When Ronald Reagan won the Republican nomination for governor of California in 1966, The New York Times
called the GOP's decision "against all counsels of common sense and political prudence." That comment probably deserves to go down in history as one of the most spectacularly wrong political assessments ever to appear in a newspaper. As historian Matthew Dallek writes in The Right Moment
, his account of Reagan's campaign against Democratic governor Pat Brown, "Ronald Reagan redefined politics like no one since Franklin Roosevelt." The future president's "stunning, out-of-nowhere victory," in which he beat Brown by nearly a million votes, altered the course of American politics for at least a generation: it signaled liberalism's descent into the fatal politics of 1970s McGovernism, announced the rebirth of the conservative movement out of the ashes of Barry Goldwater's crushing defeat two years earlier, and foreshadowed Reagan's greater accomplishments on the national stage.
Before becoming governor, Reagan faced the formidable challenge of persuading mainstream voters that an affable actor could indeed perform effectively as a chief executive. But an even trickier task, in Dallek's telling, was how Reagan rescued the conservative movement from its own extremist elements. There was, for instance, the John Birch Society, a right-wing organization whose thousands of members would form a part of any successful conservative coalition, but whose leaders believed in the plainly absurd idea that President Eisenhower was a Communist agent. Reagan at once had to harness this group's energies and keep his distance from its nuttier beliefs. This he accomplished with a deftly written one-page statement repudiating some of what the group's leaders had alleged and courting their followers at the same time. By zeroing in on this half-forgotten episode of Reagan's career, Dallek shows how the consequences of one election can reverberate throughout the years. This book is almost as much about Pat Brown as it is about Ronald Reagan--fans of Ronald Radosh's Divided They Fell, for instance, will surely enjoy that aspect of it--but most readers will be drawn to The Right Moment for its detailed chronicle of how Reagan got his start in politics. --John J. Miller
From Publishers Weekly
The so-called Reagan revolution, according to Dallek, did not begin in 1980 when Reagan won the presidency, but in 1966 when the conservative Hollywood actor, a former FBI informant with no political experience, won a landslide victory in the California gubernatorial race against two-term Democratic incumbent Pat Brown. In this briskly readable, insightful but unsurprising study, Dallek (who has been a columnist for Slate and a contributor to the Atlantic Monthly, Salon and other publications) argues with some justification that the California election was a watershed event. Reagan, positioning himself as a champion of law and order, and as a bold-thinking conservative with fresh ideas and programs, distanced himself from the Republican Party's extremist right wing. Tapping into widespread frustration over high taxes, crime and bloated budgets, genial, telegenic ReaganAand the conservative movementAlearned how to push the right buttons on key issues, turning welfare, urban riots and student protest into cudgels that could be used to bash liberals. Meanwhile, Brown greatly underestimated Reagan's appeal, and though Brown had a strong record on education and civil rights, his faith in the ability of big government to solve social ills was being challenged by entrenched poverty, the Watts riots and campus sit-ins. In Dallek's analysis, Reagan benefited immensely from a liberalism that had moved too far in a direction most voters were unwilling to go; Reagan's rhetorical commitment to smaller government and his support for a strong military budget would resonate for decades. Dallek's evenhanded, incisive critique will compel both liberals and conservatives to rethink their strategies. (Sept.)
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