HE KEEPS ON IMPROVING
If Goldwater hadn’t been at the other end of the telephone, Reagan would not have become governor. Because the speech was an incomparable success, statewide and subsequently nationwide. (It is said to have elicited almost $5 million in dollar-bill contributions.) It was on account of that speech that the Reagan-for-Governor talk began.
I saw him during a long evening a few weeks after Goldwater’s defeat, when the Reagan movement was just beginning to stir. We talked about the national calamity for the conservative movement, and how it bore on his own situation. He was then quite positive that the Republican Party of California would not want him, especially not in the aftermath of so definitive a loss. But, he said, he wasn’t going to say anything Shermanesque. He talked about the problems of California. The discussion was in generalities, very different from a second conversation a year later, in December of 1965, on the eve of the year when he would run. The change was striking. He knew a great deal about specific problems of California. But he had grown, too, in other ways. I remember being especially impressed when, looking out over the city from the elevation of Pacific Palisades, he remarked: “You know, it’s probably that the cost of eliminating the smog is a cost the people who want the smog to be eliminated aren’t, when it comes to it, willing to pay.”
Still later, on a half-dozen occasions, I noticed the ongoing improvement in his personal style, particularly in his handling of the press. Last June in Omaha, after a press conference before his speech to the Young Republicans, the New York Times
correspondent impulsively blurted out to a young correspondent he hardly knew: “I’ve never seen anything like it, and I’ve been covering them since Truman. There isn’t anybody who can touch Reagan.” It’s something people are going to have to get used to as long as Reagan’s star is on the ascendancy. “To those unfamiliar with Reagan’s big-league savvy,” Newsweek
, pained, dutifully pointed out last May after observing Ronald Reagan and Bobby Kennedy in a joint appearance answering student questions on Vietnam, “the ease with which [Reagan] fielded questions about Vietnam may come as a revelation. . . . Political rookie Reagan left old campaigner Kennedy blinking when the session ended.”
I mean, it is more than flesh and blood can bear. Reagan, the moderately successful actor, the man ignorant of foreign affairs, outwitting Bobby Kennedy
in a political contest. It’s the kind of thing that brings on those nightmares.
Richard Nixon was in the room. Who, someone asked, would the Republican Party consider as eligible in 1968? Nixon gave the usual names — and added Ronald Reagan’s. I objected. It strikes me, I said, as inconceivable. “Why?” Nixon asked — “suppose he makes a very good record as governor of California?” (This was in December, just after Reagan’s election.) Because, I said, he is very simply an implausible President. Anyone would be whose career was in Hollywood. People wouldn’t get used to the notion of a former actor being President. People are very stuffy about Presidential candidates. Remember what Raymond Moley said when someone asked him how to account for Kefauver’s beating Adlai Stevenson in the Minnesota primary in 1956 — “Did you
ever tell a joke in Minneapolis?”
And then — I added, carried away by my conviction — how does one go about being a good governor in an age when the major moves are, after all, up to the Federal Government? Who last — I asked Nixon — can we remember, whose record as governor propelled him to the first ranks of the Presidential hopefuls?
Dewey, Nixon ventured — then corrected himself: Dewey became famous as a prosecutor, not as governor. Rockefeller was projected by the fact of being a Rockefeller, being personally able, being wealthy, and being governor of New York: not because New York had become a model state under his administration. During the next year, California will spend, as we all know, $5 billion. During the next year the Federal Government will spend approximately $140 billion. Well over 17 billion of these dollars will be spent in California. But more important, it is the Federal Government that will decide how many California boys are drafted into the army, how much inflation there is going to be, how far the monopoly labor unions can go, whether there will be any praying in the schools, whether Californians can sell their property as they choose, where the main highways will come from and where they will go, how the water flowing in from nature is to be allocated, how large social security payments will be. Are there interstices within which, nowadays, a governor can move, sufficiently to keep himself in focus and establish his special competence?
Reagan clearly thinks so. After all, he has brought almost everyone’s attention to the problems of California, even to some of California’s problems over which, as in the matter of tuition, he has no control. Always there is some
room. “To live,” Whittaker Chambers wrote, “is to maneuver. The choices of maneuver are now visibly narrow. [But] a conservatism that cannot find room in its folds for the actualities is a conservatism that is not a political force, or even a twitch: it has become a literary whimsy. Those who remain in the world, if they will not surrender on its terms, must maneuver within its terms.”
The knowledge of that is what causes Mr. Kopkind to call Reagan a hypocrite, a phony. Brings the Birch senator to consider him an imposter. Brings George Wallace to call him a lightweight. What did they expect? That Governor Reagan would padlock the state treasury and give extra speeches on the Liberty Amendment? They say that his accomplishments are few, that it is only the rhetoric that is conservative. But the rhetoric is the principal thing. It precedes all action. All thoughtful action. Reagan’s rhetoric is that of someone who is profoundly committed, mutatis mutandis
, to the ancient ways. His perspectives are essentially undoubting. Mr. Kopkind has recently written that the United States’ venture in Vietnam is “the most barbaric imperialistic war of this century.” If that is so, there are phonies in America by the scores of millions. Reagan would never get the Kopkind vote; Reagan is more inscrutable to Kopkind than the Aztec calendar. For the Kopkinds, America itself is inscrutable. Reagan is indisputably a part of America. And he may become a part of American history.
— William F. Buckley Jr. is the founder of National Review.