The Right Moment: Ronald Reagan's First Victory and the Decisive Turning Point in American Politics [NOOK Book]

Overview

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 ...
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The Right Moment: Ronald Reagan's First Victory and the Decisive Turning Point in American Politics

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Overview

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.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
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. (Sept.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Ronald Reagan's 1966 victory over incumbent California governor Pat Brown, not his capture of the White House in 1980, was the true start of the "Reagan Revolution" and the ascendancy of the Right. The race also marked Reagan's first try at electoral politics, and although he has been portrayed as a lightweight creation of his handlers, he proved himself an intelligent and highly skillful campaigner. Indeed, Reagan was able to distance himself from the far-right John Birch Society while taking full advantage of the openings presented by Brown's failed fair-housing proposal, the Watts riots, and campus unrest at Berkeley. This first book by journalist Dallek (e.g., Slate, the Atlantic Monthly), who based his work on dozens of interviews and substantial archival research, is a good political story written in a clear style. Recommended for all public and academic libraries.--Robert F. Nardini, Chichester, NH Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\
Zachary Karabell
Reagan's victory over Brown is the subject of Matthew Dallek's engaging first book. Dallek, a speechwriter for the House Democratic leader, Richard A. Gephardt, contends that the Reagan revolution began not in 1980 but in 1966. And though Dallek's writing is not always as sophisticated as his research or as subtle as his analysis, he succeeds admirably in tracing the roots of the Reagan phenomenon to the turmoil of the mid-1960's.
New York Times Book Review
Kirkus Reviews
A focused look at the events leading to (and the ramifications of) Ronald Reagan's victory over incumbent Pat Brown in California's 1966 governor's race.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780743213745
  • Publisher: Free Press
  • Publication date: 9/19/2000
  • Sold by: SIMON & SCHUSTER
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 304
  • File size: 4 MB

Meet the Author


Matthew Dallek works as a speechwriter in Washington, D.C. He earned his Ph.D. in American History from Columbia University in 1999. He has contributed to The Washington Post, The Atlantic, The New Republic, Salon, and Slate magazine.
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Read an Excerpt


Introduction: The Critical Years

Ronald Reagan redefined politics like no one since Franklin Roosevelt. His impact is so encompassing, so lasting, that pundits have even coined a phrase for it: the "Reagan revolution." There is widespread agreement on the meaning of that revolution: Reagan convinced us that government was not the solution, it was the problem. Taxes were too high, social programs were counterproductive, regulations were stifling entrepreneurial energy, and the United States was failing to prosecute the cold war in a vigorous manner. Two issues lay at the heart of the revolution: economics and foreign policy. It began in 1980. It continues to this day.

In truth the Reagan revolution began in 1966, and it was not primarily about economics or foreign policy. Reagan's stunning, out-of-nowhere victory in the California governor's race against two-term incumbent and Democratic giant Pat Brown marked the arrival of the Right in postwar American politics. Reagan's leadership of that movement is perhaps his most enduring legacy. It is also a story that has never been properly told.

In the mid-1960s revolution was in the air. Leaders of the New Left spoke of revolt against the Establishment; leaders of the Far Right echoed them in talk of toppling the liberal order. Media images were filled with violence: frightened National Guardsmen brandished fixed bayonets in Watts, where burned-out buildings lay in ruin; angry activists marched on military bases; protests erupted against segregated hotels and businesses; students turned out by the thousands to fight for free speech on campus; anticommunist leaders held rallies and workshops to teach people how to defend their homes and schools against the red menace. This was a time of stark contrasts, nowhere more so than in California. The much-discussed New Left activists of the '60s were offset by an equally impassioned group on the other side. For every organizer from Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) 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 Vietnam.

Ronald Reagan's race against Pat Brown -- the real Reagan revolution -- began as a debate about retaking control of a society in chaos. What Ronald Reagan stood for above all was law and order.

Reagan and Brown clashed on every issue, major and minor, of the day. Understanding the collapse of the liberal order and the rise of the conservative movement requires understanding how Reagan and Brown, during the several years leading up to 1966, came to embrace such bitterly opposed visions of government and society.

Reagan was a card-carrying conservative, Brown a proud liberal. For Reagan, opposing communism was paramount. For Brown, anticommunism was but one issue in foreign affairs and a nonissue at home. Reagan saw the welfare-state policies of recent decades as a slippery slope toward socialism. Brown viewed governmental programs as the best way to achieve a "great society." Reagan denounced moral decline on campus; Brown thanked God for the spectacle of students protesting. Brown seized an opportunity to lead the civil rights movement into the new frontier of fair housing; Reagan believed that even the 1964 Civil Rights Act was unconstitutional. Faced with urban riots, Brown looked to government to help eradicate poverty; Reagan vowed zero tolerance for criminals.

Prior to 1966, Reagan's views on all of these questions were considered extreme, not least by Brown and his followers. In 1962, Reagan was indeed part of a marginal movement; in 1964, Barry Goldwater led the movement in a national election, but suffered a stinging defeat. Reagan could not possibly have beaten Brown prior to 1966; only civil rights, Berkeley, Watts, and Vietnam made it possible. It was Reagan's promise to arrest moral decline that won him a million-vote victory over the popular incumbent, who had beaten Richard Nixon in 1962 and seemed destined to usher in California's progressive future.

Tomes have been written about Reagan, chronicling the dominant events of his life and career. They detail his early years in Illinois, exploits as an athlete, rise to fame in radio and film, and of course his two terms in the White House. Former aides have produced a stream of memoirs, and biographers have examined the main features of his presidency, from his victory over Jimmy Carter to his supply-side economic program to his role in Iran-Contra. Yet even the biographers rarely spend more than one or two chapters discussing his rise as a politician in the early and mid-1960s. Reagan's official biographer, Edmund Morris, passes over the 1966 election in a few short pages, his narrator explaining that he was not in California at the time.

Politics is about ideas, but it is also about the people who champion those ideas. How Ronald Reagan and Pat Brown came to embody two utterly contrasting sets of ideas is a fascinating story of two men who mirrored each other in many ways. Each came from a troubled home with a father who struggled with alcoholism. Each had his own conversion, Brown from Republican to New Deal Democrat, Reagan from New Deal Democrat to anticommunist Republican. Each became a pioneer in his political party: Brown was only the second Democrat to win statewide office in California in the twentieth century, and he was the leading voice of liberalism in the state. Reagan made the conservative movement legitimate for the first time, both in California and later in the nation.

In 1966 these two titans faced off in a battle of worldviews. Law and order was the hinge on which an era turned, yet the particular strategies involved were crucial. For the first time, the conservative movement was able to distance itself from the anticommunist fringe. For the first time, the conservatives learned how to push the right buttons on key issues, from race and riots to war and crime. Reagan successfully linked the liberal social programs of the '60s with disorder in the streets, and offered an alternative vision of what government should and should not do. The Reagan revolution would prove so lasting because the formulas developed in the heat of the moment -- pro-social order, pro-individual liberty, anti-government meddling -- had a lasting appeal. Americans, like most people, crave peace and prosperity. The Reagan revolution has come to be associated with the free market. Yet at its origins, and perhaps still today, it is equally about social order.

Copyright © 2000 by Matthew Dallek

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Table of Contents


Contents

Introduction: The Critical Years

ONE The Giant Killer

TWO The Anticommunist

THREE "Are You Now, or Have You Ever Been, a Liberal?"

FOUR "Run Ronnie Run"

FIVE "You've Got to Get Those Kids Out of There"

SIX "A Bunch of Kooks"

SEVEN "Charcoal Alleys"

EIGHT The George Wallace of California

NINE The Search for Order

TEN Prairie Fire

Epilogue

Notes

Acknowledgments

Index

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