- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 7, 2000

I do not know what led Matthew Dallek to choose as his doctoral dissertation topic the 1966 California gubernatorial race in which two-term incumbent Edmund "Pat" Brown was challenged by former movie star Ronald Reagan. Whatever his reasoning, his choice was a stroke of good fortune. Unless some dark horse emerges soon, the book he has written based on his thesis is my candidate for the Political Junkie's Book of the Year Award.

What I admire most about "The Right Moment: Ronald Reagan's First Victory and the Decisive Turning Point in American Politics," aside from the clear, compelling, page-turning quality of Mr. Dallek's writing, is his ability to weave ideas, personalities, national trends, California political history and Sacramento insider politics into one seamless whole in less than 250 pages of text.

Mr. Dallek's central idea is simple and bold: Ronald Reagan's smashing victory over Brown, by a million votes, was not simply a California phenomenon, but the beginning of the end of American liberalism. During the 1960s the news media reported and, love-struck and starry-eyed, embraced the various depredations of the militant political left. Other Americans mostly white, middle-class, law-abiding, taken for granted by the media and the liberals were seething with resentment at the breakdown in respect for law and order. They were ready to rebel in their own way, through the ballot box. All they needed was the right candidate.

In California, the anarchic student demonstrations and sit-ins of the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley, followed by the destructive and deadly riots in the Watts section of Los Angeles, were seen by the left as proof that Brown had not been progressive enough, so they turned on him. The majority of Californians saw these riots as proof that Brown's liberalism had gone too far in placating lawbreakers.

As if all this were not bad enough for Brown, he faced an even more formidable obstacle to re-election in a primary race with Los Angeles mayor Sam Yorty, a canny, conservative Democrat with an instinct for the political jugular and a gift for driving Brown crazy.

Stung and puzzled by the attack from his left, and clueless about the resentments of the vast political middle, Brown "[l]ike many liberals … well-meaning but out of touch," tried to turn the attention of the electorate toward what he and most other liberals saw as the real threat to America, the right wing, especially the John Birch Society, and, oh yes, that former movie actor who had just announced he would run for governor.

Pat Brown became the first in a long, long line of liberals who underestimated Ronald Reagan. According to the author, Mr. Reagan "recognized early the political conundrums plaguing conservatives, understood what needed to be done to address those problems, and worked hard to turn himself and his movement into a politically popular alternative to the dominant liberal approach."

With only a few missteps, Mr. Reagan made his way through the political minefields. He put together a campaign staff of political pros, kept the John Birch Society at arm's length without alienating conservative activists and exploited Brown's mishandling of the riots without giving liberals the chance to portray him as a racist.

Brown, on the other hand, lost his nerve. He acquiesced in a political dirty trick against San Francisco Mayor George Christopher, who was Mr. Reagan's Republican primary opponent. The idea was that weakening Christopher would allow the movie actor to win the Republican primary and provide the Democrats with an easy target in November. But the plan (using columnist Drew Pearson to do the dirty work) backfired. Brown looked like a sleazeball, and moderate Republicans, until then frightened of Mr. Reagan, became angry at Brown and rallied to Mr. Reagan.

Did Mr. Reagan's first victory kill liberalism? I think Mr. Dallek (currently a speech writer for House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt) claims too much, since the spirit of liberalism is still very strong in American culture. But he is onto something. We tend to forget how politically formidable and impregnable liberalism looked as late as the beginning of 1966. It was not just one ideology competing with others, but a climate of opinion in which all of American politics moved. Liberalism is not dead, but in Al Gore's kissy-face version we hear its long, melancholy, withdrawing roar.

A personal note: I wrote speeches for Mr. Reagan during the late 1970s and in the 1980 campaign. This book reinforces my long-held view that he possessed one of the shrewdest political minds in American history. I know that shrewd is not a word usually associated with the genial, supposedly uninformed and easily manipulated Mr. Reagan, but in my view he always knew where he wanted to go and skillfully used his aides and advisers to help him get there. In his prime he was, as the Irish say, as deep as a well.

William F. Gavin is a writer living in McLean.

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