In this here neck of the woods, there is some uneasiness in the air, and the reason why is Ronald Reagan. Here is how the nightmare goes. Romney does so-so in New Hampshire, not well enough to give him a solid lead, not poorly enough to dispose of him once and for all and leave time to build up another liberal. Nixon does poorly, maybe not so poorly as to make him withdraw either, but poorly enough to prevent the bandwagon’s forming. On to Wisconsin. Same sort of thing. Then in Oregon and in Nebraska Reagan supporters submit his name, and without campaigning Reagan wins decisively. On to the convention. A bitter fight, but once again the liberals are disunited. George Romney has had a divine visitation telling him to stay in the fight, and he does: through the first or second ballots, fracturing the liberals. And — big difference from 1964 — somehow the disparagement of the Reagan forces hasn’t had the desirable effect of weakening the Republican Party so as to guarantee, at least, its ultimate defeat in November. Add to that the ecumenical goo that Ronald Reagan is so good at extruding — why you would think, sometimes, that Senator Kuchel was his best friend. So Reagan gets nominated, and then we all rush off to our artillery pieces, aim, pull the triggers and — typical nightmare — nothing happens; so that, smiling that confounding smile of his, he rides his horse right into the front lawn of the White House, dismounts, hands the reins over to the benumbed editor of the Washington Post, and proceeds to the throne, whence he judges over us all.
The nightmare peters out at this point, for one thing because it never is absolutely clear just how a political conservative is actually going to succeed in destroying the country — it is better for nightmares to end with such details unspecified (a haunted house should never be entered — no bad can come of it). Presumably, that which he would do which is undesirable is a projection of what he has done in California. And concerning what he has done in California, there is thoroughly mystifying disagreement in many quarters.
There is the opinion, for instance, of Mr. Hale Champion. Mr. Champion, who is now uncoiling at Harvard at what has been called the Center for the Advancement of the Kennedy Family, served Governor Pat Brown as State Finance Director (one thinks of serving President Kubitscheck of Brazil as Budget Balancer). Mr. Champion undeniably earned a period of repose in the groves of academe, or even of a sanatorium. He suggested an appropriate structure for the criticism of the Reagan administration in West Magazine (April 23), in which he commented on the new governor’s first 100 days. Governor Reagan, said Mr. Champion, (a) is “in deepening trouble with the legislature and with the public”; (b) has a “completely negative and destructive attitude [towards] higher education”; (c) has “accomplished” almost nothing, “except the dismissal of Clark Kerr”; (d) is likely to be swamped by “the future consequences of [his] failure to work out the solutions to problems” and (e) is aesthetically offensive, as witness “the loose bundle of social and moral pronouncements that constitute the governor’s vague, historically inaccurate, philosophically sloppy, and verbally undistinguished inaugural address.”
From this criticism we were all to infer that Mr. Reagan is quite as bad as it was feared by the most fearful that he would be. Well, perhaps not quite as bad as some of Governor Brown’s campaign rhetoric predicted. After all, at one point in the campaign, Governor Brown, addressing a Negro child in a widely played television spot, reminded the boy that Ronald Reagan was an actor, and that it was an actor who had shot Abraham Lincoln — a sorites that Mr. Champion did not, at the time, identify as philosophically sloppy or even verbally undistinguished. On the other hand, Mr. Champion is in a position to point out that Reagan hasn’t had the opportunity to assassinate Abraham Lincoln, and how can we know that, given the opportunity, he would not seize it?
REAGAN CONFRONTS CALIFORNIA
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.
THE POLITICS OF THE ACADEME
It is a perfectly reasonable criticism of Ronald Reagan that he does not entirely understand the influence of the academic establishment. Not very many politicians do, and it is not enough merely to tell them that that influence exists. Barry Goldwater was scandalously late in harnessing what academic support was available to him for the asking. Richard Nixon’s cheering squad always sounded rather like William Yandell Elliot plus the deans of the schools of business administration of midwestern Baptist colleges. Actually, there is a great deal of potential support available to a right-bent public figure, but he must know how to discharge the correct vibrations to shake it out, and Governor Reagan didn’t know how to do that in January 1967, and does not know — and here is his most baffling dereliction of the moment — how to do so even now. It isn’t really all that difficult. The supporters, as I say, are there: one has only to meditate on the silent vote against Clark Kerr among the individual university campuses in California who for years have deeply resented his importunate ways; and there are the others who recoil against the anti-intellectualist spirit of the Berkeley disorders, and even against the antipersonalist impulses of macro-education.
But those folk need to be approached in just the right way, and it may be the single lesson — he gives signs of mastering almost all of the others — that Governor Reagan has not learned. So that when simultaneously Reagan voted with the majority to dismiss Kerr, and came out (via a subordinate who spoke out ahead of schedule) in favor of uniform reductions (10 percent) in state spending, and in favor of charging tuition at the University of California and the state colleges, all the educators felt the tug of class solidarity that Karl Marx, Eugene Debs, and James Hoffa never succeeded in eliciting from the proletarian classes. It was a field day for the professors and the students, who delightedly burned their governor in effigy. The canny and brilliant Jesse Unruh, lord of all he diminishingly surveys in the evenly-divided state Assembly, quickly took his advantage. Only months before, because he had seen the necessity to deplore the excesses at the Berkeley campus, he, too, had been burned in effigy; but now, in gratitude for his scornful resistance of the governor’s position that students should contribute to the cost of their own education, the placardists bore signs: “JESSE SAVES.” The speaker was vastly amused, and vastly instructed: He knows, he knows, the strength of the Harvard vote.
And then Governor Reagan made probably the principal verbal faux pas of his career, a remark to the effect that the state of California has no business “subsidizing intellectual curiosity.” The difference, Mark Twain reminded us, between the right word and almost the right word, “is the difference between lightning and lightning-bug.” Intellectual curiosity is a very good thing; intellectual frivolity is not. When asked to document his case against educational excesses Governor Reagan brightly observed that he did not see why the state should need to support courses in “how to burn the governor in effigy.” An amusing response, the kind of riposte that an Adlai Stevenson or John F. Kennedy would make with pleasure and profit. But Ronald Reagan needs to remember that he is a Republican and a conservative, and does not have the ordinary man’s license to exaggerate. In fact, industrious reporters discovered, the course in question was being offered by an organization adjacent to the state university, which teaches the theory of nonviolent resistance; and though to be sure the university was extending credit to students who took the course, it was technically untrue to say that the taxpayers were spending money to finance the burning of their governor in effigy. Just a little research would have armed the governor with copious examples of the abuse of education. It can be maintained (and is, by some people) that all life is an education; in which case, as a matter of logic, one automatically loses any argument to the effect that training in this or that is a waste of money. But Reagan could have split the university community and got going a very useful debate by asking whether in fact all of the gentlemen and scholars in the university system were prepared to defend the notion that courses in home economics and fly fishing and hotel hygiene and life adjustment are a part of the life of the mind to the advancement of which the voters of California are dedicated.
And then, too, Reagan should raise the question: Granted the infinite desirability of more and more education, what are the practical limits that even an idealistic community should observe? During the past decade, enrollment in California state colleges is up 397 percent, operating costs are up 260 percent, capital expenditures are up 260 percent — whereas population and hence the ability to pay is up only 39 percent. Question: How much further? Here is a very serious question, which Governor Reagan has an excellent opportunity to probe. The society would be ideal in which everyone with a velleity to become a doctor of philosophy could proceed to stroll through the years of his early manhood in order to become one, at no expense to himself. But — as Professor Ernest van den Haag of New York University tartly pointed out a few years ago — isn’t it a fact that the figures show that professors will earn more money than plumbers and taxi drivers, and that therefore to tax plumbers and taxi drivers to subsidize the education of professors is a form of regressive taxation, and therefore antiliberal, by a definition with which both Mr. Champion and Mr. Kopkind could agree?
Such questions as these Mr. Reagan has not asked, as yet: and, indeed, he has not perfected any line of communication to the academes. Meanwhile, the question rests. The case for the firing of Clark Kerr is at least defensible. Certainly it is true that he’d have been fired irrespective of Reagan’s adventitious attendance at the regents’ meeting on January 20, 1967; and, as regards tuition, the seed has been planted and voters are aware that a public question has been raised. The state of California provides, typically, more than one-half the expenses of the university. The university proposes a budget, the regents examine it, it is submitted to the governor, and he in turn submits it to the legislature. Reagan persuaded the regents this year to spend $20 million of their own reserves, and he vetoed a supplementary appropriation proposed by Unruh. And the university emerged from it all with $10 million more than it got the year before: but the percentage rise was reduced. And more important, heuristic questions have been raised, questions which should have been raised before, questions which quite properly relate higher state education to the total resources and needs of a community. The exact formulation of the ultimate questions neither Governor Reagan nor anyone else is ever likely to come up with. But Reagan has naysayed the superstition that any spending in the name of higher education ought (a) to be approved of, and (b) to be exempt from public scrutiny. And that, perverse thought it may sound, is a contribution to public education.
REAGAN AND MENTAL HEALTH
Concerning mental health, it was widely disseminated that Reagan’s superficiality caused him to ignore the salient point. True, the in-patient population had reduced from 34,000 to 20,000; and true, the state budget for the maintenance of the mentally ill had not reduced at all. Why not, asked Reagan, reduce it pro tanto? Because, his critics leaped, the fact of the diminution of in-patients is testimony to the effectiveness of the entire working force of the mental hospitals, and precisely the wrong thing to do under the circumstances is to reduce their total firing power. Reagan countered that that was supposititious, that he was quite prepared to reverse his recommendations in the event of a decline in the rate of the cured.
Sounds reasonable, one would suppose. But the point, of course, is that economics are never easily effected, and just about never effected when the emotional instrument at the disposal of the spenders is, no less, the mentally ill. Take the incidence of stricken mothers-in-law and multiply it by the prospect of their repatriation, and you have an idea of the size of the political problem. If President Eisenhower was unsuccessful, even during his relatively brief period of militant frugality, in eliminating the Rural Electrification Agency because of the lobbies available to agitate for its survival, one can imagine the difficulties in paring the mental-health agencies of a single state of the nation. So Reagan yielded — actually he had no reasonable alternative than to do so. But again he had made a public point. And, as in the case of education, the point would yield dividends, or should at any rate, when the time comes, as routinely it always has, to augment the budget for mental health. Reagan’s position is after all distinguishable from the position that says that the states should ignore their mentally ill. It is a position that says: If modern psychiatry advances, e.g., through the use of tranquilizers, permit a diminution of the problem, even as the Salk vaccine has diminished the problem of polio, oughtn’t the state to adjust their budgets accordingly?
REAGAN AND THE STATE BUDGET
And then, of course, the big question of the budget. It is a matter of universal hilarity. The most economy-minded governor since the inauguration of J. Bracken Lee as governor of Utah in 1953 forwards to the legislature the highest budget in state history! Loud guffaws. Not utterly wholesome guffaws, to be sure. Nelson Rockefeller, who at least noticed, though he did not precisely run against, the extravagances of his predecessor Averell Harriman as governor of New York, also proceeded to submit a higher budget than that of the Democratic Mr. Harriman. But in Rockefeller’s case, that was considered an act of statesmanship, or at least it was considered as such by the same kind of people who have reacted so ardently against Ronald Reagan.
Reagan’s reasoning can, of course, be made to sound disingenuous. He claims to have discovered only after achieving office the programmed deficit of Governor Pat Brown. Mr. Casper Weinberger, chairman of Reagan’s Little Hoover Commission, likes to tell the story . . . “Hale Champion, outgoing director of the Department of Finance, cheerfully walked into the conference room, greeted [us] affably, and announced that while there would be a surplus available on June 30, 1967 (when the last of Governor Brown’s eight fiscal years ended), there was going to be a problem starting in January 1968.
”The Department’s best estimates showed, he said, that there would be a cash flow shortage in January, February, and March of 1968 amounting to $740 million. Champion added that approximately $340 million could be borrowed from other state funds, leaving the state’s bank accounts short by $400 million of the amount needed to write checks covering the state’s daily bills during those months. When the new tax monies came in April 1968, most of the cash flow problems would be behind us, added Champion, but of course there would be quite a big deficit by June 1968 if present rates of revenue and expenditure continued. In fact, the deficit by then would probably amount to over $350 million.
“After a moment’s silence,” Mr. Weinberger recalls, “somebody asked, ‘Hale, what would you have done about this if you had been re-elected?’ ‘Well,’ he answered with a slow smile, ‘we’ve been telling you Republicans we needed withholding and more taxes, but you’ve always defeated them.’”
“We knew there would be a deficit during the campaign,” Reagan reminisces. “But we didn’t know how large it would be. Accountants told us there simply wasn’t any way of ascertaining how much. Brown kept borrowing all over the place. The civil service people said there was a bare chance we could make it without raising taxes. As we got close to the election, it began to look as though there wasn’t any chance. I said during the campaign that there would have to be new taxes. The constitution requires that you submit a budget right after you take office. I did. But the research hadn’t been completed. And soon it became clear that even if we could effect $250 million in economies, there wasn’t a chance for a balanced budget. We just didn’t know the extent of the problem. We had no way of knowing that Brown was spending most of the contingency funds. I’ve now recommended that in the future, independent auditing firms be given a crack at the figures, so that how the state stands financially can be a part of the public knowledge.”
He paused to wave back cheerfully at four college-types who had pulled their sedan alongside, driving 55 m.p.h. in tandem with the state trooper who was chauffeuring the governor and exactly observing the speed limit. A honey-blonde leaned smiling out of the open window, hoisting a cardboard square hastily improvised from a grocery box or whatever, when the party spotted the governor’s license plates. Scrawled on it with lipstick was NO TUITION! Reagan laughed as the collegiates pulled away. “The faculties are mostly responsible for that,” he said. “They tell you one thing, and then they tell the press another.” He gave examples. “The No-Tuition bit is a local superstition. Even Brown said years before the election that tuition was ‘inevitable.’ Did they jump him? But it’ll take time. Right now the point is to save money where we can. I’m a good person for people to trust their money with. I’m a good manager, and I’ll treat their money as though it were mine. When we suggested 10 percent across the board we knew some departments would have to expand, though others could trim back even more than 10 percent. We won’t make 10 percent, but we will make about 8.5 percent. And remember, that’s 8.5 percent of the spending we have control over. Two-thirds of the spending in California is fixed by the constitution or by statute and we can’t do anything about it. It’s bad enough to try to make economies when you need the help of a legislature that’s controlled by the opposition party. We can’t very well tackle the constitution at the same time. But what we’re doing will take hold. What makes me mad is obstructionism that’s clearly intended to screw up your program. For instance, I said no more new hiring. If one department needs another secretary, pull her from a department where there are surplus secretaries. So some of the civil service people got together and when you need a secretary for the most urgent job they tell you sorry, there isn’t one available in the whole goddam state of California. You know there is, of course, but it’s a problem of locating her, and that takes time, takes time to canvass the departments and identify those that have the excess people, and there are plenty around. It isn’t any different from what you would expect. Why should the bureaucracy behave any different from the way I always said it did — protectively towards its own authority and vested interests? A governor can’t do everything, he hasn’t got that much authority, and maybe he shouldn’t have that authority. I have only a psychological authority, because the politicians know that the people are with me, that they see a lot of waste, and they resent the taxes and the inflation, and that they’ll support me. There are lots of things I just can’t do, at least not for a while. Take judicial reform. You know how many judges Brown appointed as a lame duck? Four hundred! I must be the only governor in the U.S. who can’t fix a parking ticket. But in time there will be vacancies, and I’m trying to reform the system, but Unruh hasn’t let the bill out of committee. You’ve got to be patient, and you’ve got to make a start. I’ll be around for a while.”
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.”
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.