Remembering Reagan from California's suburbs
If any historian ever asks for my personal recollections of the Reagan Era, I'm going to say, "Which one?" There's no doubt that Ronald Reagan's presidency had a tremendous impact on millions of Americans. But before his election to the nation's highest office, Mr. Reagan was governor of California during a period of widespread cultural and political changes that were surprising, often disturbing, and absolutely unforgettable.
I grew up in Palo Alto, Calif., and characterize the 1964-76 period as the tipping point of the 20th century. It felt as if we were the epicenter of student protests, rock music, the sexual revolution, and other significant social tremors rumbling across the country. And every election produced a new slate of big-name candidates.
In 1964, while Lyndon Johnson was crushing Barry Goldwater in the presidential race, the California GOP scored a victory when former actor George Murphy won a US Senate seat. The race generated lots of national media coverage because Mr. Murphy's opponent was former JFK press secretary Pierre Salinger.
The conservative momentum continued in 1966, when Reagan defeated two-term incumbent Edmund G. "Pat" Brown, an event that brightened the mood of our family considerably. My mother, a staunch Republican, disliked Governor Brown intensely. His political ally, Jesse Unruh, speaker of the California Assembly, was referred to sarcastically in my home as "Big Daddy."
In 1968, with the country rocked by massive antiwar demonstrations and the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, political winds in the Golden State were blowing in all directions. Sen. Thomas Kuchel, a moderate Republican, was beaten in the primary by Max Rafferty, a conservative and often controversial state superintendent of public instruction. My mother was not pleased. Tom Kuchel was a personal friend; they'd been classmates at the University of Southern California in the early 1930s. Statewide, the political momentum seemed to be shifting. Mr. Rafferty lost the general election to Democrat Alan Cranston. Although Governor Reagan easily defeated Mr. Unruh in 1970 for a second term, George Murphy lost his Senate seat that year to John Tunney, the son of heavyweight boxing champ Gene Tunney.
Four years later, history came full circle and Californians elected Governor Brown's son Jerry to succeed Reagan. It was an amazing contrast. Jerry Brown was not a cheery optimist about politics or economics. He had a more austere outlook, told citizens to limit their expectations, and opted to live in an apartment instead of the governor's mansion. In 1976, both men made serious bids for the presidential nomination and won several state primaries. Just think: instead of Ford vs. Carter, the race might have been Reagan vs. Brown. I can't predict who would have won.
What I do know is that it'll be nearly impossible to duplicate the political energy and intensity of the Reagan decade in California. And if anyone ever decides to trot out that well-worn phrase, "May you live in interesting times," my immediate reply will be, "You're too late. I already did!"