’80s rewind

Jerry Brown was California’s governor three decades ago, but The Gipper shaped our political future


Thirty years ago this week, Ronald Reagan was elected as the 40th president of the United States. For conservatives, it was an emotional, watershed moment. And across the country, the election resulted in an outpouring of enthusiasm somewhat akin in scale and spontaneity—if not political orientation—to that witnessed when Barack Obama was elected in 2008.

For conservatives, the lesson was clear: America was back in business.

Reagan’s election ushered in a new era in American politics that, in 2010, is still playing itself out. The ways we understand political issues and frame debates around the role of government, taxes, regulations and a slew of other themes, and the expectations we have as to how our leaders will communicate with us all are in many ways still crafted in the shadow of that long-off election.

It was a political package that Reagan had put together as governor of California, living here in Sacramento for eight years with his wife, Nancy, in a six-bedroom house on 45th Street, the heart of the Fabulous Forties. His experiences in Sacramento—learning to negotiate with legislators, and learning too when to ignore legislators and appeal directly to the people—were in many ways the secrets of his success. He had learned how to harness conservative voter rage about a rapidly shifting culture, from the rise of the anti-war and civil-rights movements to the sexual revolution and the increasingly widespread use of marijuana by young people. And how, at the same time, to come off as optimistic, to convey the unshakeable conviction that America’s best days were still to come.

For Sacramentans in 1980, the presidential election was, in many ways, history repeating itself. Fourteen years earlier, Reagan had stormed to victory in the California gubernatorial race, running a hard-right campaign and, in the process, staking claim to being failed 1964 presidential candidate Barry Goldwater’s ideological heir apparent. He disliked the welfare state, was anti-tax and pro states’ rights, and scored easy points by mocking the hippie subculture. (Hippies looked like Tarzan, had hair like Jane and smelled like Cheeta, he once famously quipped.)

He was suspicious of the civil-rights movement; years later, when running for president, he would hold a campaign rally in the reactionary town of Philadelphia, Miss., where three civil-rights workers had been murdered in 1964.

And, above all, he had a knack for condensing the business of government into the sound bite. “Government is the people’s business,” he declared in his January 1967 inaugural address. “And every man, woman and child becomes a shareholder with the first penny of tax paid. …

“We are of the people, chosen by them to see that no permanent structure of government ever encroaches on freedom or assumes a power beyond that freely granted by the people. We stand between the taxpayer and the tax spender.”

And yet, once in office, he’d been surprisingly pragmatic, signing a number of liberal bills, including ones markedly liberalizing access to abortion services in the state and significantly ramping up the state’s welfare spending. In fact, during his time in office, government spending in California rose by not far shy of 200 percent, and—an inconvenient truth for anti-government conservatives keen to claim Reagan as all their own, as entirely simpatico with their agenda today—he actually raised taxes, garnering a 30 percent increase in general-fund revenues by doing so. He increased the sales tax from 3 cents to 5; raised sin taxes; increased the personal income tax—all the while appealing to conservative voters by uttering platitudes about the evils of big government and cavalier taxation policies. Medi-Cal was expanded, as was the public university infrastructure.

True, Gov. Reagan also undermined the state’s mental-health system, underinvested in cities, expressed contempt for the nascent environmental movement and played on white voters’ racial fears. But, overall, compared to today’s firebrand conservatives—all signed on to Grover Norquist’s No New Taxes pledge, all committed to shrinking back the social-service functions of government—Gov. Reagan’s administration was full of mealy-mouthed liberals.

By 1980, Californians had long grown used to the aging B-movie film star’s bonhomie-combined-with-bare-knuckle politicking. Smile and verbally woo the John Birches and fundamentalists while campaigning. Win office and, still smiling, at least on some issues hew to the middle. Win re-election by a larger margin by capturing some more of that contested middle ground.

On abortion, for example, he talked the talk about overturning Roe v. Wade, but never once, while president, did he address in person the annual meeting of the Right to Life Committee.

Now, in 1980, 14 years after he had been elected governor, Reagan was heading into the final days of the presidential campaign. For weeks now, the polls had shown a tight race, with Reagan slightly ahead of President Jimmy Carter after the final presidential debate of the campaign. But only a few pundits were predicting that victory had slipped entirely beyond Carter’s grasp. Both candidates had wound up their campaigns with huge rallies in the Midwest, thought to be the key to securing an Electoral College majority. Reagan had flown to Peoria, Ill.; Carter to Akron, Ohio.

“Never in the 45-year history of presidential election surveys has the Gallup poll found such volatility and uncertainty in voter preferences,” wrote George Gallup in The Sacramento Bee. The polling, Gallup wrote, gave Reagan a lead, but one “within the range of sampling variation.” In other words, too close to call.

But instead of a nail biter, on Election Day itself, everything broke for Ronald Reagan.

Like the rest of the West, on November 4, 1980, California went for Reagan decisively. Voters up and down the state dismissed sitting President Carter, who, with his somewhat dour, more-pious-than-thou demeanor, had never managed to connect with free-spirited Western electorates, whether in general elections or in Democratic Party primaries, by large margins.

Instead, they went for the soothing tones—dulcet, some said—and suntanned, smiling face of The Gipper.

Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas ruled the airwaves, but Ronald Reagan changed the nation.

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Step into the hot-tub time machine and take a trip back to Sacramento in November 1980. A time when newspaper advertising supplements featured such novelty items as eight-digit LCD calculators for $8.99, Kodak “point and shoot” cameras for $19.99, and Samsung 12-inch black-and-white televisions for $79.99. Not to mention the Parker Brothers’ electronic game consul that included tic-tack-toe and, its advertisements audaciously declaring, “even plays music.” A time when guitarist Sammy Hagar could fill the Memorial Auditorium and when hit television shows included such classics as Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, Scooby Doo, Where Are You!, Days of Our Lives, and The Jeffersons. A time when the local movie theaters were showing The Blues Brothers, Airplane!, Private Benjamin, The Elephant Man, and a more off-color pic titled Bad Timing: A Sensual Obsession.

As the election neared, Democratic state Senator Alan Robbins, of Van Nuys, was charged by Sacramento’s district attorney with 10 felony counts of sexual misconduct with three teenage girls. He had, allegedly, solicited oral sex from high-school interns in his office. On Election Day, he pled innocent in Sacramento County Superior Court to all charges. Gleefully, the local media honed in on the story. (They paid less attention to the fact that, ultimately, the charges didn’t stick. But, a decade later, the state senator was back in the news again, for all the wrong reasons, forced to resign after being caught in a federal corruption sting and subsequently sent to a federal penitentiary.)

Meanwhile, the infamous psychopathic killer Charles Manson went up before a parole-board hearing at the California Medical Facility in Vacaville. To no one’s surprise, for the third time, he was denied parole. And, in Modesto, the police chief won plaudits from the city council for denying the Ku Klux Klan a six-hour parade permit to march through the small downtown.

In the obituaries section, tributes to a recently deceased 77-year-old owner of two K Street taverns, a local Masonic Lodge leader, and a longtime automotive-shop teacher in the Sacramento school system.

In sports, the UC Davis Aggies lost 34-27 to Santa Clara in a weekend game just before the election, and a 24-year-old local named Tom Chew was getting favorable coverage for having entered into not one, but two motorcycle races in the far-off city of Macau.

At the Red Lion Hotel, on the eve of the election, a middle-aged Zsa Zsa Gabor entertained a Women’s Forum with a long, feisty speech, containing such hirsute pearls of wisdom as “Men like a full-size bosom and a half-size brain.” The audience, by all accounts, lapped it up.

But all of these local-color stories were dwarfed by the ghastly saga of Craig Miller and Mary Elizabeth Sowers, two Sacramento State undergraduates who were kidnapped after attending a late-night fraternity party at a restaurant in the Arden Fair shopping center and, in quick succession, found murdered.

The case gained international attention and eventually led to the arrest of Gerald and Charlene Gallego, a husband-and-wife serial-killer duo who drove around the country in an old van, kidnapped a slew of young adults, turned them into sex slaves and then killed them in the late 1970s and early 1980s. It was, by many measures, one of the most salacious murder stories in American history.

Who you gonna call? Well, at least you wouldn’t misplace your cell phone in the ’80s.

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Win one for The Gipper

Of course, even a sex-slave murder saga couldn’t displace the presidential election as the biggest show in town.

Read the newspapers from 1980, talk to people who were active politically 30 years ago, and much of it sounds depressingly familiar. America’s might challenged. America’s optimistic, can-do, culture under threat. Domestic culture wars. High levels of unemployment and stagnating wages—with the added twist of high inflation and stunningly high interest rates, a weak dollar ($2.45 to the British pound) and investors pushing up the price of gold.

Above all, the country was increasingly defined by disillusionment with politics-as-normal. “Today’s the day,” The Sacramento Union’s Election Day editorial began. “Today’s the day that angry, frustrated Americans can finally do something about rescuing the nation from a sick economy, impossible taxes and diminished respect in the eyes of our allies and adversaries.” Sensing a sea change, on election eve bull market speculators pushed the Dow Jones up to 939.20.

And yet, in other ways, those 30 years might as well be light years ago. The culture changed dramatically in the intervening decades, technology moved ahead in quantum leaps—the grainy old black-and-white 1980 newsprint alone looks like a message in a bottle from Neolithic times—and America’s enemies shifted from being predominantly Cold War communists (plus Iran on the margins) to being dominated by Al Qaeda and other Sunni Muslim extremist groups (plus Shiite Iran on the margins).

People wanted a change, and they looked to Reagan to deliver it.

On the East Coast, by the early evening of Election Day, so bad were the results for Democratic aspirations that a heartbroken Carter conceded the election while the polls in California were still open. As a result, nearly half a million late-to-vote Californians, disproportionately Democrats, simply stayed home and the state as a whole swung rightward. Republicans picked up seats in Congress, including in the Golden State, although California Democratic Sen. Alan Cranston won re-election by a large margin. And they gained a slew of seats in the state Legislature. Reagan, in Los Angeles for a huge victory party, knew by nightfall that he would soon be heading east to live in the White House. Nancy, who had been stumping in Sacramento for him the night before, decrying last-minute Democratic Party ads accusing Reagan of incoherence on nuclear policy, flew down to join him.

Sacramento was, and is, a government town. All around the city that election night, politicos watched as the elephants trumpeted their success. In the 5th District, Republican Jean Moorhead muscled past Democratic favorite Ted Sheedy, whose wife Sandy is, these days, a city councilwoman. In Roseville, Rep. Harold “Bizz” Johnson, the 72-year-old dean of California’s Democratic congressional delegation, lost to Eugene Chappie.

It was, in short, a very bad night to be a Democrat in Sacramento. Like nine pins, the donkeys went down.

“When we found out Carter had conceded, we just hung up things and I went home,” remembers 72-year-old Nancy Fox, who at the time was a Democratic Party staffer in the California state Legislature, raising two kids alone after splitting with her husband a few years earlier. “I felt sadness. I wish he hadn’t conceded so fast. I was still out walking precincts and trying to get people to the polls. My walk partner and I were out walking in the Stockton Boulevard area. We looked at each other; he dropped me off at my car and I went home. How could Carter have done that? That was the feeling at the time.”

Rose King, a longtime Democratic Party activist, had gradually been steeling herself for a likely Reagan presidency. On Election Day, she had been working on legislative races up and down the state, spending the morning in Orange County and flying up to San Francisco in the afternoon. Yet, despite being a hard-nosed operative, she too was devastated by Carter’s concession. “I remember the fury we felt, because we still had races going on, and we were trying to get Democrats out to vote.

“My mother called me at midnight, so upset Reagan got elected,” sighed King, now a 72-year-old consultant and mental-health advocate. “She had a hangover for three days!”

By night’s end on Election Day 1980, 4,444,044 Californians had voted for Reagan; Carter had received only a little over 3 million votes; and third-party candidate John Anderson a smidgeon less than three-quarters of a million votes. Four other candidates claimed about 200,000 votes. At a state level, it was a Reagan landslide. At a county level, Reagan carried Sacramento County by nearly 23,000 votes. And that, says longtime GOP statistician and demographics expert Al Rogel, was a shocker, since his data showed “under normal circumstances” a Republican candidate in the county wouldn’t have gotten near the 50 percent mark. Even liberal bastions like Marin County went GOP that year.

Seventy miles to the west of Sacramento, anti-draft protesters at UC Berkeley—fearing that Reagan would reinstitute Selective Service and perhaps itching to relive the glory-day battles from when Reagan was governor of California and seemingly in perennial conflict with student radicals—occupied several administrative buildings. The police went in. More than 50 people were arrested.

“REAGAN LANDSLIDE” was the banner headline the next day on the 20-cent, conservative-leaning Sacramento Union. Underneath was a bifurcated front page: on the left, “Ronald Reagan 40th President of the United States.” On the right, “Republicans Gain Control of Senate.”

The other daily paper in town, The Sacramento Bee, which had endorsed Carter, put it this way: “Reagan Sweeps to Victory. Carter Promises Orderly Transition.” Dismayed at the voters’ choice, the Bee’s editorial writers penned a piece titled “The Morning After”: “If the candidates were in a rut,” they declared, somewhat incoherently, “we pulled them down into it. Do we lack leadership? No. We lack followership.”

Underneath it was another editorial, “The War Goes On,” about the continued Soviet military occupation of Afghanistan. “That they have been able to resist this long [a little over a year] is testimony to the Afghans’ storied tenacity,” the journalists opined, in an editorial that could be recycled, substituting “NATO” for “Soviet Union,” almost verbatim today.

Ray-Bans on the boardwalk? Must be Santa Monica circa 1983.

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Man and the myth

In the decades since the 1980 election, The Gipper has been mythologized to the point where he’s now seen more as a symbol than a real politician, a talisman of revitalized American confidence, finally shaking out the kinks of Vietnam and Watergate from the American psyche, rather than a flesh-and-blood, warts-and-all, right-wing politician.

Recently, conservative state Sen. George Runner pushed a bill making February 6, 2011, the 100th anniversary of the 40th president’s birth, and all February 6’s hereafter a Reagan appreciation day. His colleagues eagerly passed it, and the governor—keen for any good news in a period marked by ever bleaker political and economic prognoses out of Sacramento—just as eagerly signed it. As Elizabeth Fehr scathingly wrote in response in her Sacramento Liberal Examiner blog, “Every February 6, schoolchildren will learn about Reagan’s life, presumably to distract them from the fact that the state government is cutting their teachers’ pay and firing them.”

It’s a fair bet that many of the fresh crop of red-meat conservative politicos elected this past Tuesday came of age hero-worshipping Reagan, whooping up his every attack on liberals, delighting in his ability to reduce complex political problems to simplistic sound bites.

But The Gipper was more than simply a photogenic figurehead for a newly confident alliance of economic and social conservatives. Love him or loathe him, he was an extremely skilled politician and was elected because tens of millions of real people facing real challenges chose to cast their lot for him, including many who had never previously cast a vote for a Republican. He emerged out of a particular moment in American history, and he was swept into power, in November 1980, by voters buffeted by foreign-policy challenges—from the Iranian hostage crisis—which day in, day out, over more than a year, humbled and humiliated America before the world, to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan—fed up with economic malaise and despairing of the cronyist leadership culture in Washington, D.C.

“I had been teaching fifth-grade U.S. history,” recalls retired public-school teacher Betty Axup, who joined the Republicans of River City club to work on the 1980 Reagan election effort, and also served as a Reagan delegate at the GOP convention that summer. “Having had our celebration of the bicentennial and stuff like that, it was a really good thought that he’d be president. I’m remembering about the hostages being held and Jimmy Carter’s big fiasco about trying to get them rescued. It seemed every time Democrats got in, the U.S. defense was undone.”

On Election Day, Axup went to school as usual. Afterward, she dashed off to serve as a poll watcher. Before the polls shut, they received word that Carter had conceded. “We found out that Reagan had won. It was really a good feeling to know we were, again, going to have the defense built up.”

Five years after the last American soldiers had left Vietnam, Reagan was again promising to flex the country’s superpower muscles. He was willing to stare down the Soviets with a renewed nuclear arms race—a gamble that ultimately led to the Soviet Union’s demise, but that many arms control and foreign-policy experts at the time feared could quite possibly result in a globe-wrecking nuclear conflagration. He was willing to insert American forces, both overtly and via subterfuge, into wars and counter-revolutions around the Earth, from Angola to Nicaragua, Iran and Pakistan to Grenada. And he was determined to pour tens of billions of dollars into the Strategic Defense Initiative, a utopian concept for a space-based shield aimed at intercepting intercontinental ballistic missiles that critics quickly lampooned as Star Wars.

Who misses rewinding and flipping sides of cassettes?

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The left disliked Reagan’s strutting foreign policy. But Reagan sensed that middle America was longing for the country to assert itself aggressively, and confidently, again on the world stage. And, brushing the dangers of conflagration aside, he forged ahead with his new priorities.

Reagan biographer Lou Cannon says that many Democrats utterly underestimated the ex-governor; of course. Some, like Bob Moretti, one-time speaker of the California Assembly, had dealt with Reagan long enough to know that he was a powerhouse. But many others, says Cannon, had assumed that even if he carried California, he was too lightweight to win a national election. Moretti was so worried by the Democrats’ failure to engage Reagan early that he flew out to D.C. to try to give Carter a wake-up call.

“I remember asking Bob when he got back what he thought,” recalls Cannon. “He said he should have saved the airfare. The Carter people were impervious.”

In an era of angst, it was a fatal error that provided Reagan, says Cannon, with the opportunity to “clean Carter’s clock.”

On election night itself, the local KTXL-TV 40 was showing John Wayne’s Rio Bravo. Later, it told readers of its large adverts in the local papers that it would show “complete election returns.”

Minutes after the show began, it became clear that Reagan had secured a famous victory. “We got out the vote,” says Axup, who was at a KVIE election-night party. “Everyone was overjoyed. There was a great deal of emotion about the day. Everybody felt that we had done the job. Yes, there was a lot of pride. We were hugging each other and jumping up and down, practically.”