Inever voted for Ronald Reagan. Not the first time he ran for governor in 1966, nor for his re-election in 1970. I didn’t vote for him for president in 1980 or 1984. But, it was Mr. Reagan who was responsible for me becoming involved in my first political race.
I had just graduated from college and was still planning to save the world, one issue at a time. The civil rights movement was part of my life. The Delano grape strike was an even bigger part. But, except for campaigning for my father for a non-partisan city council position, I never planned to campaign for, or against, politicians.
Alan Cranston, a liberal Democrat, was running for re-election as state controller. In California, the controller was one of the most powerful politicians, for he essentially “controlled” the state’s massive patronage system. His opponent was Dr. Houston I. (Hugh) Flournoy, a mild-mannered and extremely bright political science professor at Pomona College. If elected, he would tear down patronage, giving local and state jobs not by political connections but to those who merited them, no matter what political party, no matter how much or how little they contributed to political campaigns.
And so I went to his Claremont, Calif., headquarters in Southern California and signed up. A liberal working on the campaign of a moderate, maybe even liberal, Republican. I saw nothing wrong with that. The issue and the candidate seemed to be more important than any labels. For a few months, I would be a volunteer. No pay. No benefits. But a chance to do something that mattered. And so I stuffed envelopes, sorted papers, and did whatever it was that the lowliest campaign worker could do. Now and then, the candidate—our candidate— would come into the office, chat with us, rally us, and meet with his professional staff. And then we’d go back to more important work—like folding campaign announcements.
By election day, he had been outspent more than 4-to-1, and his poll numbers were so low it appeared there would be a landslide. Even if Ronald Reagan, heading the ticket on his first campaign, could squeak past the two-term incumbent governor, an almost unlikely possibility, no one expected anyone else on the ticket to win.
I was conflicted. Mr. Reagan was a conservative, who seemed to want to break down the government I believed helped people who needed help when big business had no plans other than to be bigger business. But, this was a gentle person. During the couple of times I met him during campaign rallies, he seemed to have a vision, a plan, a reason—and he was always cordial, no matter who we were. He had voted for Franklin Delano Roosevelt not once but four times. Who once believed in the New Deal. Who believed in unions, even serving as a union president for 10 years. A man who stood up against the House Un-American Activiites Committee. A New Deal Democrat. Just like my parents and their parents, immigrants to a country that may not have welcomed them, but at least provided a sanctuary where they didn’t have to worry about genocide.
As I prepared to vote for the first time, I knew I would vote for Hugh Flournoy, even if I was only one of about 25 or 30 percent of Californian voters who would do so. And, I had no doubt I would vote for the re-election of the liberal Edmund G. “Pat” Brown, whom I knew was a decent person—because two years earlier, when I was a student journalist at a convention in San Diego, he talked to us and even posed for pictures with the staffs of each of the student papers. Sometimes even the smallest gestures mattered.
That election day in California, I hesitated before casting my vote for governor. But, my first vote in an off-year would be split—several Democrats and one Republican. Even if my candidate was swamped by the vote, at least I was doing what was right.
However, no one figured on the strength of Ronald Reagan who pulled an entire ticket along with his overwhelming victory. And on his coat tails was Hugh Flournoy, the new state controller.
I had no plans to go to Sacramento. Soon, I became involved in other campaigns, other issues. The anti-war movement. Poverty. Worker rights.
Alan Cranston recovered from his defeat and became one of the nation’s most powerful senators—and someone I would eventually admire. Hugh Flournoy went to Sacramento where he served two terms, then lost an election for governor. By then, I was living elsewhere. But, had I been living in California, I would probably still have voted for him. It was just an issue of loyalty. He returned to academics, becoming professor of public administration and a vice-president for governmental affairs at USC. I never forgot that a citizen, not a lawyer or professional politician, could be elected to office. A political science professor. And an actor/union activist.
Ronald Reagan, still underestimated by the professional politicians, pollsters, and the know-it-all media became one of the most popular presidents in American history. He frustrated and angered a lot of us. We’d have to check the facts in the stories he told. But at least they were entertaining and made a point. There was the Iran-Contra scandal, budget deficits, and Reaganomics, with its trickle-down philosophy that never trickled down. He probably could have done more as president to push AIDS research. He definitely could have done more to help the poor and the disenfranchised. He infuriated us when he fired the air traffic controllers, leading many of us to realize that in the past decade he truly had changed from what he believed in the first five decades of his life. But he did have a vision and gave us what he promised, a new morning in America. He was the eternal optimist, a man who had a vision and kept focused on what he believed needed to be done. At the end of the day, when the political battles paused for a few hours, he would still be a decent person who could amiably chat with those who opposed his views.
Unlike some politicians, he wasn’t mean, his campaigns didn’t run negative. Like Kennedy and Carter before him, and Clinton after him, he was an avid reader, witty and eloquent, traits some presidents never had. And, as commander-in-chief, he was slow to fire the trigger. He retaliated when Libya killed Americans. But, against all advice, he refused to take action against the Soviet Union, which had just shot down a South Korean airliner. He knew it was an accident; he knew that as mad as he was, it wasn’t enough to risk a war. And the one war he did win, the destruction of the Berlin Wall, the shredding of what he called “the evil empire,” was done without firing a shot. He knew that to commit America’s youth to a hot war would be the last action a commander-in-chief should ever do. . He would rally support for the Brady Bill, his wife would eventually call for more stem cell research, infuriating the conservatives who had given him his base of support, but both of them did what they believed was right.
I still have the original engraved invitation to the first inaugural of Ronald Reagan in 1966. It is a memory that sometimes decent people, even if their views conflict with mine, can be—and sometimes should be—elected.
Walter Brasch is most recently author of Sex and the Single Beer Can, a witty and incisive look at American media and culture. You may address him at firstname.lastname@example.org or through his web site, www.walterbrasch.com
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