President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime

By Lou Cannon | Go to book overview
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MY FIRST ENCOUNTER with Ronald Reagan occurred late in the autumn of 1965 when he visited Sacramento during a trip around the state to drum up interest in his candidacy for governor. Reagan gave a short speech, answered a few questions from a curious audience and stayed afterward to chat with reporters, many of whom remembered him as the host of General Electric Theater or Death Valley Days. A former Democrat who had become a Republican, Reagan was then a supposedly washed-up actor who was in the process of changing careers. On October 27, 1964, he had stirred conservatives out of their socks with a rousing nationally televised speech in behalf of Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater. But Goldwater had been demolished by Lyndon Johnson in the election the following week, and Reagan in 1965 bore a "Goldwater Republican" label. The Democrats were so unimpressed by Reagan that many of them were rooting for him to win the Republican nomination, certain that he would be defeated by Democratic Governor Pat Brown.

Reagan made a good impression on his audience in Sacramento. He readily confessed that he knew little about government but suggested that his lack of experience would give him the advantage of taking a fresh look at California's problems. He answered questions sensibly and without a hint of guile. He was as pleasant in response to skeptical questioners as he was to friendly ones. He fascinated me. What I noticed most was that everyone seemed to like him, the reporters included. When my editor at the San Jose Mercury-News asked me afterward what I thought of Reagan, I said that I couldn't understand why anyone would want to run against such a self-assured and friendly man. And I still don't fully understand why the Democrats regarded Reagan as such an easy mark. Subsequently, he defeated Brown by nearly a million votes, which was no small feat. Although he bore the scars of two-term incumbency, Pat Brown was a capable politician who had routed Richard Nixon in the gubernatorial race four years earlier. How had Reagan done it? And why was it, after his victory, that he so totally dominated the California political landscape? On one level he seemed the "citizen-politician" he claimed to be, almost completely ignorant of even civics-book information about how bills were passed or how an administration functioned. But on another level, he seemed the most consummate and effective politician I had ever met.

The late Carey McWilliams once told me that the essential motive of his


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