In May of 1969, I was 25 years old and living in a duplex just a few miles south of San Francisco. Bobby Kennedy and Dr. King were dead not a year. The anti-war movement was taking hold like no one could have inmagined. To say that the Bay Area in the 60’s was a soup of competing counter-culture outrage at “the system” is an understatement.
In part of the city, the hippies were packed like sardines into a district adjacent to Golden Gate Park called the Haight-Ashbury (or simply “the Haight”), at least nominally dropping out of anything resembling a conventional lifestyle; but if one watched more carefully one saw that the Haight was morphing into a full-blown tourist mecca, complete with Grayline bus tours for visiting out-of-towners, tickets for which could be gotten by a simple call to the concierge at the tony St. Francis Hotel on Union Square downtown. From the safety of their buses, the folks from Des Moines or Peoria could see the dozens of ragged young kids peddling “street sheets” or just asking some bewildered gawker for “spare change.” For them, it was all quite sanitized, yet the pungent smell of patchouli oil, even from inside a bus, was pervasive along Haight St. all the way from Stanyan St. to Pierce St., where Haight dropped down Buena Vista hill into the Fillmore District. What had begun in the early 60’s as a new manifestation of the Beat Movement rejection of “the establishment" of the 1950’s had been transmogrified into a world of runaways, easy sex, cheap and abundant drugs; of teenagers and young adults sleeping in doorways or in the local parks while a string of local merchants tried to cash in on the phenomenon, as well as did local artists and musicians of dubious ability.
Across the bay, in Oakland and all along the East Bay shoreline, the Black Panthers were “doing their thing” letting the world know that they weren’t going to take white oppression, job and housing discrimination as a given, let alone the assasination of their leaders. Huey Newton, Eldridge Cleaver, Bobby Seale and other Black Panther Party leaders regularly made the front page of the local newspapers, either for having been picked up by the Oakland cops or for engaging in street theatre of one kind or another. The Black Panthers regularly carried firearms openly around town as a highly effective symbol to the white majority not only in San Francisco, but all over the country.
Four years earlier, in 1965, a UC-Berkeley student and civil rights and student activist named Mario Savio had stunned the Berkeley community with a speech calling for shutting down the “machine” that the University of California, he thought, had become, sparking off a national movement of students everywhere in the country, from Harvard and Yale, to Kent State, to the state sponsored schools on the West Coast. The University of California at Berkeley, the jewel in the crown of a public university system which was the envy of the nation, had become identified as a place of radical “street people,” of ungrateful students who would as much howl in protest of the war in Vietnam or racial discrimination and slum lords as they would attend a chemistry class. Amidst all this, J. Edgar Hoover and his FBI were keeping close tabs on anyone who was perceived as a leader of the counter-culture.
In 1964, Ronald Wilson Reagan gave the speech of his life shortly after the Republican Convention held, ironically, in San Francisco’s Cow Palace. Reagan, a life-long Democrat, endorsed Barry Goldwater as the GOP candidate for the presidency. Born in 1911 in rural Illinois, schooled in a Church of Christ college there and a product of a Norman Rockwell-like America, Reagan was an avuncular, handsome, effective speech giver, serving for years as the television mouth piece for General Electric. He had lived the charmed life a of reasonably successful Hollywood actor for years in the 1930’s and 40’s.
The Goldwater endorsement was almost inconsequential. What was of consequence was the effect his October speech had on those who watched him on television. He told the country, it was “a time for choosing.” And the country responded.
Also among the responders were a powerful group of political business people in Southern California who, on watching Reagan’s speech, thought the wrong person had been nominated for President on the Republican ticket. California responded two years later by ousting a popular Democratic governor, Edmund G. “Pat” Brown, and making Reagan, who and never held an elected political office, the governor of the largest state in the union.
Reagan the governor took a look at California and he didn’t like what he saw at all. He campaigned interminably against the excesses of state government, taxes, a university where a free education produced radicals, a welfare system of cheats, fat cat labor unions, and public discord. One of his first proposals was to cut the budget of the university by 25% and institute tuition to make up for the budget shortfall. The 100-year California tradition of cost-free kindergarten-to-bachelors degree education was to be dispensed with. Free education for any student, regardless of his means; a system in which it was thought and believed - and proven - that more highly educated workers would produce more tax revenue through higher earnings, as well as produce higher paying jobs as leaders of business and industry, was now eliminated.
The Gipper and I
Being a self-supporting student at the time, this hit me between the eyes and confirmed the fear I had of this man from the moment he appeared on the political scene. I would now be charged to go to college. Nevertheless, Reagan had tapped into a huge pool of resentment on the part of the taxpaying public which saw all California public colleges, particularly the University of California, as being hotbeds of liberalism.
In 1969, the Berkeley radicals – a few students and a lot of street people – protested over the taking of a patch of bare ground near the campus which had been dubbed “People’s Park.” The 2.8 acre plot was due to be made into a parking lot but the street people came out in droves to demonstrate against the university administration. Soon, the police were called in to quell the demonstrators. But when film clips of the demonstrations on local television hit, and the incident caught the ear of the press, the whole thing seemed to take on a life of its own. Young people from all over the Bay Area, including this writer, came to show support for keeping the park as open space for whomever wished to either live there or speak there, outside of Sproul Hall, the usual place to protest but which was controlled by the university administration.
The demonstrators quickly grew into the thousands over the next few days. Police from neighboring cities, and the Alameda County Sheriff’s Department were called in, carrying shotguns loaded with “double ought” buckshot. The more the authorities tried to tamp the thing down, the more uncontrollable became what was now nearly a mob. Bricks, bottles, and stones were thrown; fences around the property ripped down and the atmosphere poisoned with tear gas to disperse the crowd. It was anti-establishment - and heavy handed police tactics - run amok. Reagan, who viewed Berkeley as "a haven for communist sympathizers, protesters and sex deviants" now called out the National Guard, clearly upping the ante.
On a clear Sunday morning, somewhere on Bancroft Avenue, I found myself standing amidst the demonstrators, looking at a line of uniformed national guardsmen, bayonets fixed, more curious then committed. When a tear gas canister bounced its way in front of me, smoke pouring from it, I immediately ran from it, my eyes stinging and watering like nothing else I’ve ever experienced then or since. It was as if Reagan had personally thrown that canister at me, I felt. The next day, a young man named James Rector was shot to death by a sheriff’s deputy as he sat on a roof observing what was going on below, his body riddled with buckshot. When the news got out about the killing, I was, like most people my age, simply outraged.
The Gipper’s Legacy
It was this atmosphere that defined the Reagan years for me, as California governors go. For most of his 8 years in Sacramento, there was everything short of a pitched battle in California between one segment of the population who believed in absolute freedom to do or say anything, and the far more numerous “establishment” whose champions were hard core conservatives reacting to what they saw as a societal breakdown. One such California conservative was Max Rafferty, who served two terms as Superintendent of Public Education and was against the teaching of evolution in elementary schools (which he called “secular humanist” thought), who espoused subsidizing private religious schools with public money, prayer in public schools and of course, tuition at any state run college or university. It was to me, at bottom, a reaction to intellectualism, not different organically from what had occurred in Germany in the 1930’s. It was a desire on the public’s part to return to something more understandable and less confrontational which swept Reagan and his party into office. It was a classic case of the medicine being worse than the disease.
This is what has always outlined my profile, my view, of Ronald Reagan. Reagan’s lack of complexity was a blessing and a curse. He saw things in black and white. He interpreted his world by his Midwestern, middle class, measuring stick of simplicity in belief and values. And for the next 24 years both as governor and President, Reagan could rail incessantly at the loss of the things he saw as immutable “givens” on what it was to be an American: unquestioned patriotism, unfettered business, and minimal government and taxation. It was to me a total denial of our history as people who, in fact, had a long history of active protest, dating back to the Washington Adminstration and the Whiskey Rebellion.
This man who had never struggled in his life; who in his adult years was groomed by the rich and powerful to be a politician, believed that by hard work and trust in the system, anyone could rise out of poverty and dispossession. He saw the nation as being “a shining city on a hill,” all the while blinded to the realities of a war which half the nation was revolted by; at the inevitable demands of the 10% of Americans who were fed up with Jim Crow laws, inferior schools, and ghettoed neighborhoods, of farmworkers who picked our food crops for near starvation wages. He believed natural resources were limitless reservoirs of raw materials (“If you’ve seen one redwood tree, you’ve seen them all.”) for industrious Americans toiling in factories and going home to the wife and family. His was a world which, understandably, existed only in the movies he acted in.
Ronald Reagan’s legacy lives on in perhaps an even more pernicious way, as this nation is more divided than ever over core issues of who we are and where we’re headed as a people. The Reaganist deceptions of the Cadillac owning welfare mother, of slackers and miscreants who have sucked the system dry and abused our generosity, of socialist rabble rousers, persists as much now - even in our hour of economic adversity - as it ever has. We have divided ourselves into those who have much and want more, and those who have little and who are losing what little they have.
Reagan’s simplistic view of American governance belies the truth of his years in public office. He signed into law the largest tax increase in California history. As president, Reagan put through a income tax cut which caused a tripling of the national debt during his 8-year presidency, and unemployment rose to over 10.8%. He never submitted a balanced budget, as a president.
The man who has been tagged as “The Great Communicator” built a house of cards in which he quite innocently told his countrymen what they wanted to hear, rather than what they needed to hear.
In 2008, the house of cards predictably collapsed.