The current conversation about the presidential campaign this fall takes me back -- in more ways than one. I once was an executive aide to the original Gov. Brown of California -- Pat, not Jerry. In June 1966, Brown had been nominated for a third term after a primary in which he had been given a relatively bad time by Mayor Sam Yorty of Los Angeles. The Republican nominee was a former actor and Goldwater ran named Ronald Reagan, who had just won a surprisingly easy primary victory over one George Christopher, a moderate-to-conservative Republican mayor of San Francisco.
Brown and his staff, myself included, were upset that the Democratic primary hadn't been more decisive. But we were all pleased that Reagan was the Republican candidate. We had not only rooted for him discretly, but had also, not so discreetly, helped make some problems for Christopher. That was because we feared Christopher could take the center away from us in the general election, and we didn't think reagan could. Moreover, while we knew we were behind, we were sure we could count on Reagan to help us overcome our problems. You may have heard some analysis of the forthcoming sounds like what we were telling ourselves 14 years ago.
You know the line: Reagan is shallow, doesn't know anything about government. . . . That will get him in real trouble when we go after him in the campaign. . . . He uses nutty statistics and simplistic arguments. . . . The press will expose them and him. . . . He's so tied to the right wing as a former Goldwater and General Electric spokesman that he will be seen as demagogic and threatening by most Americans.
I could go on, but you've already heard or read the rest at greater length. To complete the story line, I will add here only that Reagan beat Pat Brown by more than a million votes. This, of course, was the same Brown who had turned back the driving, slick, canny Richard Nixon by almost 300,000 votes four years earlier. And, at the same time, Reagan helped elect a lot of other Republicans who hadn't been given a chance.
I know this parallel could be carried too far; maybe I've already done so. After all, there was no John Anderson around. Gubernatorial races frequently are very different from presidential campaigns, and these times are even more volatile, at least in terms of voter behavior, than that earlier day. But I think that 1966 experience with Ronald Reagan should tell a lot of people what they don't want to believe, what I have never wanted to believe myself: Reagan is a formidable candidate on his own, and his strength is as the strength of 10 when his opponent is already in deep trouble. We bused a lot of true-blue Democratic voters (and not all blue-collar ones either) to the polls that fall and, as a result, we simply helped pile up the vote against us in areas where we wouldn't have believed it possible. And Reagan also scored heavily with the Christopher voters who had opposed him in the primary.
How did this fellow do it? First, by not being stupid, by being what my mother used to call kitchen smart about what matters to voters and what doesn't -- and by doing the homework that counts, as against trying to memorize the political and government encyclopedias. I don't regard his primary season slip on farm parity as being unimportant, for example, but I do regard it as atypical and something that won't happen again if somebody as good as his 1966 firm of Spencer and Roberts is on hand. He also proved himself as a quick, if temporary, study back then. Whereas we had embarrassed Nixon with local knowledge or complicated fiscal policy questions in 1962, in the general election we almost never caught Reagan with his mental briefing book closed, whether the planted question was about a dam in Yuba County or educational bond financing. We never thought his stock answers were better that ours, but sometimes they sounded a lot better to the voters. And even if he didn't recognize Giscard d'Estaing's name right away on national television earlier this year, who is to say enough people outside Washington care so that it will make any difference this fall? There are a lot of people even in Washington, in fact, who think that may sometimes be the best way to deal with the French.
Perhaps more important, Reagan almost always refuses to be threatening or to let his opponents make him look threatening. He doesn't attack head-on very often. He much more frequently makes wisecracks or pokes fun. Most of the cracks aren't very fair, and some of them aren't very nice. But they work off the predictable resentments and emotions of his audiences, without requiring him to be harsh or abrasive. He is up there acting pleasant and reasonable while reaching, almost jocularly, for the resentments and emotions that hard times bring to the surface. Some of his hearers are quite ready to think uncharitable, sometimes even ugly, thoughts of their own, but his role is just to get them started, to give them the opportunity.
In 1966, he had Watts and Berkeley to run against in California, but he did it in a remarkably understand way. He got every single white vote there was to be had from the seariang racial tensions that surrounded the Watts riot, before and after. He also got all the benefit of the social unrest about what was happening on the campuses, particularly at Berkeley. I can't remember his ever asking for them in any explicit, demanding way, however. Oh, he was firm and parental as well as jocular, but he was always quite nice about it. If you've seen him shake his head, sometimes smiling, sometimes sad, about the the incredibly imbecilic mistakes of big government off there in Washington, you've had the message. It is more in sorrow than in anger that he tells us about it, but it is quite understandable, even respectable, for the voter to be in a rage. Reagan sometimes gets a little indignant, as in the debate fiasco with George Bush in New Hampshire. But who wouldn't when he is being denied what he has paid for?
But what about those wrong figures, those odd, usually irreconcilable statistics? Won't he get clobbered in a national campaign? Well, The Los Angeles Times did a very nice piece on Reagan's use and abuse of figures in the primaries in describing how idyllic life was in California when he presided in Sacramento or from the ranch. I don't know on what page the original Los Angeles story ran, but the reprint was well in the back of The Boston Globe, and I haven't heard anything much about that sort of thing on the network news. The reality is that Reagan is about to suffer as much from quoting The Reader's Digest as the Digest has from publishing the stuff in the first place. The Digest makes a lot of money, and Reagan gets a lot of votes. Ronald Reagan's strength is that he is the Reader's Digest of American politics. In both cases, their statistics and illustrations have a folklore character. They are, if I may use a non-word, factitious. The figures aren't very good, they often don't prove anything and sometimes they are barely tangential to the issue at hand. But they sound great, and they seem to strengthen the message by making it seem more real, even more concrete. Further, like dates and nuts in otherwise not very edible bread, they make it go down better.
What Reagan did against a weakened foe in a restless, disillusioned time in California 14 years ago, I fear he can do nationally this year. He either knows instinctively or has learned that you can get away with being a thundering conservative if you don't thunder. He knows that he can even be reassuring to people whose interest or interests he may be threatening implicitly if he doesn't sound threatening or explain the consequences of his proposed actions in explicit detail. And he knows that he doesn't need to be fiery about what the voters don't like, only to remind them of what makes them fiery -- and to associate those disturbing ideas and attitudes and events with his opponents. No, for the Democrats this year, there will be no such luck as another Goldwater campaign -- if Reagan can keep his troops in line, as he did in quelling the efforts to unseat Bill Brock as the Republican Party chairman.
The evidence both of the present and of 14 years ago is that Reagan isn't going to make it easy for us as Democrats.