His first step onto the national political stage was stumping for Barry Goldwater’s presidential run in 1964. Then two years later Ronald Reagan did what Richard Nixon could not. He unseated Edmund G. “Pat” Brown as governor of California.
It takes a better political carpenter than me to identify what planks are different in the Nixon-Reagan gubernatorial platforms.Their biggest differences were not their ideology but their charisma.
Nixon always seemed to be working the angles, scrabbling for an advantage. Reagan never appeared he was working that hard.
Quoting Nixonland author Rick Perlstein, concluding a chapter on Ronald Reagan:
“He answered a need: he humiliated the liberals. He would tell young people harassing him with signs reading MAKE LOVE, NOT WAR, that the problem was they looked incapable of doing either. To him a hippie was someone “who dresses like Tarzan, has hair like Jane and smells like Cheetah.”
In the four eventful years since Nixon challenged Brown in 1962, a lot had changed.
President John F. Kennedy had been murdered in 1963; in the aftermath a large number of Democrats won congressional seats. Kennedy’s successor Lyndon Johnson arm-twisted Congress to pass civil rights legislation and anti-poverty programs in the memory of JFK.
This, in addition to rioting in Watts and other black communities across the nation, galvanized suburban voters into a powerful backlash.
Brown had been on vacation in Europe when the riots broke out and the state’s response to the crisis was disjointed. The burning city was televised live via helicopter, a first.
If that weren’t enough to scare suburban voters, hippies were hitching rides along freeways, protesting the Vietnam War and generally making fun of values middle class voters held dear.
College professor Dr. Timothy Leary exhorted people to take LSD and “Turn on, tune in, drop out.”
Leary’s followers did not make it to the polls, Reagan’s did.
Almost 80 percent of the state’s registered voters showed up to turn out Brown.
A measure of the Reagan charisma was California’s single biggest tax increase was passed during his term, yet anti-tax conservatives canonize his political memory.
Pat Brown’s son, Edmund G. Brown Jr. known as Jerry, would follow Reagan after two terms.