Ronald Reagan: A Relaxing View
From the Nov. 28, 1967, issue of NR.


William F. Buckley Jr.

But then, having prepared ourselves to think about Mr. Reagan the way Mr. Champion thinks about him, one is confused by the contradictory analyses of another very liberal critic of Mr. Reagan, Mr. Andrew Kopkind, who has kept in very close touch with Reagan over the years, and disapproves of him every bit as much as Mr. Champion — but for different reasons. He thinks that Mr. Reagan is a phony — that he isn’t really conservative at all, just talks that way. Whereas Mr. Champion warned that precisely Mr. Reagan’s difficulty is his genuine commitment to his atavistic ideas (a “surprising number of state employees, educators, and members of mental health organizations . . . didn’t really believe he meant what he said in the years before 1966”), Kopkind quotes an anonymous observer as remarking that “Reagan plays Pat Brown better than Pat Brown.” “Reagan,” he begins his recent analysis, “is selling out. . . . He rationalizes his own position by calling himself a pragmatist, and may even believe that he is working from the inside. But he is out for himself alone.” Once again he finds a useful anonymous observer to quote: “There are three big phonies in politics in this state — Sam Yorty, Max Rafferty, and Ronald Reagan.”

Granted, there are people on the Right who also believe that Reagan has sold out. California has a state senator, Mr. John G. Schmitz, who is a member of the John Birch Society, and he says Reagan is “a tragic end to the brightest hope on the American political scene today. Many of the best of our citizens may never again be willing to trust the word of a seeker or holder of high political office.” On the other hand there have been no complaints from the conservative Californians who helped to finance the Reagan movement and who would presumably feel most deeply the weals of ideological infidelity, no complaints from Henry Salvatori, Holmes Tuttle, William Knowland. Moreover, they contend, and Mr. Kopkind would go along, that if the election were held again tomorrow, Reagan would win against Brown as triumphantly (one million votes) as he did last November.

All of this is very confusing to non-Californians. There are the liberals (e.g., Champion) who say he has done the state irreparable damage — and those liberals (e.g., Kopkind) who say that he has, as a matter of fact, administered a stoutly liberal government. How can you cause irreparable damage — in the liberal view of things — by taking militantly liberal action? There are those (e.g., Champion) who say he is losing popularity, and those (e.g., Kopkind) who say he is gaining popularity. Some say he is true to his conservative faith, others that he isn’t. Some that he is sincere — that’s his trouble; others that he is insincere, that this is his trouble. The Birchers (e.g., Schmitz) who are greatly disillusioned, and the conservatives (e.g., Salvatori) who are by and large elated. What’s he like personally? Ask Evans and Novak: “Naturally aloof. The thing Reagan needs to do [they quote an unnamed “Republican leader”] is to ask the legislators over to his house to play poker and drink some booze. But that’s not going to happen any time soon.” Fascinating. But — oops! — Time Magazine quotes Assembly Republican Caucus Chairman Don Mulford: “I don’t think there is a single legislator who doesn’t like Governor Reagan as an individual.” Time commented on Reagan’s “success” at the end of his first session, which he accomplished “by holding frequent meetings with the lawmakers, infect[ing] them with his straightforward, purposeful approach.” Champion insisted on the diminishing prestige. Now, William S. White observes that “no one who has recently been in California with eyes and ears open can doubt that Reagan is going from strength to strength. By every ordinary measurement he is both a popular and an effective state executive.”

As far as the outer world can see, there have been three significant confrontations between California and Reaganism. They had to do with (1) education, (2) mental health, and (3) taxes.

The first was in two parts. There was, to begin with, the firing of Clark Kerr. In fact, Reagan’s role in the dismissal of Kerr, while it would be held to have been psychologically critical, was insubstantial. It is true that the regents, execution-bound, addressed the freshly inaugurated governor at the regents’ meeting in January and said to him: If it would be greatly embarrassing to you for us to proceed with the business at hand — which is to ask Clark Kerr for his resignation — we are willing to put off doing so for a few months. Reagan’s answer was: Don’t mind me, go right ahead, and God bless you. What happened then is instructive. In the first place, Reagan’s siding with the majority of the regents, who after all had been named as such by his celebratedly liberal predecessors Brown, Knight, and Warren, ended him up carrying the onus of the entire majority. Thus Mr. Champion, relaxing in the scholarly detachment of Harvard University, refers to Mr. Reagan’s having “accomplished” the “dismissal of Clark Kerr.” In fact Reagan did vote for Kerr’s dismissal. If he had voted against Kerr’s dismissal Kerr would nevertheless have been fired (the vote was 14–8) — unless one assumes that Reagan controlled the marginal votes, which why should one assume it considering that only a single voter directly owed his status as a voter to the governor? Never mind, Reagan was widely held to be responsible.

And secondly, one learns ever more about the powers of the Educational Establishment, and they are, of course, formidable. The rule of thumb is: Never disagree with the educators, never give them less than everything they want, and never act other than as a postulant at their shrine. It is all neatly put by Professor James Q. Wilson of Harvard University, who wrote recently a “Guide to Reagan Country” for the academically chic Commentary Magazine in which he ventured a number of observations not entirely congenial to orthodox anti-Reaganism, and thought to protect himself winsomely by acknowledging: “I do not intend here to write an apology for Reagan; even if I thought like that, which I don’t, I would never write it down anywhere my colleagues at Harvard might read it.” No indeed: Academic freedom is very broadminded, but it stops short of defending the position of Ronald Reagan. Stops short, that is, of defending the indefensible.


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