Moving to World Stage
Reagan's political fortunes rose from the ashes of Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater's spectacular defeat in 1964. Reagan offered a friendly antidote to Goldwater's strident rhetoric. Reagan's tone suggested patriotic concern and continuity with the past. Unlike Goldwater, he could sell conservatism with a smile.
In a fund-raising address televised to the nation, Reagan honed "the speech," as it was known during his GE days, into a clarion call. Americans saw the smoothest, most articulate, most attractive champion of the Republican cause in a generation. Biographer Bill Boyarsky says Reagan's speech, "A Time for Choosing," stirred conservatives just as William Jennings Bryan's "Cross of Gold" speech had electrified farmers and factory workers in 1896.
Goldwater lost to Lyndon Johnson, but Reagan won national acclaim.
The next spring, Holmes P. Tuttle, a wealthy Los Angeles car dealer who had promoted the fund-raising speech, invited other millionaires to support Reagan in a race for governor of California. The millionaires, later known as Reagan's "kitchen Cabinet," hired the California campaign management team of Stuart Spencer and Bill Roberts. They, in turn, hired professors to brief Reagan on state issues and broaden his command of literary allusions.
His years on television for GE, then as host of "Death Valley Days," had made Reagan a familiar face. But it brought criticism as well. Democrats derided him as a puppet who mouthed words scripted by others. In "An American Life," a later autobiography, he recalled that incumbent Gov. Edmund G. "Pat" Brown aired an ad in which he told schoolchildren, "I'm running against an actor," then added, "and you know who killed Lincoln, don't you?"
Reagan, for his part, gave versions of "the speech" at every opportunity. He argued that government was too big, taxes were too high and regulation was strangling business. Often he ended with, "Ya basta!" It was Spanish for, "Enough, already!"
Californians said yes, overwhelmingly.
Reagan defeated Brown by nearly 1 million votes and swept Republicans into every major executive office except attorney general.
During his eight years in Sacramento, Reagan's performance foreshadowed his stewardship in Washington. Against Democratic majorities among lawmakers for most of the time in both places, he portrayed himself as a "citizen politician" determined to "squeeze, cut and trim" and get government off "the backs of its people."
The champion of striking students at Eureka College vowed to restore order at protest-torn campuses throughout California and was pleased to see the firing of nationally respected University of California President Clark Kerr. Reagan also supported the first-ever UC student tuition.
He appointed a former member of the John Birch Society to head his Office of Economic Opportunity and to campaign against legal assistance for the rural poor. In a compromise, Boyarsky writes, he gave up a permanent ceiling on welfare appropriations, but he succeeded in reducing welfare rolls.
Squeezing, cutting and trimming government were harder. In his first year, he proposed slashing the state budget by an unprecedented 10% — but ended up signing a spending program 10% larger than his predecessor's. He kept proclaiming "squeeze, cut and trim," but his budgets, hammered by inflation, ballooned from his first of $4.6 billion to his last of $10.2 billion. He signed what at the time was the biggest state tax increase in the nation's history: $844 million in the first year, $1.01 billion in the second. It marked the first of a roller-coaster series of tax increases and rebates.
One of his most remarkable flip-flops involved his opposition to payroll withholding of state income taxes. "My feet are in concrete," he said, over and over. But in 1970, when the state faced a serious cash flow crisis, Reagan finally gave in. "That sound you hear," he told reporters, "is the concrete breaking around my feet." That same year he found himself in a personal controversy. He had paid no state income tax himself because of "business reverses."
As he campaigned, he had been dismissive of some environmental concerns. "You know, a tree is a tree," he said. "How many more do you need to look at?" But as governor, he signed some of the nation's strictest air and water quality laws, increased state parkland and started requiring environmental impact reports on state construction projects.
He signed a historic abortion reform bill authored by a Democrat that vastly liberalized the procedure in California. Advocates promoted it as a model for other states. Later, as a national political figure, Reagan would hold the support of the most militant anti-abortionists, while doing relatively little to advance their cause.
"Reagan was not as good as the Republicans like to think, or as bad as the Democrats would have you believe," declared Democratic Assembly Speaker Jesse M. Unruh, who had opposed him unsuccessfully when he ran for a second term.
Reagan's march on Washington began almost as soon as he reached the state Capitol. He ran for president in 1968, but fell to Nixon. By 1975, when Reagan completed his second term as governor, Nixon had resigned in disgrace. Reagan began an all-out, two-year drive to wrest the 1976 nomination from incumbent Gerald R. Ford, an appointed vice president who became president on the resignation of Nixon. Reagan fell short by a handful of delegates to the Republican national convention.