Ronald Reagan likes to say that at one time he was "a near-hopeless" liberal, a man who "bled for causes," and "followed FDR blindly." Indeed, he voted Democratic through the 1948 election and campaigned for Helen Gahagen Douglas, a liberal Democrat who lost a bitter race for the US Senate to Richard Nixon in 1950.
But by today's standard (or even the standard of Henry Wallace Democrats who abandoned Harry Truman in 1948), Mr. Reagan was never very far to the left. He had long arguments with his older brother, Neil, and others, defending President Roosevelt's New Deal. Beneath it all, however, Reagan's Midwestern conservative roots were stronger than the leaves and branches of a young man's ideological sprouting.
As the 20th century entered its second half, Reagan faced -- if not a midlife crisis -- certainly the prospect of wrenching change. His film career was on the wane and he had recently been divorced. He was becoming more politically sophisticated, having been through many battles as head of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG). These had involved, not only the divisive "Red scare," but nuts-and-bolts labor negotiations with studio management in which he learned a great deal about both sides and how to work out compromises.
These were emotionally lean years in which he continued to find relative financial success in motion pictures, but felt the great void that "second bachelorhood" had brought.
In his autobiography he writes: "My loneliness was not from being unloved, but rather from not loving. . . . Real loneliness is not missing anyone at all."
That void was filled three years after his divorce from actress Jane Wyman when he met another young actress. Nancy Davis was under contract to MGM, and had appeared in a number of films with others of star quality. But her career (in Reagan's words) "wasn't flourishing," and she found herself erroneously listed as a member of left- wing organizations.
Through director Mervyn LeRoy, she asked SAG president Reagan to clear her name in those days when "blacklists" still prevailed. This was quickly done. They had a brief, but intense, courtship and were married in 1952.
Friends and family members say Nancy Reagan was not as big a factor in her husband's rightward political drift as has been reported. But her father, Loyal Davis, a wealthy and conservative Chicago surgeon whom Ronald Reagan greatly respected, apparently did have some influence on the political thinking of his new son-in-law.
Also increasingly influential at this time were Reagan's brother, Neil (who was developing a successful advertising business in California), as well as other wealthy and conservative businessmen.
Neil Reagan, a more outgoing, crusty, "typical Irishman," as he calls himself , had taken a federal Works Progress Administration job in Chicago during the Depression. But after a short time, he perceived that patronage manipulation and perpetuating "relief" for political gain were the chief concerns of those he worked for. He quit in disgust and immediately changed his political registration from Democratic to Republican.
A close friend was (and still is) Holmes Tuttle, a highly successful automobile dealer in Los Angeles who has been active in Republican politics for years and was an adviser to Barry Goldwater during the 1964 presidential campaign.
Today, Mr. Tuttle recalls "friendly but strenuous arguments" with Reagan when the latter was still a Democrat -- arguments that Tuttle, in retrospect, obviously won.
Another close friend was Justin Dart, whose actress wife had played in a few motion pictures with Reagan. Mr. Dart, head of Dart Industries (which is merging with Kraft Foods into a $9 billion conglomerate) says, "I never influenced his thinking a bit."
But Dart (who tells an interviewer today that "generally speaking, what's good for General Motors is good for America") apparently prevailed as well in those early arguments over Rooseveltian policies. "The governor and I don't have any contest anymore," Dart said recently. Beaten out by 'Bonanza'm
Having turned down many films he felt were losers and tried a two- week fling as master of ceremonies for a Las Vegas night club act, Reagan in 1954 took another significant step that was to help prod him from actor to politician.
He began an eight-year stint as host of "General Electric Theater," what was to be a highly successful show in the new medium of television. More important than introducing the weekly dramatic program and occasionally taking the lead role himself, however, were his chores as spokesman and employee relations booster for GE.
As the company's "goodwill ambassador," Reagan figures he met with a quarter of a million GE employees in 135 plants across the country. Giving as many as 14 brief talks a day, he traveled to 38 states (usually by train, since he disliked flying).
It was, in effect, run much the same as a political campaign: lots of handshaking, humorous quips, small-town ceremonies, and -- eventually -- a definite philosophical point of view that lined up neatly with those running the campaign, which is to say corporate executives.
Reagan recalls that General Electric "never suggested in any way what I should talk about." But that was probably because GE had little to complain about regarding his talks. His themes were the "threat [of] internal communism, " the evils of farm price supports, urban renewal, and the progressive income tax. The GE workers liked to hear his anecdotes about life in Hollywood, but they also heard him rail against federal "planners and regulators" who (he said) had caused the film industry's problems. In 1948, the federal government had invoked anti-trust laws to force the big studios into giving up control of theaters around the country.
It was during this time that Reagan honed his speaking abilities and developed what has come to be known as "The Speech" (a term he dislikes). Using 3-by-5 and later 4-by-6 cards, he would jot down key phrases and abbreviations that he could reshuffle, pulling out some and adding others as the audience and length of talk required.
As his talks became more political, some of the things he said began to make the important people at General Electric a bit uncomfortable. They particularly squirmed at his attacks on the Tennessee Valley Authority ("as an example of how government programs can grow beyond their original purpose"), since GE did many millions of dollars in business with federal agencies.
After some internal company maneuvering, it was left up to Reagan whether or not to continue his attacks on the TVA. He dropped them.
Secure in its Sunday 9 p.m. slot, "General Electric Theater" won top audience ratings for seven years. Then it was bumped into second place by "Bonanza," a popular Western in color with four stars and a bigger budget. Ironically, "Bonanza" had always been one of Reagan's favorite shows.
Looking for ways to improve its television ratings, GE asked Reagan to limit his speaking to boosting the company's products. He refused, and the show was canceled the next day.
In 1957, Reagan had made one of his last motion pictures, "Hellcats of the Navy," in which he starred with his wife, Nancy. They had their first child, Patti, in 1952. Son Ron (Skipper) was born in 1958.
When he left GE in 1962, Reagan headed even further into the political arena. He was urged by California conservatives to run against US Sen. Thomas Kuchel, a more liberal Republican. He refused, but that year he finally changed his registration from Democratic to Republican. At the time, it was a symbolically important, if practically irrelevant, move.
Shortly thereafter, he was recruited by his brother, Neil, to be the new host of the TV series "Death Valley Days," sponsored by the United States Borax Company. In a recent interview, Neil Reagan, now retired and wealthy, recalled the market studies he did on his brother to see if housewives would buy the company's soap.
"I'd be a millionaire if I had a hundred dollars for each woman who said one way or another, 'He can sell me anything. . . I would believe anything he said.' I was amazed," Neil told a reporter. "I finally decided that they couldn't all be Republicans; they couldn't all be Gold- water supporters."
When Neil Reagan later was asked by conservative Californians if his brother could be elected to public office, he told them, "It would be as easy as standing on his head."
Ronald Reagan's stint on behalf of "Twenty Mule Team Borax" was less demanding than his years with General Electric and the potential for political conflicts of interest less great.
This left him freer to speak his mind as an increasingly popular spokesman for the conservative cause. His attacks on "big government," his support for "our fellow human beings enslaved behind the Iron Curtain" became louder and stronger. Back on the late showm
In 1964, the same year he "bought" his brother for "Death Valley Days" -- as he puts it -- Neil Reagan also was in charge of radio and television for the Barry Goldwater presidential campaign. To help boost the faltering Goldwater campaign, Neil had his brother tape a fund-raising appeal called "A Time for Choosing." It was essentially "The Speech" redone for a larger audience.
Today, most observers think the Reagan speech was the high point of the otherwise dismal Goldwater presidential campaign.
"You and I have a rendezvous with destiny," he said, borrowing FDR's phrase. "We can preserve for our children this last, best hope of man on Earth, or we can sentence them to take the first step into a thousand years of darkness."
He warned against the "downward path [toward] the ant heap of totalitarianism" and said: "Already the hour is late. Government has laid its hand on health, housing, farming, industry, commerce, education, and to an ever-increasing degree interferes with the people's right to know."
In their book, "The Republican Establishment," Stephen Hess and David Broder call it "the most successful national political debut since William Jennings Bryan electrified the 1896 Democratic convention with his 'Cross of Gold' speech . . . it made Reagan a political star overnight."
Neil Reagan says today that the speech brought $1 million immediately and $6 million eventually into campaign coffers. Authors Hess and Broder say, "A probable figure is $600,000."
In any case, a political star had been born. With the crushing Goldwater defeat a month later, the conservative torch was passed to Ronald Reagan. The day after the Nov. 4, 1964, election, "Republicans for Ronald Reagan" was formed by conservatives in Owosso, Mich., the town where Thomas Dewey had been born.
Less than a year later, "Friends of Ronald Reagan" was formed by Holmes Tuttle and other wealthy conservatives looking for a candidate to run in the 1966 gubernatorial campaign against two-term Democratic incumbent Edmund G. (Pat) Brown.
"He was obviously so right in his thinking," recalls Justin Dart, intending no pun. "And he was a fellow who could sell himself. There was no question about it. He was much better able to sell himself than Goldwater was."
Recalling that period when conservatives in California were regrouping around the man they thought gave this less radical appearance than Senator Goldwater, Neil Reagan says: "These guys -- and I don't say this unkindly -- being interested in who was elected and who wasn't elected, all of a sudden saw somebody that could go on the air and bring in this kind of money. They felt that he might be a good pigeon for a candidate."
Mr. Tuttle, one of the men to whom Neil Reagan refers, describes the situation following Ronald Reagan's Goldwater speech this way: "Millions of dollars came in on that speech, and we pretty well knew that we had a candidate. A few of us got together and felt that the best way to rebuild the party was to get the governorship of California."
Ronald Reagan was at first demure about running for governor; but it most likely was a case of "the lady doth protest too much," and he soon accepted the offer.
His chief rival in the Republican primary was George Christopher, the popular former mayor of San Francisco. Incumbent Pat Brown made his first mistake by spending most of his effort attacking Mr. Christopher rather than Reagan. But there were several important factors that favored the political novice over his more experienced political rivals.
First, the center of political power in California was shifting southward. Some 38 percent of the voters lived in Los Angeles County alone; Ronald Reagan had always been a southern Californian. Brown and Christopher were from the north.
Second, California (always a relatively prosperous state) had become a place where many of the suburban and small-town voters began to rankle at the rising tax load necessary to pay for the increased social services that a growing population demanded.
Third, this growing "silent majority" was becoming increasingly restive over urban unrest (including the Watts riots that erupted again in March 1966) and the burgeoning dissent on University of California campuses.
Fourth, Reagan, in televised encounters, made his opponents look defensive and grim. His years before a camera and talking on the "mashed potato circuit," coupled with his I'm-on-your-side posture out in public helped him enormously.
Despite the fact that Reagan had demolished Christopher in the Republican primary (winning by a 2-to-1 majority), Pat Brown continued to underrate him. If he could beat Richard Nixon in 1962, Brown thought, Reagan would be no problem.
"I just didn't feel that people would vote for him," Brown recalled in a recent interview at his Beverly Hills law office. "I just didn't feel that they would put a man into the governorship of California that had had absolutely no background of any kind, nature, or description in government."
Democrats tried to paint Reagan as a John Bircher and second-rate actor whose candidacy was not only comic but dangerous. In one TV spot, Dan Blocker, one of the stars of "Bonanza," told viewers: "I earn my living in front of a camera, pretending to be somebody I'm not. But one of my colleagues is having trouble separating fantasy from reality. . . ."
Far from playing down his background, Reagan put it to profitable use. Andy Devine, Chuck Connors, Edgar Bergen, and other Hollywood stars campaigned for him.
Despite his "citizen politician" pitch, Reagan's campaign was highly professional. His managers had hired two behavioral psychologists to find out what bothered Californians most (the campus troubles, for example), then fashioned an authoritative and detailed attack on these issues. They helped soften the edges on some of his cutting attacks and inserted into his speeches quotes from admirable historic figures (Plato, Disraeli, Jefferson, and Tocqueville, among others). They also followed the campaigning candidate to check audience reaction and make any necessary adjustments in what he was saying.
"I am not a politician," Reagan said over and over again, turning the inexperience charge to his advantage as he hammered away at the themes of high taxation, government mismanagement, urban crime, and campus disorder. He promised "a creative society," a phrase taken from the Rev. W. S. McBirnie, a self-described "hard-line conservative," fundamentalist minister, and radio commentator whose program, "Voice of Americanism," mixed religion and right-wing politics.
Reagan successfully defused the John Birch Society issue by repeatedly saying: "Any members of the society who support me will be buying my philosophy. I won't be buying theirs."
In the end, it was no contest between Brown and Reagan. When the November vote was tallied, it was Reagan 3,742,913; Brown 2,749,174. The "citizen-politician" had become governor of the nation's most populous state by nearly 1 million votes.
On the night of his inauguration in Sacramento, he turned to US Sen. George Murphy (also a former actor) and said, "Well, George, here we are on the late show again."