Reagan’s 1966 Gubernatorial Campaign Turns 50: California, Conservatism, and Donald Trump

On October 27, 1964, Ronald Reagan, in an attempt to right a flagging Barry Goldwater campaign, stepped up to a Los Angeles podium and proceeded to address a national television audience. The speech, “A Time for Choosing,” thrust Reagan into the national spotlight. As a spokesperson for General Electric, he’d given the speech hundreds of times to receptive audiences around the country, yet, as historian H.W. Brands argues, no oration in U.S. history “ever did more…to launch a national political career.” Never an office holder, Reagan had never even campaigned for an elected position. He had only been a Republican for two years, having identified with liberal causes for much of his life as a registered Democrat. “And with one speech he became the most attractive Republican in America”.[1]

“Reagan for Governor” pins from the David S. Broder Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

Yet plenty of burgeoning right-wingers remained skeptical of Reagan’s chances in the upcoming 1966 Gubernatorial race. Prominent San Francisco conservative Arch Monson, who later became a key fundraiser for Reagan, doubted businessmen would have confidence in the former actor.[2] Caspar Weinberger, Reagan’s future secretary of defense, also expressed reservations, pointing out that Reagan had failed to “disassociate” himself from the radical fringes of the conservative movement, best symbolized by the John Birch Society, which Weinberger himself viewed with suspicion. “I would never say this publicly, but this right wing thing is really a mail order fraud kind of operation,” he told reporter David Broder in confidence. A bunch of “executive secretary types of guys” realized early on they could get “dough from conservative businessmen for these nutty causes . . . the kook vote in [the] California GOP hasn’t changed much at all,” Weinberger asserted.[3]  Besides, as he and numerous other political operatives noted in interviews, Reagan might be an attractive, well-spoken guy, but he always gave the same speech.

Fifty years ago this November, Californians elected Ronald Reagan to the governorship by a margin of nearly one million votes over the incumbent Democrat, Pat Brown. A former Democrat and B-list celebrity, Reagan took advantage of several factors in his rise to prominence: California’s weak party infrastructure, populist discontent with the status quo, fear over urban riots and campus radicalism, and the power of celebrity and public relations. Whatever one thinks of the GOP’s current presidential candidate, numerous supporters have drawn comparisons between Reagan and Donald Trump and many of the factors that contributed to the former’s successful gubernatorial campaign in 1966 seem to have reemerged in the latter’s 2016 presidential bid. While 2016 should not be confused with 1966, nor should Trump be seen as equivalent to Reagan (especially after last week’s debate and this weekend’s revelations regarding his taxes), several parallels exist between Reagan and Trump’s rise to political relevance and the broader context of society in each era. A fifty-year-old California election thus offers a useful insight into our current political moment.

A bumper sticker from Reagan's Gubernatorial Campaign, circa 1966, David Broder Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

A bumper sticker from Reagan’s Gubernatorial Campaign, circa 1966, David Broder Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

Political Cleavages on the Left and Right 

In the current political moment, one can be forgiven for viewing national discussions of politics, whether on the left or the right, as fractured and polarized. Even before 1966, California demonstrated a similar tension. “Unfortunately, fanatics of either extreme attract each other like positive and negative electric charges,” then Speaker of the California State Assembly Jessie M. Unruh told an audience at the Biltmore Hotel, in May of 1963. “Neither side like professional politicians because professional politicians must eventually answer to the electorate for the decisions they make or do not make.”

Unruh, a Democrat, went on to describe extremists on the left and right as engaging in the “politics of the apocalypse” – those on the right decrying communist infiltration and those on the left imminent nuclear annihilation. [4] No fan of extremism, Unruh described extremists on both sides as “pyromaniacs.”  Fear persisted as a political motivator. New York Times journalist Jack Langgruth wrote of the gubernatorial campaign: “Republicans try to make the voters afraid of the world; Democrats try to make them afraid of Republicans,” a sentiment that sounds eerily similar to today.

“Ronald Reagan: Extremist Collaborator”, oppositional material, California Gubernatorial Campaign circa 1966, David S. Broder Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

Extremism in terms of ideology also cast an influence. In a famous 1967 essay, Harvard (and later UCLA) professor James Q. Wilson added that in the Golden State partisan disparity was especially acute; California liberals were the most progressive of their day while Republicans embraced an equivalently strong brand of conservatism. Even referenda exhibited this divide: “the returns and polls suggest Southern California has both the most intense proponents and the most intense opponents.”[5]

At the time, within the Republican Party, a Goldwater-inspired conservatism – limited federal government including opposition to welfare, zealous promotion of individual liberties even at the expense of civil rights legislation, and an aggressive anti-communism  — had shaken things up. Organizations like the California Republican Assembly (CRA) had been taken over by more conservative leadership. In 1964, its newly elected president, Nolan Frizelle, responding to the passage of a California anti-discrimination housing law, told members: “People have the right to discriminate…The freedom to be inequal is really our national purpose.” Dedication to individual rights, even when distasteful, trumped well-meaning civil rights legislation. Frizelle threw his support behind Reagan a year later in 1965.[6]  Echoing Frizelle during his campaign, Reagan made similar arguments. “I have never believed that majority rule has the right to impose on an individual as to what he does with his property. This has nothing to do with discrimination,” Reagan would tell audiences. “It has to do with our freedoms, our basic freedom.”[7]

Republican Sen. Thomas Kuchel of California openly worried about fringe elements infecting his state’s GOP, warning of “fanatical” and “neo fascist elements.”[8] Reagan walked a delicate line with more controversial organizations like the virulently anti-communist John Birch Society. “He is not repudiating the Society, and he is not embracing it either,” wrote journalist Ray Duncan. Though the number of Birchers might be small, the symbolism wrapped up in distancing himself might have proven too costly. Reagan disagreed with some of the Society’s more extreme remarks; he had never been and had no intention of being a member, he asserted. Members, however, were welcome to support him.

“For about one third of the Republicans in California, the Birch issue has become a matter of principle,” wrote Lunggruth in October 1966. “Since that third of the party is also the wealthiest, Reagan, no Bircher, has kept quiet.”[9] Reagan disputed accusations of extremism, telling Broder in 1965 that as president of the Screen Actors Guild, “I led the only strike the Guild ever had, and came out with our first real pension plan. That makes me a real right wing extremist doesn’t it.”[10]

Campus radicalism, then and now, encapsulated generational and class frictions within political parties and the larger society. During the 1960s, boomers famously challenged their parents by protesting the Vietnam War, advocating for civil rights, experimenting with drugs, and questioning traditional boundaries of gender and sexuality.

Half a century ago, California’s universities epitomized this very division. In 1966, the Free Speech Movement burned with great intensity at the University of California, Berkeley. Addressing an audience in L.A.’s Statler Hilton, Reagan depicted protests as “not just lewd, but mentally sick.” According to Reagan, a March 1966 dance held at the university unfolded “against a backdrop of sexual misconduct” backlit by “films of naked torsos of men and women.” Hallucinogenic drugs and marijuana filled the air so much “you could hardly breathe.”[11] Beset by communist influence, Berkeley, and by extension the California university system, needed to be saved by traditional morality and religion. Covering the speech, an impressed Broder wrote in all caps, “A BRILLIANT ONE HOUR PERFORMANCE.”[12]

Bumper sticker from California Gubernatorial Campaign, circa 1966, David S. Broder Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

Bumper sticker from California Gubernatorial Campaign, circa 1966, David S. Broder Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

“In the Golden State it was a season of moral panic; and as so often California led the national trend,” notes historian Rick Perlstein. Political commentators outside California had dismissed Reagan, but they had failed to notice that the “Reagan friendly culture war roiling beneath the surface of the bourgeois utopia.” LSD and marijuana had penetrated private boarding schools and had “grown into an alarming problem at UCLA and on the UC campus at Berkeley,” Time Magazine reported.  Free Speech Movement advocates saw Berkley as a moment in “moral transcendence,” but the average American thought it “petulant brattishness.”[13] The expansion of the very real opiate and meth problem today across the American landscape and resentment over what some believe to be oversensitive “political correctness” on college campuses, to say nothing of the rising costs required just to attend university, certainly fuels current political discontent with the status quo much as it did in 1966. Claremont McKenna College, where several protests and backlash protests have unfolded over the past couple years, has also reported a decline in donor participation though also an increase in total giving.  Numerous other colleges across the nation have noted similar trends in alumni donations.[14]

Obviously, race also played a role then and now.  The Watts Riot of 1965, precipitated by police misconduct, remained fresh in voters’ minds in 1966. Reagan blamed the unrest on government dependence, the “philosophy that in any situation the public should turn to the government for the answer.”  Los Angeles Police Department Chief William Parker had linked the unrest to protesters like those at Berkeley and what he saw as government appeasement. If “you keep telling people that they are unfairly treated and teach them disrespect for the law,” then violence will ensue he argued. According to Parker, trouble only started “when one person threw a rock, and like monkeys in a zoo, others started throwing rocks.” In addition to his very problematic language, Parker patently ignored the LAPD’s troubled relationship, as captured in one of this year’s best films, O.J.: Made in America, with the city’s black community.[15] Reagan also made what some argue were coded racial appeals when he appealed for more muscular law enforcement depicting the streets of the state’s cities as having become “jungle paths after dark.”[16] A March 1966 riot in San Francisco only heightened the divide over racial inequality.

Less ideology; more personality 

“The people we attract are sick and tired of politics in the narrow sense of the word. They hate politics,” Russell Walton, leader of the conservative United Republicans of California noted in a March 1965 interview. “They’re interested in an ideal.” To Walton and his fellow URC members, Reagan represented the paragon of political perfection. Granted he might be short of government experience but on the whole “Ronnie is facile, bright, [and] would make a formidable campaigner,” he confided.[17]

Parties and formal political structures have long been weaker in the Golden State than elsewhere. Progressive Governor Hiram Johnson established a tradition of direct democracy through referendum and recalls that undermined strong political organizations. Later, figures like Earl Warren, Thomas Kuchel, and even Pat Brown built electoral support outside of traditional institutions. According to Wilson, California politics was mostly “non-partisan, free swinging, slightly populistic – a direct appeal to the people was to be made on all issues.”[18]

agan girls

“Reagan girls” hand out campaign materials in 1966. Photo by Cal Montney, courtesy of the Los Angeles Times Photographic Archive, UCLA Library.

As a former actor, Reagan would have no problem appealing to the public on basis of his own personality; he conveyed a sense that he knew things the rest of the public missed, access to what Joan Didion described as “distinctly special information.”[19] With fewer ethnic ties and group identities among white residents as compared to Midwestern and Eastern cities that had depended to a greater degree on European immigration, personality counted for more in Southern California. “There was a cult of personality that dominated every aspect of life,” wrote Wilson. “To be ‘popular’ and ‘sincere’ was vital.”[20] Reagan conveyed this sort of sincerity better than most.

The power of personality cut across political lines. When Reagan emerged victorious, nearly 400,000 registered Democrats had plunked for him; ideology and party affiliation had failed to account for much. Undoubtedly, Hollywood’s code of decorum differed greatly from that of the reality TV culture from which Donald Trump has sprung. However, many of Trump’s supporters do not identify with an ideology or party, either, and his personality, no matter how noxious one finds it, accounts for a great deal. David Frum pointed out in the Atlantic earlier this year that only 13 percent would say they were true conservatives, and another 19 percent identify as moderates.[21]

Yet, the Reagan Revolution that followed did combine cultural antipathy with economic security. “Revolutions are never made by the last man to get off the train, they are made by those who got off a long time ago and having put down roots and formed their own assessment of matters, have the confidence, the long nurtured discontent and the knowledge of how to get things done sufficient to support political action,” noted Wilson.

Southern California, notably Los Angeles, would be Reagan’s base. A native Angeleno, Wilson recognized that many of Reagan’s Southern California supporters, particularly those in the L.A. area, hailed from its lower-middle-class suburbs, prosperous but not prodigiously so, and hoped for future prosperity. Many believed in “a fundamentalist Protestant individualism”, a religious milieu that Los Angeles perfected in the early decades of the 20th century. Reagan appealed to this sort of morality, but also the idea that he would be purer, more sincere in pursing political goals than the politics of the day.

Ronald Reagan with his wife Nancy, filing the papers to run for governor in 1966. Photo by Benjamin Hite, courtesy of the Los Angeles Times Photographic Archive, UCLA Library.

Ronald Reagan with his wife Nancy, filing the papers to run for governor in 1966. Photo by Benjamin Hite, courtesy of the Los Angeles Times Photographic Archive, UCLA Library.

Reagan’s promotion of individualism, morality, property rights, and economic opportunity appealed mightily to these suburbanites. As Wilson points out, Reagan’s L.A. supporters were not really anti-government, but rather specific about which aspects of government they supported. Welfare might have offended their sense of individualism, but California’s booming economies of the 1950s and 1960s depended heavily on defense spending. If many had once relied on Farm Security Administration relief checks prior to arriving in L.A., they now banked “overtime checks from Lockheed,” Wilson asserted.

Granted, Reagan attacked aspects of the UC system, but he also recognized that it remained one of the best in the world. It provided unprecedented access to education. By criticizing what many suburbanites saw as privileged and unneeded protest on campus but promising to continue its function as a means to economic advancement, Reagan satisfied the individualistic nature of Southern California voters but also their belief in morality and stereotypical small town life. The expanding California economy enabled Reagan to avoid class conflict; he could promote expansion and growth, increased property values, newly developed mass markets, and productive labor combined with flowing business capital while, at the same time, avoid looking like someone interested in securing corporate interest or control.

In contrast, segments of Trump supporters appear more irresolute and despairing. “The angriest and most pessimistic people in America are the people we used to call Middle Americans,” Frum writes. “Middle class and middle aged; not rich and not poor; people who are irked when asked to press 1 for English and who wonder how white male became an accusation rather than a description.” Reagan’s 1966 supporters hailed from similar origins but looked to a promising and booming California economy as source of hope. Reagan capitalized on cultural resentments – perhaps even exploited them – but he did not stoke them.

The song does not quite remain the same

In many ways, the 1966 California gubernatorial election presaged the 2016 presidential race. However, big differences exist. Reagan, unlike Trump, spent years perfecting his pitch and developed political beliefs that went beyond off-the-cuff ramblings. Though he could be critical of immigration, as president he granted amnesty to millions of migrant laborers with his signing of the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act; as governor, he brooked compromise with Democratic state legislators on budgets and even on cultural issues like abortion. He would do the same with Tip O’Neill and Congressional Democrats. Riots in Watts and San Francisco might have pushed the white electorate to the right, but the state’s growing diversity would push it left over the ensuing decades. Modern California reflects the nation’s future demographics ­– the diversity we have witnessed coming to the fore culturally and politically in this election cycle – far more than battleground states like Iowa or Pennsylvania.

Ronald Reagan speaking to crowd during gubernatorial campaign stop in Lakewood, Calif., 1966. Photo by Ray Graham, courtesy of the Los Angeles Times Photographic Archive, UCLA Library.

Ronald Reagan speaking to crowd during gubernatorial campaign stop in Lakewood, Calif., 1966. Photo by Ray Graham, courtesy of the Los Angeles Times Photographic Archive, UCLA Library.

The year 2016 is decidedly not 1966, but it’s not altogether different, either. As president, Reagan was undoubtedly effective, but sometimes disengaged. He inspired what Joan Didion called “ardor,” but it went unchecked and could be harnessed by less-principled or more-strident individuals in negative ways. “No one had intentions, they had an agenda and no one was wrong they were fundamentally wrong,” former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan argued. Reagan himself brokered deals and compromise, but his subordinates and others who looked up to him would not. It was almost a moral position.[22] This stretched back to his California days, Didion wrote. To argue that Trump supporters carry some of their passions too far, with little or no guidance from Trump himself, would not be an exaggeration.

Reagan’s dependence on personality and pivot toward morality – his critique of student protesters, his promotion of “traditional” values, and his notion of a corrupted politics that cuts deals, caters to self interest, speaks in doubletalk, and lacks the virtues practiced and possessed by his supporters –  might have been reasonable, but as Wilson argued, if this sort of morality became too central to debates, it threatened the larger system by making everything dependent on virtue and personality. Politics, by necessity, is the art of compromise; virtue does not always play into it and political parties as institutions have no hold on it. Wilson recognized this. “But I fear for the time when politics is seized with the issue. Our system of government cannot handle matters of that sort…and it may be torn apart by the effort.” One can hope that Wilson was wrong and that the nation takes the best from Reagan’s California model rather than the worst.


[1] H.W. Brands, Reagan: The Life, (New York: Doubleday, 2015), 137.

[2] Arch Monson, interview by David Broder, March 18, 1965, Box 59, Folder 7, David S. Broder Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[3] Caspar Weinberger, interview by David Broder, March 25, 1965, Box 59, Folder 7, David S. Broder Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[4] Jesse M. Unruh, “Active and Passive Consent: The Politics of Apocalypse”, speech, May 17, 1963, Box 59, Folder 1, David S. Broder Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[5] James Q. Wilson, “A Guide to Reagan Country: The Political Culture of Southern California,” Commentary Magazine, May 1, 1967.

[6] “Toward a Party of Excellence: The Republican Party in California”, report, Rippon Society of Southern California, February 1966, Los Angeles, CA, Box 59, Folder 1, David S. Broder Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[7] Rick Perlstein, Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America, (New York: Scribner, 2008), 91.

[8] Perlstein, Nixonland, 93.

[9] Jack Langgruth, “Political Fun and Games in California,” New York Times, October 16, 1966, Box 58, Folder 7, David S. Broder Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[10] Ronald Reagan, interview by David S. Broder, March 3, 1965, Box 58, Folder 7, David Broder Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[11] David Broder, Notes from Ronald Reagan’s Speech at the Pacific Telephone Company Public Affairs Forum, May 31, 1966, Box 59, Folder 7, David S. Broder Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[12] David Broder, Notes from Ronald Reagan’s Speech at the Pacific Telephone Company Public Affairs Forum, May 31, 1966, Box 59, Folder 7, David S. Broder Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

[13] Rick Perlstein, Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America, (New York: Scribner, 2008), 73, 75.

[14] Anemona Hartocollis, “College Students Protest, Alumni’s Fondness Fades and Checks Shrink,” New York Times, August 4, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/05/us/college-protests-alumni-donations.html?hp&action=click&pgtype=Homepage&clickSource=story-heading&module=second-column-region&region=top-news&WT.nav=top-news

[15] Danny Widener, Black Arts West: Culture and Struggle in Postwar Los Angeles, (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010), 93; John Buntin, L.A. Noir: The Struggle for the Soul of America’s Most Seductive City, (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2009), 310.

[16] Cathleen Decker, “Analysis: Watts riot shifted state to the right, but new demographics shifted it to the left”, Los Angeles Times,August 11, 2016, http://www.latimes.com/local/politics/la-me-pol-watts-politics-20150806-story.html

[17] Russell Walton, interview by David Broder, March 26, 1965, Box 59, Folder 7, David S. Broder Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[18] Wilson, “A Guide to Reagan Country”.

[19] Joan Didion, “In the Realm of the Fisher King”, in After Henry, (New York: Vintage International, 1992), 43.

[20] Wilson, “A Guide to Reagan Country”.

[21] David Frum, “The Great Republican Revolt”, The Atlantic, Jan/Feb 2016, http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2016/01/the-great-republican-revolt/419118/

[22] Joan Didion, “In the Realm of the Fisher King”, 25-26.

This article originally appeared on KCET in August 2016.

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  1. […] to power via his somewhat populist 1966 campaign for California’s governorship. As this blog has noted previously, Trump’s no Reagan, but aspects of the latter’s rise parallel the former: white electoral […]

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