YORBA LINDA — Thirty years after winning a bitter gubernatorial race against Richard M. Nixon, former California Gov. Edmund G. (Pat) Brown on Saturday walked into the birthplace of his long-ago opponent and declared that the victory was "the greatest thrill I have ever had."
"I can remember when the returns came in, grabbing them and shaking my hand . . . I was so happy about it," said the 86-year-old elder statesman, who was invited to debate the 1962 gubernatorial race with Nixon's former campaign manager H. R. (Bob) Haldeman.
For Haldeman, the ex-White House chief of staff and convicted Watergate felon, the hotly contested election was an unpleasant, but ultimately beneficial defeat.
"We Nixon people owe you a debt of gratitude for having trounced Nixon in the election," Haldeman told Brown and an audience of about 300 at the Richard Nixon Library & Birthplace. If Nixon had become governor, "the course of history would have been radically different."
Because of the loss, Nixon was "far better prepared for, and more ready to serve as the President of the United States" in 1969, said Haldeman, who followed Nixon to the White House as his top aide.
Haldeman was later convicted of conspiracy, obstruction of justice and perjury in connection with the 1972 Watergate scandal that rocked the nation and led to Nixon's presidential resignation.
In sharp contrast to the mood of the campaign three decades ago, Haldeman and Brown appeared friendly Saturday as they nostalgically and humorously mused about the 1962 election, widely considered one of the most acrimonious gubernatorial races in the state's history.
During the campaign, Nixon had charged that Brown was soft on communism and crime, while the governor claimed that the former vice president was interested in the governorship only as a steppingstone to the White House.
The election is also noted for the famous concession speech Nixon made, telling reporters: "You won't have Nixon to kick around anymore."
At the informal debate, each man asked the other a question about the past election. Haldeman asked Brown what his reaction was when he learned that Nixon decided to run against him.
"I must confess I was dismayed," Brown replied. "I felt that I had a tough, hard campaign and I did. . . . I can't tell you today why I defeated Richard Nixon."
Brown wanted to know why Nixon wanted to run for the governorship when two years earlier he had come "within an ace of being elected President of the United States."
Haldeman replied that Nixon did not plan on running for governor and only returned to California to "lick his wounds" after the presidential campaign. But Nixon was later convinced by "Republican big shots" that he needed to run to remain "politically viable."
"I did feel very strongly that he should not have run," said Haldeman, noting that Nixon never truly wanted to be governor.
Later, in a question-and-answer session with the audience, Brown discussed other topics, such as his son's current presidential bid. When asked to assess Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr.'s chances of becoming the next President or vice president, he declared: "Very good, I'd say. . . . The only thing he lacks is a good wife."
Brown also criticized Gov. Pete Wilson for vetoing a bill last fall that would have prevented discrimination against gays. Although he supported the anti-discrimination bill and said that gays' sexuality was "not their fault," he added that he thought homosexuality was "abnormal" and "anything that will slow it down, I'm for." But it was the 1962 governor's race that dominated the hourlong session.
At one point in the debate, both men agreed that President John F. Kennedy's confrontation with the Soviet Union over missiles being placed in Cuba helped Brown maintain his position in Sacramento.
Nixon apparently had been gaining on Brown in the polls when the crisis broke. Haldeman recalled that Nixon "said to me on the day of the Cuban Missile Crisis, 'We lost the election.' " The public's attention was drawn to the conflict and away from the campaign, Haldeman said. He added that, in a time of crisis, voters are less likely to want change.
"It played a very, very important part," Brown agreed.
Toward the end, Brown said that although he and Nixon were "bitter political rivals," he "had tremendous respect" for him.
The election, which led to the Nixon's self-described "wilderness years," received more attention as a debate topic than it does as an exhibit at the Richard Nixon Library and Birthplace.
The one-panel exhibit of Nixon's 1962 loss contains a brief narrative, a couple of "Nixon for Governor" bumper stickers, a campaign button, half a dozen photographs and a child's letter wishing Nixon well.