- Hardcover: 304 pages
- Publisher: Free Press; 1St Edition edition (September 19, 2000)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 068484320X
- ISBN-13: 978-0684843209
- Product Dimensions: 9.5 x 6.4 x 1.1 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 21 customer reviews
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The Right Moment: Ronald Reagan's First Victory and the Decisive Turning Point in American Politics Hardcover – September 19, 2000
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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.)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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The backgrounds of both candidates set the stage for the first of a series of struggles between liberals and conservatives for the hearts, minds and future of America. The liberal in this race was Pat Brown, a giant killer. Brown had already defeated U.S. Senate minority leader William Knowland and former Vice-President Richard Nixon so a political newcomer seemed like a soft opponent. Brown had risen from his San Francisco legal practice to serve as Attorney General of California before being one of the few Democratic governors up to that time. Brown was one who believed in using the powers of government to aid the unfortunate and to shape society. He had achieved some success and, running in the wake of the LBJ landslide, the future seemed to be one of liberal ascendency.
Ronald Reagan had grown up as a supporter of the New Deal who gradually saw the Democratic Party leaving him. As his movie career faded, Reagan had gone into television and became a spokesman for General Electric, a role that let him go around the country to share his vision of freedom and to hear from a broad spectrum of the country. Having captured national attention for "The Speech" in support of Barry Goldwater in 1964 he immediately became a sought after candidate for governor.
This campaign had the set-up for the stereotypical race of the decade. Student protests at Berkeley and rioting in Watts made Brown appear to be ineffective while Reagan appeared to offer a fresh response to California's problems.
Neither candidate had a clear ride to November. Brown had to beat back a primary challenge from Los Angeles Mayor Sam Yorty, whose strong challenge revealed Brown's vulnerability. Reagan, the political neophyte, had to beat back a challenge from former San Francisco Mayor George Christopher.
The campaign is skillfully narrated on the pages of this book. Perhaps the most significant line was when Brown told a group of school children "I'm running against an actor. Remember this, you know who shot Abraham Lincoln?" The backlash about finished whatever chance Brown still had. The conclusion is well known, Reagan won by almost one million votes and went on to change, not only California, but later America as a whole.
The book covers a lot more of the story than I did here and it tells the story very well. This story is not important only to students of California history because it tells in miniature the story that would be repeated in the Nixon-Humphrey race two years later and the Reagan-Carter race of 1980. It is said that trends spread out California and the ripples of this election were felt across the Fruited Plain. The ripples did not stop with the retirement of Reagan in 1989. One major charge Reagan had to deflect in 1966 was that he was a dangerous Right-Wing extremist. We hear this charge made every election cycle. This book gives us a glimpse into an early version of that song. The writing is excellent and the story is captivating and important. No student of late Twentieth Century political history will want to miss it.