Wednesday, June 8, 2016

The Rise of Ronald Reagan: 50 Years Ago Today

Ronald Reagan, San Francisco Airport arrival, 1966, photo ©Bob Campbell,
San Francisco Chronicle, courtesy, California Historical Society,

With conclusion of yesterday's California primary season, we look back to one of the most significant party primaries in State history: the Republican race in 1966. It was 50 years ago today when Californians awoke to the news that actor Ronald Reagan had won his party's primary on June 7, 1966, defeating San Francisco mayor George Christopher by nearly 35% percentage points.

Reagan's primary victory in 1966 set the stage for an epic showdown in the Fall with two-term governor, Edmund G. 'Pat' Brown, the father of current California Governor Jerry Brown. At the time, Governor Brown (who defeated Los Angeles Mayor Sam Yorty in the Democratic primary) was pleased that Reagan defeated Christopher, thinking that Reagan would be easy to beat in the Fall. But Reagan would end up defeating Brown in November, setting the stage for the "Reagan Revolution" nationally and foreshadowing the themes that many Republicans, including Reagan, would use against Democrats in the decades to come: soft on crime, pro-welfare, tolerant of citizen unrest.

As we noted at the very beginning of this year, the 50th anniversary of 1966 allows us to look back at a revolutionary year in California history when two opposing forces that continue to shape the State and country were unleashed. In the primary against Christopher and then against Brown, Reagan ran explicitly against the growing tide of student activism in the Bay Area, saying he "would clean up the mess at Berkeley." Meanwhile, across the Bay, student activism had merged with a growing youth culture in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury area, creating the counterculture of the "hippies" that would capture the attention of the country the following year during the infamous "Summer of Love."

Yet, just as the masses were starting to gather on Haight Street and "rock dances" were being held every weekend at San Francisco's Fillmore Auditorium and The Avalon, Ronald Reagan won his first significant political election. In short, California's complicated history and split personality was on full display in 1966.

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