An Environmentalist Governor Who Raised Taxes When Needed

What history will remember about Ronald Reagan — and should — is that he won the Cold War.

But Californians will remember something more: that as governor, he created the mood that led to the state's anti-tax revolt, preaching limited government and ending the expansionist era of Earl Warren and Pat Brown.

He was a nonthreatening conservative, however, who appealed to working-class Democrats — "Reagan Democrats," they became called — and governed as a pragmatic moderate, having the courage and sense to raise taxes when necessary to honestly balance the state's books.

Having covered Reagan in Sacramento and Washington for 20 years, I'll remember some personal things as well, but more about that later.

History also will remember Reagan as the sunny Great Communicator, the optimistic "city-on-a-hill" storyteller. It really didn't matter whether these tales were fact or fiction. He could relate to rich people and ordinary folk alike.

Reagan was the governor and president, long before Arnold Schwarzenegger, who could both coerce and charm lawmakers — "making them feel the heat," as he often said, "if they won't see the light." "I heard him say many times, 'I don't know how you do this job without being an actor,' " recalls John Herrington of Walnut Creek, Reagan's Energy secretary and a former California state Republican chairman.

And history will note the grace with which Reagan faded into "the sunset of my life" with Alzheimer's, inspiring millions of Americans and their families who also are victimized by the disease. "He just went into the den, sat down and wrote it," Nancy Reagan said of her husband's farewell letter to America.

But beyond all this, I'll always have special memories of Reagan: I'll remember him as the sharp, crisp, no-nonsense leader who first arrived in Sacramento at age 55, slightly younger than Schwarzenegger was when he took office. It's too bad everybody couldn't have seen and heard Reagan then, before he became familiar as the grandfatherly "well, golly gee" septuagenarian who, I believe, aged noticeably after surviving an assassination attempt.

To have observed Reagan at weekly news conferences as governor was the treat of a lifetime. He didn't answer every question perfectly, but he didn't dodge any, either. His responses and retorts were quick. And his conviction and perseverance came through strong, not only to the assembled reporters but — more important — to the politicians and the public.

I'll remember him as the "Man in the White Hat Who Saved the Sierra," as the headline read on a 1997 column I wrote. Gov. Reagan led some reporters on a pack trip into the eastern Sierra in 1972 to declare the Minaret Summit south of Yosemite off limits to federal highway builders.

I wrote of still having "this image of Reagan waving a white hat, on a tall horse, suddenly trotting through a pack station — then bounding over boulders into the High Sierra as staffers and reporters struggled to mount and hang on to some strange beast." Reagan not only protected the Minarets that day, but this so-called right-winger turned out to be arguably California's most environmental governor.

He and fellow conservative Gov. Paul Laxalt of Nevada saved Lake Tahoe by agreeing to create a bi-state superagency to control growth, then pushing their compact through two reluctant legislatures. "There would have been serious pollution at Tahoe, and none of us could have lived with that," Laxalt told me years later.

Reagan twice thwarted dam builders — on the Eel River and on California's last wild river, the Middle Fork of the Feather. The huge Eel River dam would have flooded a valley sacred to Indians, something Reagan could not accept.

I'll remember Reagan as the 1966 gubernatorial candidate who, amid campus unrest, railed against "the mess at Berkeley," relying on his own political instincts and rejecting the advice of his veteran consultants. Elected by a landslide, he initially feuded with the University of California, but wound up doubling spending on higher education. Overall state spending rose only half as much.

He'll be remembered as the alleged extremist who, nevertheless, signed the most liberal abortion law in the nation — and pushed through a record tax increase his initial year as governor to, once and for all, cover an inherited deficit.

Later, when it was fiscally prudent, Reagan reduced taxes. His own complex constitutional amendment to limit taxes and spending was rejected by voters, but he helped create the atmosphere that led to the revolutionary Proposition 13 property tax cut in 1978.

Historians will remember Reagan as a delegator, a leader who set his own direction but usually allowed trusted appointees to take him to his goal. One incident especially illustrates this trait, and it also shows the man's humor.

In 1971, Reagan was trying to reform Medi-Cal healthcare for the poor and was insisting on a co-payment for each doctor's visit. The Legislature then, as now, was controlled by Democrats, who vehemently objected. The two sides were deadlocked. When Assembly Speaker Bob Moretti (D-Van Nuys) offered to settle the issue by arm-wrestling, Reagan's negotiator — health director Earl Brian — accepted and won, handing the governor his victory. That's how much running room Reagan gave his top aides.

"As a boss, he was not much of a boss," recalls Lyn Nofziger, Reagan's first press secretary in Sacramento and his first political director in Washington. "He was a wonderful boss. He left you alone, never raised hell with you."

There were a few exceptions to this policy, however, and one came just before Reagan's first summit with Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev.

As Herrington recalls, Reagan had briefing books "piled to the ceiling" during a two-day planning session. Only half an hour into it, he turned to his foreign-policy advisors and declared: "Gentlemen, I've been thinking about what I'm going to say to this man my whole life. And I know exactly what I'm going to say."

Whatever he said, schoolkids today don't have to duck under their desks during a mock atomic bomb attack as my generation did.

Not that Reagan won the war all by himself. Men named Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy and Nixon led the way. But Reagan commanded the last decisive battle.

He stared down the enemy with a relentless arms buildup it couldn't match and intimidating "evil empire" rhetoric many Western liberals found offensive. He dreamed up a cockamamie "Star Wars" anti-missile system only two people in the whole world believed in: the American president and the Soviet leader. Then he negotiated a nuclear arms reduction treaty with Gorbachev as the two adversaries became close friends.

Even Reagan's most stubborn detractors should recognize the wisdom, tenaciousness and boldness of all this.

"Who would have thought," Gorbachev said later.

Indeed. And who would have thought 35 years ago that, today, we could look 70 feet through clear blue water into Lake Tahoe.