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A look at the Reagan riddle

Governor Reagan His Rise to Power Lou Cannon Public Affairs Press: 580 pp., $30

September 28, 2003|Peter Schrag | Peter Schrag is a columnist for the Sacramento Bee and author of "Paradise Lost: California's Experience, America's Future" and the forthcoming "Final Test: The Battle for Adequacy in America's Schools."

Lou Cannon likes to quote Winston Churchill's cliche about Russia as "a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma." Ronald Reagan, he says, "is my Russia." But Cannon, who began covering Reagan before he became California's governor in 1966, manages to unwrap the riddle-cum-enigma as well as anybody ever has.

That Cannon's new book is being published just as Arnold Schwarzenegger, another actor who's never held public office, campaigns to unseat Gov. Gray Davis can hardly hurt the book, and it certainly will become the basis for a lot of comparisons. How well Schwarzenegger stacks up remains an open question; when Reagan ran, he'd been much more deeply involved in politics. If Schwarzenegger wins, he could do a lot worse than use this story as a model for addressing California's huge fiscal and governmental problems.

Even some of Reagan's staunchest critics recognized his power to charm, and Cannon, during his long journalist's career covering Reagan as governor and later as president, has hardly been immune. But this book, Cannon's fifth on his riddle, is also his most serious and searching, not just about Reagan but also about a watershed era in California and national politics.

"What made Reagan different was the power of his ideas and his stubborn adherence to them," Cannon says. His central argument about the Reagan governorship in the years 1967 to 1975 -- and indeed much of Reagan's political career -- is that his conservatism was always tempered by a common-sense pragmatism that, in the context of today's hyper-partisanship, seems, if not moderate, at least reasonable by comparison. Among Reagan's first major acts as governor -- he was facing a large deficit left by his predecessor, Pat Brown -- was his call for, and ultimate approval of, the biggest tax increase ever proposed by any U.S. governor. He also agreed to welfare reforms that reduced eligibility, but accepted a cost-of-living formula that substantially increased individual welfare allowances. He significantly increased the state's parkland and environmental protections, despite his indifference to redwood trees, and signed a 1967 abortion law that was among the most liberal of its time.

Contrary to Reagan's later claims about the success of his welfare reforms, the abortion law probably did more to reduce the state's caseload than the welfare reforms. (Reagan later told Cannon he regretted signing the law, which led to a sharp increase in legal abortions, from 518 in 1967 to 150,000 in 1973, the year of Roe vs. Wade, and nearly 200,000 in 1980, an increase that surprised even the law's Democratic author.)

Equally telling, Reagan, persuaded by his staff, agreed to state income tax withholding, something he'd once said he had his feet set in concrete against because he believed taxes should be felt, not extracted in small bits from weekly paychecks. When a reporter asked him about his acquiescence, he replied with a wry smile, "The sound you hear is the concrete cracking around my feet." By the time he left office, California's annual spending had more than doubled.

That's hardly to suggest the governor was a liberal sheep in wolf's clothing. Within weeks of Reagan's inauguration, embattled UC president Clark Kerr, who'd done as much as anyone to shape the "multiversity" that had been wracked by student protests since 1964, was gone. Contrary to Kerr's claim, Cannon says Reagan wasn't the schemer who pushed the president over the side. But he was certainly happy to see him go.

He had no hesitation in cracking down on campus demonstrators with National Guard troops, with tear gas if necessary, to put down the riots that convulsed the Berkeley campus and nearby "People's Park" in 1969 and Santa Barbara in 1970. Cannon reports that someone put a plaque on the door to the governor's office that remained through all eight years of his tenure -- "Observe the Rules, or Get Out" -- that, as much as anything, summarized his convictions. Not coincidentally, it also reflected the views of the vast majority of Californians.

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