It was 50 years ago this week that Ronald Reagan defeated George Christopher in the California primary for governor, setting the stage for a dramatic moment in American and world history.
While his election in the fall over incumbent Pat Brown was part of a larger pattern of the return of the Republicans in 1966, in fact Reagan’s election was anything but a local affair as he immediately became a national power and a fleeting candidate for the 1968 Republican presidential nomination, just two years later.
Reagan hadn’t just burst on the scene in 1966. Two years earlier, he’d given a barnburner of a speech lauding the long shot candidacy of Barry Goldwater. Goldwater lost in a landslide to the incumbent Lyndon Johnson, but Reagan got high marks for his 1964 nationally television speech.
Still, many doubted his capacity to hold up in the rough world of California politics. After all, he was “just an actor,” something he would go on to hear many times in his career. One author said the Gipper, in 1966, was seen as an “evil reactionary and amiable dunce … he rode to power on good looks, glib answers and advice from handlers.” Reagan heard this often, including form establishment Republicans.
Some just didn’t take his candidacy seriously. When Hollywood mogul Jack Warner was told, he reported replied, “No, Jimmy Stewart for governor. Ronald Reagan for best friend.” Governor Pat Brown ran tasteless commercials featuring him talking to a group of schoolchildren and said in conclusion, “And don’t forget. It was a an actor who shot Lincoln.”
George Christopher was the Republican mayor of San Francisco, was considered successful, a moderate and a real hope for the future. Reagan, to many, represented a step back into Goldwater-ism — didn’t everybody know the wave of the future was liberalism in both political parties?
Christopher was a very good man, the son of an immigrant having pulled himself up by his bootstraps. When he wanted to rum for office, the head of the local Democratic party told him Greeks need not apply for the Democratic Party’s endorsement. So he ran and won as a Republican.
Hard as it now is to believe, the mayors of San Francisco, Baltimore and New York City were all Republicans in 1966. And in many parts of the South, Republicans were as scarce as hen’s teeth. Reagan’s later “Citizens Press Conferences” had its roots in the 1966 campaign, when he urged his consultants including his well regarded consultant Stu Spencer to allow him to make a brief statement and then open it to questions from the audience. Reagan quickly mastered this format. The phrase “citizen politician” also founds it origins in this campaign.
So too did the all important and now famous “11th Commandment” start with this California campaign. Reagan ran on a platform of less government and less taxes and more freedom. He also spoke to a group of recent emigrated citizens to America, telling them their native countries had not lost so much as America had gained by their legal admission.
The campaign wasn’t easy. The John Birch Society endorsed Reagan but he calmly brush it aside, saying though they endorsed him, he did not endorse them. He got no help from the national Republican Party. In the end, Reagan won over Christopher handily and again, by nearly one million votes over Brown, taking 53 of 58 counties. It was a rout, and American conservatism had established an important toehold.
Reagan won in part by appealing to the supporters of the conservative Democratic mayor of Los Angeles, Sam Yorty, also known as “Yorty Democrats.” This included appeals against “campus unrest” and law and order. But he also displayed a different sort of conservatism than that of Goldwater and others when he said, “Our problems are many, but our capacity for solving them is limitless.”
Ten years later, Reagan was running a revolutionary challenge to Gerald Ford for the Republican Party’s nomination. And former Mayor George Christopher wanted to help. He made TV ads touting the presidential candidacy of Ronald Reagan.
Craig Shirley is a Reagan biographer.