A focused look at the events leading to (and the ramifications of) Ronald Reagan’s victory over incumbent Pat Brown in California’s 1966 governor’s race.
Slate columnist Dallek tries to answer the question of how Reagan, an actor with virtually no experience in politics outside the Screen Actors Guild and guest appearances at fundraisers, could beat Brown, a popular governor of eight years and a career politician. The answer, he argues, was in Reagan’s timing and the national political climate of the era, for California’s gubernatorial election of 1966 serves as a microcosm of the post-WWII national political narrative—a narrative of which it may be seen as the culmination. A big part of this story is the rise and fall of liberalism; the author maintains that Brown’s political career began when Democratic policies had just saved the nation from the depression, but by the end of his governorship, student protests at Berkeley, the Watts race riots, and his association with the Vietnam War had chipped away at Brown’s popularity. His defeat, in a sense, was also the defeat of liberalism. “When Pat Brown went down, so did the philosophy that he had clung to throughout his adult life.” Unfortunately, once Brown is off the scene, Dallek’s account also goes rapidly downhill. For, although he declares at the start that “Ronald Reagan redefined politics like no one since Franklin Roosevelt” and spends every other chapter detailing Reagan’s career (in acting and in politics), he has little of substance to say about Reagan—on whom there is no lack of literature (including as the author notes, two books by Brown himself).
Despite occasionally mixed messages, Dallek manages to unpeel the layers of a complex political narrative clearly and adroitly—and to offer an exciting analysis of American politics.