|Regardless of one’s opinion of Ronald Reagan, it is difficult to dispute that he had a major impact on the nation’s political culture as well as on its domestic and foreign policies.|
Although much of the discussion of his career has rightly focused on his presidency, Reagan’s eight years as governor of California provide important insights into his worldview and governing style.
Lou Cannon, a longtime Reagan watcher and retired Washington Post reporter, effectively fills that vacuum in Governor Reagan: His Rise To Power. Published when another example of silver-screen machismo is attempting to win the California governor’s mansion, this lively book is thorough and balanced and places Reagan’s governorship in its broader historical context. Cannon’s fondness for and admiration of his subject do not prevent the book from addressing Reagan’s weaknesses as well as his strengths.
Though much of the material has been reported before, Cannon points out how events and traits that were evident during Reagan’s acting career and governorship provide a preview of his approach to the presidency. For example, Reagan’s detached management style, which caused him problems in the White House, was already apparent in Sacramento, when he agreed to the dismissal of his chief of staff after other aides forced the governor’s hand.
Cannon succinctly describes Reagan’s approach to governing: “Directors appreciated Reagan because he was punctual, memorized his lines, and did what he was told. He behaved similarly in the governor’s office, where he was the putative director. … Reagan had core beliefs and values, a welcome fearlessness, and a capacity for decision making. But he rarely reached out and even more rarely initiated a course of action.”
That style, coupled with his “aw, shucks” demeanor, prompted many people — in both parties — to underestimate Reagan’s resolve, to say nothing of his political fortunes. The political graveyards are filled with people who longed for the opportunity to run against the candidate they disparaged as a “right-wing former actor.”
Reagan was no accidental politician. While he was governor, 1967 to 1975, he showed himself to be skillful at both sticking to his guns and mastering the art of compromise.
Cannon is at his best when he takes readers behind the scenes as key decisions were made. He was given unprecedented access to detailed minutes of Reagan’s staff and cabinet meetings during his Sacramento years. During a 1967 discussion of a 16 percent cut in the work force of the state’s mental hospitals, to close a budget gap, Reagan showed both his compassion and pragmatism:
“I’d like to hide. It has nothing to do with the economy, but reminds me of my father who got his slip on Christmas eve,” Reagan said. “On the other hand, if you fellows tell me that we don’t need these employees, I don’t see what else we can do.”
Cannon chronicles in considerable detail the legislative maneuverings over, and Reagan’s vacillation about, a bill he ultimately signed to make abortion more accessible in California. Political junkies will find the descriptions of the give and take fascinating and will marvel at Reagan’s once-liberal views on the subject. The extensive discussion of the growth of the women’s rights movement helps readers understand the historical backdrop against which the abortion debate occurred.
The author’s sense of the big picture also is apparent when he describes the liberal activism at the University of California and other campuses in the 1960s. Reagan’s frustration with those activities prompted him to help engineer the ouster of controversial University of California President Clark Kerr. Reagan’s determination foreshadows the stubbornness he showed as president during his support for the Nicaraguan opposition forces and his firing of the striking air traffic controllers.
The reader also learns much about Reagan’s character and political acumen from Cannon’s descriptions of the governor’s relations with assembly speaker and future gubernatorial candidate Jesse Unruh (D). Cannon devotes a full chapter to that tempestuous relationship, drawn heavily from his 1971 book Ronnie and Jesse: A Political Odyssey, and Unruh pops up often in the remainder of Cannon’s newest book.
Cannon’s penchant for clever phrasemaking is evident when he describes Unruh as “alternately principled and devious, sophisticated and crude, thoughtful and impulsive, visionary and myopic.”
Though Cannon’s writing is generally elegant, he sometimes shows a flair for the obvious with such phrases as “Ronald Reagan was determined to succeed as governor.”
He also occasionally focuses too much on arcane details, such as a lengthy discussion of an internal Republican fight over the selection of a state Senate majority leader.
Those shortcomings, however, are vastly overshadowed by the keen insights, fine writing and intricate details in Cannon’s portrait of the pre-presidential years of Reagan’s life. Governor Reagan: His Rise to Power is a valuable tool for those interested in better understanding the origins and extent of his political acumen.
Claude R. Marx is a freelance reporter who has written extensively about national and state politics.