Serving the People: 1950–1974
Throughout the 1950s, Ronald Reagan became increasingly involved in politics. Throughout this period he gave hundreds of speeches against Communism and anti- American activities that were very conservative in nature. Yet, at the same time, he continued to champion the causes of Democratic liberals as he had since he was younger. He supported several Democrats running for state offices throughout California and attacked their Republican opponents. His political confusion was evident during Dwight D. Eisenhower's 1952 and 1956 campaigns for President. Despite the fact that he himself was a liberal, Reagan wholeheartedly supported the Republican Eisenhower, and even led the 'Democrats for Eisenhower' political association.
Eventually, however, Reagan settled into his newfound conservatism. In 1960, he supported Richard Nixon for president, and gave over 200 public addresses on Nixon's behalf. He even supported the ultra right wing Barry Goldwater during the 1964 presidential campaign. Goldwater was particularly known for his anti-Communist and Soviet sentiments. Reagan stood beside Goldwater throughout the campaign, and made a thirty minute television fundraising speech for Goldwater's campaign entitled A Time for Choosing. Many historians credit this speech as the beginning of Reagan's political career. Goldwater lost the 1964 elections, but not before raising an unprecedented eight million dollars from Reagan's appeal alone.
Several factors probably contributed to Reagan's dramatic conversion from being an FDR Democrat to becoming a conservative Republican. To begin with, Reagan hated Communists and Soviet sympathizers and associated many liberal and leftist groups with them. The Republican Party, on the other hand, was notorious for "hunting" Communists during the Red Scare of the 1950s. Secondly, many influential people in Reagan's family were Republicans, including his brother Neil and his father-in-law. As a popular celebrity and icon, Reagan also spent much of his time socializing with the rich–and conservative–Los Angeles elite. Others credit Reagan's political shift to the fact that the once poor actor had acquired quite a bit of money and disliked paying up to ninety percent of his annual income in taxes to the government. He also disliked the liberal politicians in California and blamed them for the social unrest and the state's budget deficits in the 1950s and 1960s.
Combined, these factors encouraged Reagan to join the Republican Party in 1962. Four years later, Reagan announced his intentions to run for governor of the state of California. At first, Reagan campaigned horribly; many voters still associated him with Barry Goldwater, and Reagan himself had trouble speaking in front of hundreds of liberal Californians. Once, he even stormed out of an auditorium while speaking to the National Negro Republican Assembly when someone in the audience shouted that he was racist. As the campaign progressed, though, Reagan became much more confident in his abilities. He distanced himself politically from Goldwater by promoting his image as an average American who wanted lower taxes, peace, less crime, welfare reform and reduced government spending. He attacked his opponent, incumbent Pat Brown for failing to quell student violence on California university campuses and for overspending. Pat Brown failed to take the actor-turned-politician seriously and vacationed in Europe during much of the campaign. That November, Reagan swept the elections, taking fifty-three of California's fifty-eight counties and earning over a million more votes than Brown. Seemingly overnight, Reagan had become the Governor of California.
Reagan's two terms as governor of California were neither spectacular nor failures. Like many politicians, Reagan had to abandon many of his campaign pledges when faced with political reality. His first crisis came during his first term when the government suddenly had an enormous budget deficit. In order to save money, Reagan cut ten percent of the spending budget in each department of the government. Although this sounded reasonably simple and worked in certain departments, it also proved to be an inadequate solution. For example, because of budget cuts, many of the state mental institutions had to release unstable patients in order to save money. Reagan froze government spending and purchases and even sold the state jet. Finally, Governor Reagan rescinded on his promise to cut taxes when he increased the state income tax in order to make money.
Reagan also tried to reform the state welfare program when he started a new job- placement program for Californians on Welfare. Unfortunately for Reagan, less than one-third of the 30,000 initial welfare recipients used to test the program were placed into jobs because most of the jobs available required skills and higher education that the welfare recipients did not have. The program was abandoned within a decade. Nevertheless, the idea for welfare reform persisted, and Reagan's program remained a model from which other conservative governors could adapt and use in their own states.
Governor Reagan stood firm against the increasing number of anti-war and anarchist protests prevalent throughout California and the rest of the country during the 1960s. In 1969, he even declared a state of emergency when a group of student rioters at the University California at Berkeley occupied a parking lot and declared it "People's Park." The protest turned violent when rioters began to throw rocks at the police. Reagan sent the state police to disband the riot, but the students quickly overpowered them. In response, Reagan sent in the National Guard who forcefully occupied the campus for nearly twenty days. To end the protest, Army helicopters blanketed the grounds with tear gas. One student was killed, another blinded, and dozens were injured. Reagan's decision to use the military to quell the Berkeley riots was the most controversial decision he made during his eight years as governor.
The voters still loved him, however, and, in 1970, they reelected Reagan over Democratic opponent Jesse Unruh. When Reagan's political advisors encouraged him to run again in 1974, however, the former actor declined because he believed a governor–like the President–should be permitted to serve only two terms. He left the office of governor in 1974 with bigger and brighter things in mind.
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