There are competing accounts of when and how Reagan arrived at the decision to run for governor. Biographer Anne Edwards claims that right after the 1964 election, Reagan actually contemplated running straightaway for president in 1968, and had to be persuaded that his chances for the brass ring would be better if he was elected governor first. Most Reaganites discount this, and it seems out of character with Reagan's persistent modesty and realism. Biographer Lee Edwards (no relation to Anne Edwards) says that when Sy Rubel, the chairman of Union Oil Company, first asked Reagan to run for governor in February 1965, Reagan initially said no. But he yielded to the entreaties of Rubel, Henry Salvatori, Holmes Tuttle, and others who would later compose his "kitchen cabinet" to keep an open mind. In April, Reagan held the first of three decisive meetings with Stuart Spencer and Bill Roberts, whose political consulting firm, Spencer-Roberts, was regarded as the best Republican campaign firm in the west. Spencer-Roberts was the epitome of the political "hired gun." They had run campaigns for conservatives, but had also run Rockefeller's losing 1964 California primary campaign against Goldwater, and Kuchel's 1962 senatorial campaign. Evans and Novak described the first meeting: "The two political managers made clear that an 'ultraconservative' campaign would not win in California and that they were not interested in joining another Goldwater debacle. Neither was he, rejoined Reagan."
Reagan's political instincts and shrewdness were evident in these early meetings, and belie the persistent claim that he was a political naïf. Reagan understood that with a Democratic voting edge of three-to-two in California, a Republican could only win by appealing to crossover voters. This required a united Republican Party more than a centrist campaign. A unified Republican Party would be his primary strategy as well as a condition of running. Rather than declaring his candidacy straightaway, Reagan decided to travel the state to showcase his strongest political asset—his speaking ability—as a means of building support. He chose to give short speeches followed by questions and answers with the audience. This helped dispel the view that he was "merely an actor" reciting lines.
It worked. Journalist Jack Roberts reflected: "It was apparent to those of us who really had spent some time covering the guy on the campaign trail that he was not dumb. Really the thing that drove that home was the Q&A. He would throw back sensible answers—not just at press conferences, but to audiences." Reagan not only got the jump on other potential Republican candidates; his early informal campaigning allowed him to concentrate on issues rather than having to attack party rivals. It also gave him an interval of time to begin learning about California state government, he knew little. During his years speaking for General Electric, Reagan explained, he had spent so much time researching "the overall philosophy, national and international policy, that I did not know anything about the organization of state government…I had just a citizen's resentment of certain things that had happened."
"At the end of that period [of the speaking tour]," Stuart Spencer recalled, "we realized this guy was for real." It has been a constant refrain since his first campaign that Reagan is the creation of his handlers, and more than a few political operatives have sought to claim the mantle of being the "brains" behind Reagan. Spencer said at the time. "In politics you don't change a guy's image and get anywhere. If you try to put words in his mouth, people see right through him."
In September, by which time Reagan had traveled 10,000 miles (mostly by car because Reagan disliked flying) and delivered 150 speeches, he decided to enter the race. Reagan formally announced his candidacy in a statewide televised address on January 4, 1966. In his announcement speech and early press comments, Reagan articulated several themes that became staples of his entire subsequent career. He explained his move to conservative Republicanism as a lament for the apostasy of the leadership of the Democratic Party: "I have often said that I think that there was as much the Democratic Party leaving me, or the leadership of that party leaving me, as my leaving the party." In his campaign speeches, he showed his skill at explaining the essence of complicated issues with user-friendly illustrations. The state budget of $4.6 billion was an incomprehensible figure to ordinary people, he noted. But think of it in terms of a stack of dollar bills; a four-inch stack $1,000 bills would be a million dollars. A stack of $1,000 bills would reach 1,500 feet in the air to equal the state budget. Reagan also honed his skill at the telling epigram: "You have to live in California for five years to be governor, but you can get on welfare in 24 hours." He would also show his penchant for offering a positive alternative to the liberalism he attacked with such zest. In place of the Great Society, Reagan would move us toward the "Creative Society" that harnesses the power of the people to solve problems themselves.
Reagan would not get the nomination without a contest, however. Senator Kuchel decided shortly after the Watts riot not to run (but in his non-candidacy announcement he attacked conservatives as "a fanatical, neo-fascist political cult, overcome by a strange mixture of corrosive hatred and sickening fear"), but two-term San Francisco Mayor George Christopher, a moderate, would. Christopher, a wealthy dairy farmer, was a bland character—David Broder and Stephen Hess wrote that Christopher "looked and sounded like a tired TV wrestler." Early polls showed Reagan beating Christopher among Republicans, but that Christopher would run more strongly against Brown. "I had heard of Ronald Reagan, of course," Christopher later said, "but I believed what so many people were saying, that 'an actor' couldn't win the Republican primary over a businessman-politician."
Party moderates who had backed Rockefeller against Goldwater in 1964 spoke up in favor of Christopher (who had been the northern California campaign chairman for Rockefeller in 1964). One of them was a State Assemblyman named Caspar Weinberger, who told the New York Times that "Christopher will do much better than Rockefeller did. Reagan will get the great bulk of the Goldwater support but it does not represent much more than one-third of the party." Striving to avoid the kind of divisiveness that helped to ruin Goldwater's candidacy, it was during this period that the chairman of the California Republican Party, Gaylord Parkinson, enunciated what became known as the 11th Commandment—"Thou shalt not speak ill of a fellow Republican," a phrase which later became attributed to Reagan. Reagan and Christopher held to this maxim to a remarkable extent in the campaign that followed.
As the June primary approached, Reagan's early lead over Christopher dwindled—from 17 points in the fall of 1965 to 13 percent in January, to nine percent in March, and just six percent in May. Then the Democrats blundered. The Brown campaign was ecstatic at the prospect of running against Reagan. They would simply dust off the trash-Goldwater playbook. "We thought the notion was absurd and rubbed our hands in gleeful anticipation of beating this politically inexperienced, right-wing extremist and aging actor," Governor Brown reminisced later. Brown's confidence in a run against Reagan led him to work surreptitiously to help Reagan win the Republican primary. Democrats leaked damaging information about Christopher to the media, and in mid-May a story by Washington Post columnist Drew Pearson about 20-year-old milk price-control violations by Christopher damaged his campaign. Reagan won the Republican primary by a landslide margin of 65 to 31 percent. Christopher was at first hesitant about endorsing Reagan for the fall campaign, but Reagan took an immediate step that he would repeat in his successful run for the White House in 1980: he hired several of Christopher's key campaign staff, sending the signal that he was serious about uniting the party, and that his party opponents would be welcome in his government.
While Reagan had to overcome intraparty opposition and prove that he could be a consistent campaigner, Brown was not without problems of his own. Los Angeles Mayor Sam Yorty, still angered by Brown's handling of the Watts riot the year before (another riot in Watts in March 1966, while Brown was again out of the country, added fuel to Yorty's ire), entered the Democratic primary contest against Brown. (Yorty, incidentally, shared Brown's view of Reagan: "I always felt that Reagan was the only candidate Brown could possibly beat." A decade later, Yorty switched parties and became a Reagan supporter.) The fissures among Democrats over the Vietnam War were starting to widen, and began to take their toll on Brown, who as a loyal Democrat defended President Johnson's war policy. Assailed from both the Left and the Right, Brown fared poorly in the Democratic primary. Yorty captured nearly a million votes. Democrats knew they were in deep trouble. "It's going to be a long, hot summer," Brown remarked on primary election night.
Although early primary polls suggested the race would be close, Brown's efforts to tag Reagan as "the crown prince of the radical right" sputtered from the start and never achieved any traction, in part because Brown never did perceive how vastly different Reagan was from Goldwater. "Like Barry Goldwater," Brown would say after Reagan's June primary victory, "he is the spokesman for a harsh philosophy of doom and darkness." But Reagan's positive rhetoric and genial nature were in sharp contrast to Goldwater's angry and defiant visage. Even when Reagan attacked the same targets as Goldwater, he did so with a light and humorous touch. Reagan quipped, for example, that student radicals "act like Tarzan, look like Jane, and smell like Cheetah." (Polls had shown that student turmoil on campus was highly unpopular with voters.) Keeping up with Brown's promises, Reagan joked, "is like trying to read Playboy magazine while your wife turns the pages."
Brown and the Democrats made several attempts to tie Reagan to the John Birch Society. The California Democratic Party produced a 13-page report entitled "Ronald Reagan Extremist Collaborator: An Exposé." "Ronald Reagan is an extremist's collaborator in California. He endorses their projects, promotes their policies, takes their money. He is their 'front man.' Meanwhile, he pretends to be a moderate, middle-of-the-roader. The record belies him. It shows that he has collaborated directly with a score of top leaders of the super-secret John Birch Society." Reagan regarded the leadership of the John Birch Society as a political liability with the moderates whose votes he had to attract. He had pointedly criticized some of the Society's frothier pronouncements (such as the allegation that President Eisenhower belonged to the Communist conspiracy). His campaign took care to keep out John Birch Society adherents whose presence in campaign posts could be exploited by the media and the Democrats. Yet Reagan didn't wish to alienate the block of voters who sympathized with the Bircher's fervent anti-Communism. This dilemma, which had plagued Nixon and other Republican politicians over the previous decade, became yet another opportunity for Reagan. Reagan began disclaiming "labels" of all kinds, and disavowed support from "any blocs or groups." About the John Birch Society specifically, Reagan said that he would welcome the support of their members, but that such support was evidence that he had "persuaded them to accept my philosophy, not me accepting theirs."
Reagan's sincerity made this demurral effective. Brown's attacks on Reagan began to backfire, especially a TV ad with Brown reminding schoolchildren that Reagan was an actor, and that it was an actor who had shot Lincoln. Reagan even began quoting Brown's statements in his own speeches. Brown had said that conservatives are "the shock troops of bigotry, echoes of Nazi Germany, echoes of another hate binge that began more than 30 years ago in a Munich beer hall." Reagan calmly parried: "Extreme phraseology from one who professes to deplore extremism." To charges that he was an agent of "white backlash," Reagan replied: "I'm the agent of a Brown backlash."
As Republicans united behind Reagan—Eisenhower and Nixon both made public appearances for him—Democrats squabbled. Two of Brown's top aides ended up in fisticuffs over a campaign disagreement. The New Left began saying openly that a Brown defeat would strengthen the Left. The New York Times, in a rare editorial endorsement for a California election, deplored Reagan and hoped that California voters would "understand where reality ends and fantasy begins."
Reagan won the November election in a landslide, by a margin of nearly one million votes. He carried all but five of California's 58 counties. Not since Earl Warren in 1950 had a Republican run so strongly. A large number of the Democratic voters who had gone with Yorty in the primary had crossed over for Reagan, including as much as 30 percent of labor union members. He did especially well in several working-class communities with heavy Democratic registration, prefiguring how he would draw votes in his presidential runs in the 1980s. Republicans also did well down the ticket, gaining five State Senate seats, five State Assembly seats, and three seats in Congress. Reagan's big win was the crest of a nationwide Republican tidal wave. Nationally Republicans gained 47 House seats (Nixon, stumping for the GOP around the country, had predicted Republicans would gain 46 House seats), three Senate seats, eight governorships, and 677 state legislative seats. Among the GOP winners was George Bush, who won a congressional seat in Houston. It would be the Republicans' best showing until 1980.
Reagan was sworn in as governor of California at three minutes after midnight on January 3, 1967. His inaugural address, delivered the next day, contained the delicate mixture of the two halves of Reagan's political persona—hard foreboding and cheerful optimism—that gave him his broad appeal. "Freedom is a fragile thing and never more than one generation away from extinction," he began. "Knowing this," he continued a little later, "it is hard to explain those who question the people's capacity for self-rule. Will they answer this: if no one among us is capable of governing himself, then who among us has the capacity to govern someone else?" This argument derived directly from Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln, making Reagan atypical; no one on the political scene talked this way anymore.
From this general, historical beginning, Reagan zeroed in on the specific challenges of the moment, especially the welfare state and high taxes. "As presently constituted, welfare's great flaw and weakness is that it perpetuates poverty for the recipients of poverty, institutionalizes their poverty into a kind of permanent degradation…There is no humanity or charity in destroying self-reliance, dignity, and self-respect—the very substance of moral fibre." Most fundamentally, Reagan utterly rejected the premise of the progressive administrative state that the progress of society and government depended upon specialized expertise. "For many years now, you and I have been shushed like children and told there are no simple answers to complex problems which are beyond our comprehension. Well, the truth is, there are simple answers—but there are no easy ones. The time has come for us to decide whether collectively we can afford everything and anything we think of just because we think of it." In a subsequent speech in mid-1967, Reagan expressed the point even more directly: "I think we have had enough of nineteenth-century rule of the many by the few, even if the few are supposed to be some kind of intellectual elite, who are more gifted than the rest of us." This theme, more than any of his views on specific issues, constituted the chief source of liberal contempt for Reagan.
Reagan seldom ended a speech on sour notes of discontent, and this time was no different. He closed with his typical forward-looking optimism, this time with reference to his "Creative Society," clearly intended to be his alternative to the Great Society. "Some who are inclined to resent any dilutions of government's influence continue to charge that people like ourselves are turning back the clock. The Creative Society is not a retreat into the past. It is taking the dream that gave birth to this nation and updating it, making it practical for the 20th century. It is a good dream. It is a dream that is worthy of your generation."
There was a final touch to the speech that would become a Reagan signature: the tribute to an American hero. "If, in glancing aloft, some of you were puzzled by the small size of our state flag—there is an explanation. That flag was carried into battle in Vietnam by young men of California. Many will not be coming home. One did, Sergeant Robert Howell, grievously wounded. He brought that flag back. I thought we would be proud to have it fly over the Capitol today. It might even serve to put our problems in better perspective. It might remind us of the need to give our sons and daughters a cause to believe in and banners to follow."
The structure and substance of the speech came to be known as "vintage Reagan," and would be the model for his first Presidential Inaugural Address 14 years later (as well as nearly every major speech Reagan gave). Not many citizens of California would have heard this address had he given it at his midnight swearing-in ceremony. Reagan ostensibly picked this odd hour to be sworn in to prevent Brown from appointing any more judges (Brown appointed nearly 80 during his lame duck period after the election—Reagan joked that "I am probably the only governor in the United States who can't fix a parking ticket") or granting any more pardons, but it has long been reported that the time was picked at the insistence of Nancy Reagan, whose penchant for astrology would provoke controversy 20 years later. Regardless, it provided Reagan with yet another opportunity to display his light touch. After the ceremony, Reagan turned to Senator George Murphy, like Reagan a former movie actor, and quipped: "Well, George, here we are on the late show again."