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


William F. Buckley Jr.

So the budget went finally to the legislature, a $5-billion budget, 8 percent higher than his predecessor’s. (By contrast, Rockefeller’s first budget was 11 percent higher than his predecessor’s.) But, Reagan explained, the increase was almost entirely on account of Brown’s commitments, plus the annual increase in California’s population (2.5 percent in 1966). Assuming you merely want to stand still, you have to raise the budget 8 percent to cover inflation, plus immigration. Reagan needed to cover the deficits of Pat Brown — and did so, raising the budget only the requisite 8 percent. Up went the income tax, the sales tax, and the so-called sin taxes. And on the issue of withholding — he was against it because, he said, “taxes ought to be out in the open. They should hurt, so that people know the price of what they’re getting.” Jesse Unruh was as determined that taxes should be painlessly withheld drop by drop as Reagan was that they should be collected in one painful annual extraction. Reagan held out, Unruh held out. But, finally, on July 28 the legislature approved within less than 1 percent the figure Reagan asked for, and without the withholding tax. “All in all,” Jesse Unruh, obviously taking another look at Reagan, concluded, “he did very well.”

The critics of Ronald Reagan are fond of quoting from his autobiography, Where’s the Rest of Me? It is an unfortunate book, not at all for what it says, which is wholesome and intelligent, but for the way it is said. There is no doubting that it is primarily responsible for the insiders’ assumption that the governor is a hopeless cornball. The opening passage of the book (it is Mr. Kopkind’s favorite) is, well, disastrous. “The story begins with the close-up of a bottom. My face was blue . . . my bottom was red . . . and my father claimed afterward that he was white. . . . Ever since . . . I have been particularly fond of the colors that were exhibited — red, white, and blue.”

I suspend the narrative in order to allow a minute for derision.

Now: the fact of the matter is that the book was co-authored, and co-authored “autobiographies” are, as a general rule, the stylistic work of the other guy. It is too bad that Mr. Reagan did not go further and publish it as an as-told-to book, which is undoubtedly how the book was actually produced. Because the fact of the matter is that Reagan is not that way. “John Jones,” I observed recently to him about a controversial public figure, “has the face of a bank teller.” “Bank teller hell, he has the face of the neighborhood child molester.” One cannot be as banal as (a) and as mordant as (b), and the circumstances clearly argue that the second, not the first, is the real-life Ronald Reagan. “Stand in front of the asparagus counter today,” he told a political gathering, “and you discover that it’s cheaper to eat money.” That kind of crack, Made in America, unmakeable anywhere else, is a pretty big industry in California. But — good. And homemade. “Keeping up with Governor Brown’s promises,” he said during the campaign, “is like reading Playboy magazine while your wife turns the pages.” Good. Very good. And they come effortlessly. They are the function of his vision. The perspectives are very good, the mind very quick.

I met him seven or eight years ago. He was to introduce me at a lecture that night in Beverly Hills. He arrived at the school auditorium to find consternation. The house was full and the crowd impatient but the microphone was dead — the student who was to have shown up at the control room above the balcony to turn on the current hadn’t. Reagan quickly took over. He instructed an assistant to call the principal and see if he could get a key. He then bounded onto the stage and shouted as loud as he could to make himself heard. In a very few minutes the audience was greatly enjoying itself. Then word came to him: no answer at the principal’s telephone. Reagan went off-stage and looked out the window. There was a ledge, a foot wide, two stories above the street level, running along the side of the window back to the locked control room. Hollywood-wise, he climbed out on the ledge and sidestepped carefully, arms stretched out to help him balance, until he had gone the long way to the window, which he broke open with his elbow, lifting it open from the inside, and jumping into the darkness. In a moment the lights were on, the amplifying knobs were turned up, the speaker introduced.

During those days he was busy delivering his own speech. The Speech, it came to be called: probably the most frequently uttered since William Jennings Bryan’s on the golden crucifixion. All over the land, to hundreds of audiences, a deft and rollicking indictment of overweening government. And then the speech became the most galvanizing fundraiser in political history. He televised it during the Goldwater campaign for a statewide showing in California. “And then, an hour before it was scheduled to go on, word came from Goldwater’s headquarters to hold it — the boys at HQ had heard it rumored that it was ‘too extreme.’ I remember I went to the nearest pay booth, just by a gas station, and called Goldwater. There were only minutes to go. Luckily, he was on the ground. I reached him in Arizona. ‘Barry,’ I said, ‘I don’t have time to tell you everything that’s in that speech, but you can take it from me, buddy, there isn’t a kooky line in it.’ Goldwater said: ‘I’ll take your word for it,’ and I called the studio in the nick of time.”