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Governor Reagan: A Reappraisal

By Putnam, Jackson K. | California History, Spring 2006 | Go to article overview

Governor Reagan: A Reappraisal


Putnam, Jackson K., California History


Today's Republicans seem devoted to a political apotheosis of Ronald Reagan. Determined to ensure that the "judgment of history" will rank him among the "greats," they react strongly to anyone challenging the standard assumption that Reagan demonstrated unique political gifts during his first foray into politics as governor of California and further displayed those talents as president of the United States. (1) This essay challenges only the former of these two assertions, which, nevertheless, may strike a raw nerve among the self-appointed curators of Reagan's legacy, even though the popular Great Man himself often seemed uneasy when recalling his days in the governor's chair. In his autobiography, for example, he devoted a mere five percent of its pages to those eight years 0967-1974 inclusive). (2)

The probable reason for Reagan's diffidence about his gubernatorial years is an open secret rather than a puzzling mystery: the seemingly startling disconnect between ideological principle and gubernatorial practice. Campaigning as a rightwing ideologue in 1966 and a sworn enemy of big government and high taxes, he repudiated not only Pat Brown and the "spendthrift" Democrats but the entire California political system engendered in the previous half-century. Ironically, that system had been perfected almost entirely by Republicans, especially Hiram Johnson and Earl Warren. While it was complex, often inchoate, and always incrementalist, its notable success was twofold: It was activist in seeking solutions to public problems and it was pragmatic in devising and applying them. (3) Reagan, as a right-wing ideologist, was a sworn enemy to both activism and pragmatism. Another open secret is that he made pragmatic compromises between ideology and political reality, but the extent of these compromises and their consequences has been largely unexplored. Furthermore, Reagan almost never acknowledged in public having compromised, and his rhetoric ceaselessly reiterated his devotion to ideological principles that his compromises undermined. Finally, he always won this ideological-pragmatic shell game, and few among his admirers called him to account for his derelictions from ideological purity.

Reaganites have another reason to discourage inquiry into his governorship. They already benefit from an existing rationale that minimizes and justifies his wanderings, a rationale that, curiously and gratuitously can be traced to liberal and moderate pundits. The most persistent of these is journalist and author Lou Cannon, who has written five books on Reagan. Cannon posits that Reagan quickly overcame his ideological rigidity and ignorance of the state's political system by employing his prodigious memory, quick-study methods acquired in his acting career, and an extremely sound set of basic political instincts. So equipped, Cannon believes, Reagan turned himself into a gifted political leader early in his governorship. Left-wing journalist Robert Scheer even denies that Reagan was ignorant in the beginning, arguing that he

   spent years familiarizing himself with the
   state government's workings before announcing
   his 1966 campaign for governor.
   I interviewed him at the time, and there
   was no question about his being prepared. (4)

Reagan defenders have disagreed, such as Cannon and Lyn Nofziger:

   Reagan knew little about the legislative
   process when he was elected--"We were
   not only amateurs, we were novice amateurs,"
   said his communications director,
   Lyn Nofziger--and he made many mistakes. (5)

Cannon nevertheless insists that Reagan soon overcame his amateurishness and quickly became a forceful and talented political leader, and he is seconded in this view by fellow journalist George Skelton along with historians Matthew Dallek and Kevin Starr. (6) The latter surprisingly elevates Reagan to rank alongside Hiram Johnson, Earl Warren, and Pat Brown as "four previous--and great governors.

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