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From actor to governor

Author Lou Cannon writes on Ronald Reagan’s road to political power in California in his book “Governor Reagan.”
/ Source: TODAY

When Ronald Reagan became governor of California, he suffered from political amateurism, an inexperienced staff, and ideological blind spots. But he quickly learned to take the measure of the Democrats who controlled the State Legislature and surprised friends and foes alike by agreeing to a huge tax increase, which made it possible for him to govern for eight years without additional tax hikes. Read an excerpt of “Governor Reagan,” to learn about Ronald Reagan’s rise to political power in California.

WHEN RONALD REAGAN began his quest for the governorship in 1965, California epitomized the American dream that William Faulkner had described as “sanctuary on earth for individual man.” Since the Gold Rush of 1849, the state had been a magnet for American dreamers; in World War II it became the embarkation point for servicemen en route to war in the South Pacific and an arsenal for the ships, planes, and guns that destroyed the imperial forces of Japan. The GIs who returned from the war were dazzled by the blue skies and easy ways of California, which seemed to them a land of limitless possibilities. Many settled there and raised families, as did even more of the defense workers who had flocked to the state during the war. In the next twenty years, California attracted more than a thousand new residents a day, doubled in population to 18 million, and (in 1964) surpassed New York as the nation’s most populous state. The pace of growth was intoxicating; the only constant in California, said social historian Carey McWilliams, was “rapid, revolutionary change.”

To provide a good life for the newcomers, while enriching themselves in the process, developers changed the California landscape. They uprooted orange groves and orchards in Los Angeles, Orange, and San Diego counties in the south and Santa Clara, Alameda, and Contra Costa counties in the north, replacing them with subdivisions, roads, and shopping centers. The state government helped finance thousands of new schools and poured vast sums of money into a community college system that made higher education widely accessible and into a university system that educated the scientists and engineers who manned the aerospace barricades during the Cold War. During the eight years of Edmund G. (“Pat”) Brown’s governorship, beginning in 1959, California completed a thousand miles of freeways and constructed a gigantic aqueduct, “the eighth wonder of the world,” to move water from the wetter and less populous northern sections of California to drier and more populous Southern California. By the mid-1960s, California had become a font of technological and cultural innovation so global and diverse in its outlook that it became fashionable to describe it as a “nation-state.” Indeed, in its economic output, California was exceeded by only six nations in the world: the United States, the Soviet Union, West Germany, Great Britain, France, and Japan. Its per capita income, was greater than any of these nations, indeed of all the countries in the world.

This prosperity was deceptive. To those on the outside looking in, California seemed to be an attractive dreamland when Reagan began the political journey that would one day take him to the White House, but insiders were reeling from two decades of unrestrained growth. Southern California, where public transportation was scarce, choked on this growth as its vaunted freeway system was overwhelmed by traffic flows that made commuting a nightmare and polluted the skies of the Los Angeles basin. In the north, developers were gradually filling in San Francisco Bay. Property taxes soared as local governments struggled frantically to meet demands for new schools and services. As cities sprawled far beyond their original boundaries, nearby agricultural areas were assessed at their “highest and best use,” a premise that forced farmers, willing or not, to sell their land, which was promptly converted into new subdivisions far from city centers. The loss of open space spurred a nascent environmental movement, but the continual need for new revenues committed local governments to constant growth and promoted a breathtaking boosterism. Explaining his newspaper’s enthusiasm for a housing boom that had wiped out the orchards of Santa Clara Valley - “the valley of heart’s delight” -the circulation manager of the San Jose Mercury-News told a reporter: “Trees don’t read newspapers.” Governor Brown, however, did read the papers, and he realized that

Californians were becoming resistant to higher tax burdens. Brown, a classic tax-and-spend Democrat, was one of California’s most pragmatic and successful politicians. Decent and honorable in both personal and public life, he had begun his career as a Republican in San Francisco and switched parties when the city became Democratic during the New Deal era. In 1939, in his third try for public office, he defeated an incumbent district attorney whom he had accused of being tolerant of vice. Brown’s honesty was his biggest asset. In 1950, he was elected state attorney general after his Republican opponent (who had defeated Brown four years earlier) became entangled in a bribery scandal. Brown was now the only statewide Democratic official in California. In 1958, he exploited a Republican schism and was elected governor.

Brown believed that government existed to do good. He financed ambitious programs of ever more costly state services, first by spending the remnant of the “rainy day” funds accumulated by Governor Earl Warren during the prosperous World War II years, and then by imposing new taxes and accelerating collections of existing taxes. By 1965, when Brown was about to seek a third term as governor, the state’s coffers were nearly bare. While reluctant to cut state spending, Brown realized that a tax increase would doom his chances of reelection. Since the California Constitution required a balanced budget, he seized upon the creative brainchild of state finance director and political adviser Hale Champion, who proposed a shift to “accrual accounting,” in which the state counted revenues when they became due instead of when they were collected. The accounting changeover was not in itself novel, but Champion proposed making the change without funding it.

As a result, the state in a single year spent its entire 1966 revenues in addition to revenues it was accruing for 1967, thus avoiding a tax increase before the election and guaranteeing one afterward. Republicans howled and nonpartisan legislative analyst Alan Post, the state’s most reliable and vigilant watchdog, described the Champion-Brown plan as irresponsible. Brown ignored Post and plunged the state into deficit financing.

While fiscally unsound, Brown’s resort to an accounting gimmick was politically understandable in view of his multitudinous problems.

After seven years as governor, he suffered from the inevitable erosion of incumbency and the ambitions of Democratic rivals who wanted his job. On the Right, there was Sam Yorty, the erratic mayor of Los Angeles, who opposed Brown’s commitment to racially integrated housing.

On the Left, he was badgered by the volunteer California Democratic Council, which considered Brown insuf.ciently liberal and was becoming uneasy over the growing U.S. involvement in Vietnam. In Sacramento, he was undermined by the independence of Assembly Speaker Jesse (“Big Daddy”) Unruh, a powerful Democrat who wanted to be

governor and resented Brown for refusing to step aside at the end of his second term. Unruh, who had once described Brown as “a tower of Jell-O,” repeatedly assailed the governor for alleged indecisiveness. Brown also suffered from association as a national Democrat with President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society and the civil rights revolution, which had begun to stir a backlash among white working-class Democrats.

And long before campus protests became a staple of the 1960s, there was trouble at the verdant Berkeley campus of the University of California.

The Berkeley protests began in the late summer of 1964 after university officials discovered that the university owned the 26-foot Bancroft Strip outside the Sather Gate main entrance, long used by political activists to pass out leaflets that university rules banned them from distributing on campus. Egged on by the conservative Oakland Tribune, which objected to the long hair and scruffy appearance of activists who supported civil rights causes and the Democratic ticket, university administrators applied the leaflet ban to the strip as students returned from their summer vacations in September.

This decision set in motion a chain of events. Students picketed Sproul Hall, the university administration center, and negotiated with administrators to overturn the ban. Radicals and liberal Democratic students were in the majority, as is often the case with campus protests, but conservatives and student supporters of Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater also opposed this provocative and unnecessary restriction on political discourse. Nonetheless the peaceful efforts to overturn the ban on leaflet distribution in the Bancroft Strip were rejected by the university.

In response, the students predictably became more militant. They banded together and formed the Free Speech Movement under the firebrand leadership of Mario Savio, a physics student, former civil rights worker, and effective agitator. As the university held firm, the movement grew and rallies and demonstrations jammed the campus.

After a police officer arrested an activist who was not a student, a sit-in trapped them both in a police car. On December 2, 1964, Savio gave an impassioned speech, and students occupied Sproul Hall and bedded down for the night. Governor Brown, torn between sympathy for the students and a desire to restore order, hesitated - “dithered,” said his critics. He consulted with Edwin Meese III, a deputy district attorney in Alameda County whom Brown had known when Meese was a law enforcement lobbyist in Sacramento. Meese had been told-inaccurately, as it turned out-that the students were tearing up Sproul Hall, and he passed this information on to Brown. The governor decided to remove the students. He sent in the California Highway Patrol (CHP), which arrested 773 students who had refused to leave the building.

Worse was to come in Los Angeles, 500 miles to the south, where blacks chafed at the rough-handed style of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD). California had been spared the riots that engulfed Harlem, Philadelphia, Chicago, and Jacksonville in the summer of 1964. But during a torrid Southern California heat wave on August 11, 1965, while Governor Brown was vacationing in Greece, violence exploded in the small, mostly black community of Watts in south Los Angeles.

It began when a black motorist flagged down a CHP officer to point out a car that was being driven recklessly. The officer, a white man, pursued the car, and the driver, a black man, pulled over at an intersection just outside of Watts. Marquette Frye, the twenty-one-year-old driver, had been drinking. He flunked a sobriety test, and the officer arrested him and called for a tow truck to impound his car.

In the meantime, the driver’s younger brother and passenger sprinted two blocks to his home to tell his mother what was going on. She ran to the scene and berated her son for drinking. Frye, cooperative until then, became obstreperous. His cries attracted the attention of residents who had been quietly watching the arrest in the heat of the late afternoon. They poured off their porches and joined others who were coming home from work to form a crowd around the police car.

The officer radioed for help, and LAPD officers responded. Two of them dove into the growing crowd to arrest a woman in a barber’s smock who had spit at them, and a rumor spread that police were abusing a pregnant woman. Police cars were stoned, and the Watts riot erupted. Before it ended six days later, 34 persons, most of them blacks, had died, and another 1,032 had been injured. The central business district of Watts was burned to the ground. In the riot’s aftermath, blame was heaped on rioters and police-but also on Brown’s lieutenant governor, Glenn Anderson, for being slow to call out the National Guard.

Some of the political fallout inevitably drifted over Brown, although there was little he could have done from Greece. In that protest-minded summer of 1965, another challenge to the old order with political implications for Governor Brown arose in the lush agricultural cornucopia of the San Joaquin Valley. This challenge, more peaceful and profound than any riot, was the work of faceless farm workers who risked their meager livelihoods to defy an alliance of the valley’s most powerful grape growers. They followed Cesar Chavez, who became a mystical folk hero to Mexican Americans, but, as Chavez would have said, they were led by their own sense of justice and fair play.

Chavez had been a farm worker in childhood, attending forty schools as his parents followed the crops from state to state. He dropped out in the seventh grade. In 1961, at age thirty-four, after several years of working for the slow-paced Los Angeles-based Community Service Organization, Chavez moved with his wife and eight children to the town of Delano in the San Joaquin Valley, where he worked for a dollar an hour in the vineyards. Here, he created the fledgling union he called the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA). The family lived in a four-room house that doubled as union headquarters. During the next three years, Chavez built a tiny, loyal union with 1,200 members, set up an insurance plan, and began a credit union. Although he won a small strike against local rose growers, the grape growers did not at first take Chavez and his union seriously.

Then, in 1964, Congress heeded pleas from organized labor and Mexican American organizations and ended the bracero program, which since 1942 had provided growers with guaranteed cheap contract farm labor from Mexico. The reduced supply of farm workers, and hence of potential strikebreakers, helped the previously ineffective Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC), affiliated with the AFLCIO, to win wage increases to $1.40 an hour for grape pickers in the Coachella Valley. But when the union moved north into the San Joaquin Valley, grape growers refused to pay more than a dollar an hour or to negotiate with the union. On September 8, 1965, hundreds of AWOC members walked out of the San Joaquin vineyards. Larry Itliong, the head of AWOC, and most of his union members were Filipinos. When they abandoned the vineyards, growers turned to a time-tested tactic of pitting ethnic groups against one another and tried to hire Mexican Americans as replacements. Itliong appealed to Chavez for help. Would the NFWA join the strike? Chavez, who was worried about keeping his fledgling union intact, put the question to his membership in a meeting at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in Delano on September 16, Mexican Independence Day. The walls of the church were hung with the black eagle Aztec flag of the union, a picture of the Mexican peasant revolutionary hero Emiliano Zapata, and a poster of Jack London’s “Definition of a Strikebreaker.” Chavez made a motion to support AWOC, and the crowd responded with a roar of “Huelga!”- the Spanish word for “strike.” It was the beginning of the great grape strike and a national boycott of table grapes that would in time force growers to recognize the union.

The strike posed another difficult test for Pat Brown. The San Joaquin Valley and adjoining Sacramento Valley were bastions of support for the Democratic Party and had voted heavily for Brown in previous elections. Chavez was unpopular with all but farm workers in these agricultural areas, and most NFWA members were not even U.S. citizens, let alone voters. Six months after the strike began, Chavez, by now supported by organized labor and a broad coalition of liberal and religious activists, led a twenty-five-day, 300-mile march from Delano to Sacramento that ended on the steps of the State Capitol. Two of the major grape growers in the San Joaquin Valley capitulated along the way and signed contracts with the NFWA. But Governor Brown would not meet with Chavez. He spent Easter weekend at Frank Sinatra’s home in Palm Springs.

As isolated events, neither the revolt of the farm workers nor the Watts riot nor the campus disorders that Ronald Reagan called “the mess at Berkeley” would have changed the political direction of California.

But the events came piled one on top of another in the context of rising crime rates, increased congestion and pollution, and heavy tax burdens. Nationally, it was also a time of discontent. In late 1965, after a brief pause during the Christmas holiday season, President Johnson resumed heavy bombing raids of North Vietnam, and in February 1966 he agreed to increase U.S. military forces in Vietnam from 184,000 to 429,000 by the end of the year. Protests erupted again on college campuses, none of them more loudly than in California.

By 1966, a state that had given Johnson a million-vote margin of victory over Barry Goldwater two years earlier was no longer secure for the Democrats. By then, many Californians who had previously voted Democratic blamed their grievances on government and no longer believed that they lived in the Golden State of their dreams and memories. California was a nation-state, to be sure, but a nation-state on the brink, a state hungering for reform and a new sense of direction. Few in the press or in the political community, least of all Governor Brown, recognized the depth of the discontent in the early months of 1966, but California was ripe for a change. As a leading Democratic legislator would say in hindsight, California was ripe for Ronald Reagan.

Excerpted from “Governor Reagan: His Rise to Power” by Lou Cannon. Copyright © 2003 by Lou Cannon. Published by Public Affairs. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt can be used without permission of the publisher.