. Nearly a third of voters thought Brown was doing apoor job. Even among those who approved of his work, more than half were unable to cite anything specific as a major accomplishment.
Polls suggested Brown would lose to Nixon badly, and that was not the worst news. At least Nixon was a national figure. The governor's numbers were little better against far weaker opponents. He trailed former Gov. Goodwin Knight, who was contemplating a comeback. He was tied with San Francisco Mayor George Christopher, a local figure. Most ignominious of all, the governor polled only five points better than William Knowland, the man he routed so easily in 1958. Knowland was out of politics, yet one in five Californians said they did not know how they would mark a ballot in a potential Knowland-Brown race. The cold fact was that with less than fourteen months to election day, the governor was the most unpopular major politician in California.
Brown's self-confidence was a fragile thing in the best of times, and as he watched Nixon's announcement, his courage gave way completely. Frightened that he might be on the losing end of a rout, Brown called key Democrats and told them to find someone else to carry the party's banner against Nixon. Brown had spent his life in the pursuit of political office. Now, cowed by bad circumstances and a bold opponent, he was ready to quit.
* * *
In many ways Nixon cut a daunting figure. Born and raised in Whittier, east of Los Angeles, he had been elected to Congress at thirty-three, to the Senate at thirty-seven, to the vice presidency at thirty-nine, an age when Brown was still in his first year as San Francisco district attorney. Politically, he was said to be brilliant, knowledgeable, strategic-and ruthless. Many people in California politics hated Nixon, especially his fellow Republicans, but nobody thought him a boob.
Brown first met him in 1950, on a hot day in Bakersfield when both were campaigning, Nixon for the U.S. Senate and Brown for attorney general of California. From the beginning, Brown got glimpses of Nixon as a schemer. Later in the same campaign, both men found themselves in Sacramento at the same time. They met at the Senator Hotel, and Nixon proposed a pact. If Brown avoided an endorsement of Helen Gahagan Douglas, the actress and congresswoman who was Nixon's opponent for the Senate, Nixon would refuse to endorse Brown's Republican opponent in the attorney general's race. Brown was already keeping his distance from Douglas, who was well to his left politically, but he found Nixon's proposal slick. He offered a characteristically noncommittal answer, and the two men went their separate ways.
Two years later, Brown watched on television as Nixon, accused of having a slush fund, gave his famous Checkers speech, invoking the family dog as emblem of his honesty and preserving his place on the Republican ticket. Brown was not convinced. He found the vice presidential candidate reminiscent of the con men he had prosecuted as district attorney.
In 1955 came one more troubling episode related to Nixon. Brown met with Goodwin Knight, then the governor, to discuss water issues. When they finished with those matters, Knight began discussing Nixon. Knight said he believed Nixon to be, as Brown later remembered it, "one of the most dangerous men in the world." Nixon had double-crossed Knight twice, and the state's other major Republicans-Warren, Knowland, and U.S. Sen. Thomas Kuchel-had been treated the same way, Knight insisted. The vice president, Knight said, was "the worst man imaginable for the presidency of the United States." It was a surprising moment, a Republican sharing such confidences with a Democrat, and about a man who was next in line for the most powerful job in the world. Brown was accustomed to the rough-and-tumble of politics, but Knight's comments struck him as noteworthy. The next day in his office, Brown dictated a memo, intended solely for his confidential political files, describing his conversation with Knight and noting carefully the time and circumstances.
At the time Nixon posed no immediate threat to Brown, for they played on different stages. Nixon spent the 1950s in Washington, Brown in Sacramento. That changed in November 1960, when Nixon narrowly lost the presidency to John Kennedy and suddenly snapped into focus as a potential rival for Brown. Within days of the election Brown's new chief of staff, Hale Champion, was urging the governor to find a friendly congressman who could push for an investigation of a potentially juicy scandal, a large loan to Nixon's brother from the reclusive tycoon Howard Hughes. A public inquiry would be nice, Champion said, "just to keep Nixon off balance." The Brown team also squirreled away a film on Nixon provided by the Kennedy campaign. "We may need it in 1962," Champion wrote.
Nixon was less certain about his future. Depressed after the loss to Kennedy, he decided to return home to California. Nixon and his wife, Pat, opted to build a new home in Los Angeles, and while construction was completed she and their two daughters remained in Washington. Nixon moved into an apartment on Wilshire Boulevard, in part because he had taken a job with a California law firm and in part because solitude allowed him to lick his wounds in private. Alone and happy about it, he settled into a routine of TV dinners and work but soon found politics drawing his attention. On a speaking tour in spring 1961, he focused mostly on international issues but insisted he had no plans to run for president again. By summer speculation was rampant that Nixon would return to politics even before the next presidential election. The rumors said he would seek California's governorship.
For Nixon, the attraction was not the job but the potential. By the early 1960s California's sheer heft-it was home to almost one in every eleven Americans-meant that the governors of today might be the presidents of tomorrow. New York had once held that status; stints in Albany had put Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt on the path to national prominence. In the postwar world it was California's turn. Every presidential election since World War II had featured a Californian on the Republican ticket: Earl Warren as the vice presidential nominee in 1948 and then Nixon three times, in 1952 and 1956 as Dwight Eisenhower's running mate and in 1960 as his own man. In 1964 the GOP's nomination would be wide open, and there were those in the party who believed that a short turn as governor would prove a useful interlude for Nixon, keeping him in the public eye and reestablishing his reputation as a winner. Eisenhower felt that way and wrote to his former vice president to say as much. Winning election as governor would "offset to a large extent the razor-thin margin by which you lost the presidential race," Ike wrote. And it would still allow Nixon to seek the presidency in 1964.
Nixon hesitated. He was writing a book. He did not especially want to be governor of California. His wife was adamantly opposed to another campaign. But the decision could not wait forever, and so finally, in September 1961, he sat down with his family to discuss the issue. There was little doubt where Nixon's inclinations lay: He was a political animal to the bone. But family sentiment prevailed, and, at least by Nixon's account in his memoirs, he decided to skip the race. Upstairs in his study, he was drafting a statement to that effect when his wife appeared. Drained and stressed, Pat Nixon told her husband that she would support whatever decision he might make. She reversed what she had said only minutes before and promised that she would join him on the campaign trail. "You must do whatever you think is right," Nixon remembered her saying. "If you think this is right for you, then you must do it." Nixon threw out the draft speech announcing that he would not run and began working on the statement of candidacy that would cause Brown such trepidation.
* * *
Attacks of self-doubt may have been common in Brown's psyche, but usually they were also mercifully brief. So it was with his anxiety over Nixon's announcement. The governor regained his equilibrium quickly-fellow Democrats helped by insisting that he was their man-and returned to the realization that he loved being governor too much to quit. To insiders, that was no surprise. Deep down, he always wanted to hang on to the job as long as possible.
Barely a week into his first term, Brown had been talking about a second. At his first cabinet meeting, he said he was trying to limit public appearances during his first six months in office, when the legislature would be in session. "As soon as that is over, I will start campaigning for governor again," he added, only half-joking. In the years since, nothing had changed his mind, and once he recovered from the initial shock of realizing that his opponent would be a former vice president, Brown launched into a reelection training regimen.
The first goal was physical. He went on a diet, swearing off potatoes and cocktails. For exercise, he and Bernice played golf every morning-up at 5:00 a.m., then eighteen holes quickly, carrying their own clubs. The result was the loss of almost twenty pounds from his customarily roly-poly frame. Second, for a less corporeal brand of rejuvenation, he spent three days in silent retreat at a Jesuit center south of San Francisco, giving him "the chance and the peace for prayer and spiritual awareness." Last-and least needed, given Brown's familiarity with his state-was a week spent with staff at the desert home of a supporter. Isolated from meetings and distractions, the governor boned up on issues. Two staff members were assigned to play devil's advocate and argue with whatever position Brown took, the better to prepare him for the hurly-burly of a campaign.
Preparations were needed at home too. Given Nixon's reputation as a Red-baiter and a rhetorical brawler, the Browns expected a tough, perhaps vicious, struggle. Kathy, now fifteen and the only child remaining at home, might find more shelter in a private boarding school than the public high school she had been attending in Sacramento. So Pat and Bernice sat down with Kathy in the Governor's Mansion and explained they thought it best if she switched to a Catholic school in Monterey. They heard no objections- Kathy was ready for a new challenge-and in fall 1961 she headed off to a new life. Pat and Bernice looked ahead to a year that featured one old constant of their lives, campaigning, and one new circumstance: For the first time since the earliest months of their marriage more than three decades before, they presided over an empty house.
* * *
Looking ahead, Nixon knew he faced a fundamental disadvantage. By 1962 Democrats outnumbered Republicans in California by more than a million. To win in the fall, Nixon had to broaden his appeal and reach across party lines. Doing so required that he distance himself from the right wing of the state's Republican Party, especially the conspiracy theorists of the John Birch Society. Named for an American soldier killed in China ten days after the end of World War II, the fiercely anti-Communist Birchers were at the outermost fringe of reason. The group's founder, Robert Welch, had taken to declaring that Dwight Eisenhower was not merely a weak-willed moderate-a view held by many Birchers-but an active and knowing agent of an international Communist conspiracy. The former president, Welch maintained, was guilty of treason.
But Nixon had to be careful. He needed to separate himself from Welch's nuttiness without completely alienating conservative Republican activists, who formed the grassroots of any GOP campaign. That was made more problematic by the presence of a conservative opponent in the Republican primary, a state assemblyman named Joseph Shell. Young and handsome, Shell was square-jawed conservatism in the flesh. He had captained the University of Southern California football team to the Rose Bowl in 1939, married his college sweetheart, served as a pilot in WorldWar II, gotten rich in the oil industry, and won election to the assembly in a special election in 1953. After the 1960 census, Democrats redrew the boundaries of his Los Angeles legislative district so that it was far less favorable to a Republican. Faced with a nearly impossible reelection bid, Shell decided instead that he might as well go down fighting for a big prize, so he ran for governor. Shell's candidacy complicated Nixon's. If Nixon moved toward the center too far and too fast, Shell would provide a haven for disgruntled conservatives.
The issue came to a head at the annual meeting of the California Republican Assembly, an independent group whose endorsement was a prize sought after by GOP candidates. Hoping to distance himself from the Birchers without alienating them, Nixon offered a resolution denouncing Welch but not the group as a whole. Instead, he demanded that Republicans leave the John Birch Society only if Welch was not expelled. It was a nice idea. Given his connection to Eisenhower, Nixon had to denounce Welch in some fashion, but he also needed the support of the society's members, many of whom thought Welch too extreme. But Shell sensed an opportunity to win conservative hearts, and he condemned the Nixon proposal. It was no business of the convention, he insisted, if people were involved with outside organizations.
The Nixon forces pushed the resolution through committee, but on the convention floor its fate seemed in doubt. Nixon agreed to modify the measure so that it merely denounced Welch, without any mention of whether Republicans should belong to the John Birch Society, and it passed easily. The full convention endorsed Nixon for governor, although Shell did well in the voting.
In a sense Nixon had accomplished his purpose, authoring a resolution that derided Welch and his ludicrous conspiracy theories about Eisenhower. Democrats would face a tougher task portraying Nixon as an extremist. But the incident revealed the depth of bitterness and discord in the Republican Party. The convention's final session was snarling and combative, and at the end the moderates and conservatives were as divided as ever. When one middle-of-the-road delegate insisted, "Let's get one thing straight: We are all opposed to communism," members of the Birch contingent laughed derisively. Patricia Hitt, then a member of the Republican National Committee and an ardent Nixon loyalist, said that if somehow Shell won the primary she would campaign for him in the general election out of solemn partisan duty, but that after giving a pro-Shell speech she would have to go to the ladies' room and vomit.
Excerpted from CALIFORNIA RISING by Ethan Rarick Excerpted by permission.
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Part I — Rising
2. A New Religion
3. The Chairs of Politics
Part II — Building
6. The Big Wallop
7. All These Students
9. Cigar Smoke
10. Building a River
11. “By God I Can Beat That Son of a Bitch”
12. Race and Politics
Part III — Falling
16. Tired Old Governor