Why Reagan Was a Successful Governor

After he was appointed Ronald Reagan’s authorized biographer in 1985, Edmund Morris followed the 40th President around, making notes. He interviewed many people and conducted hit-and-miss research (hit and miss because he made numerous errors). He confessed several times to being baffled by Reagan, who seemed an enigma to him. Morris neither understood nor liked politics and economics, thus, he seemed not to understand the centrality of these things to Reagan, the public man.

Ultimately, Morris threw up his hands and created a fictional parallel universe to Reagan’s actual life, peopling it with characters from his imagination, including himself as a contemporary of his subject. Fourteen years after he began, Morris’s potpourri of fact and fiction, Dutch, was finally published, still lacking any insights into what made Reagan tick.

What made Reagan tick is precisely what Lou Cannon’s new book is about. His narrative, packed with people, events and suspense, keeps the reader moving along, anxious to learn the outcome of each major issue.

Lou Cannon first covered Reagan as a reporter for the San Jose Mercury when Reagan was running for governor of California in 1966. He later moved to the Washington Post. All told, he covered Reagan continuously for a quarter of a century, until after his subject had retired from the White House. This is his fifth book about Ronald Reagan.

Although he always thought Reagan was likable, Cannon in his reportage and in his earlier books often exhibited strong skepticism about his political and policy moves. Now, in the fullness of time, as he puts the eight years of Reagan’s governorship into a broader perspective, he finds himself admiring Reagan for his deft use of timing, for his commitment to his ideas and, generally, for selecting good people to carry out his policies. The book is not, however, hagiography. Cannon is balanced and not afraid to point out what he thinks are his subject’s shortcomings.

As others have done, Cannon comments that Reagan was often underestimated. He writes, “One of his most appealing attributes during his long climb from Dixon to the White House was that he was never content with the roles others assigned to him. He believed in himself.”

Cannon also understands that this publicly affable man, nearly always good humored, was also a very private man. “Reagan had learned in childhood the knack of mentally discarding events in his life that caused him emotional or physical pain. This ability is not unique, Cannon says, but Reagan had an awesome skill at such pretense, which armored his natural optimism.”

To set the stage for Reagan’s move into elective politics, Cannon recounts Reagan’s childhood, young adulthood and his movie career, noting that his years as president of the Screen Actors Guild gave him the negotiating skills which he used effectively both as governor and President.

Cannon weaves the major events of Reagan’s governorship into a large tapestry. Events that seemed discrete at the time are shown as interconnected to subsequent ones. For example, he takes us through the student unrest at the University of California and how Reagan, a brand-new governor, came out on top, as he did later over the issue of tuition for university students.

Reagan, faced with a state spending more than it was taking in (inherited from his predecessor), reluctantly went for a tax increase and income tax withholding. Much as he disliked these moves, he handled himself so effectively that his “base” never held it against him. Indeed, he promised to return subsequent surpluses to the taxpayers and was able to pay off on that promise.

The dynamics of his relationship with the colorful Assembly Speaker (and 1970 gubernatorial challenger) Jess Unruh are explored in fascinating detail, as is the remarkable working relationship between Reagan and a later Democrat Assembly Speaker, Bob Moretti, to create historic welfare reform in 1971. It turned a galloping increase in welfare rolls into a decline, while giving the needy greater support.

Most events Cannon recounts were reported at the time, but this is the first comprehensive review of all eight years. For example, he shows us how Reagan amazed environmentalists with two actions. He stopped the building of a huge federal dam, the Dos Rios, which would have flooded a valley of Indian ranches. Later, Reagan and his family took a summer pack trip into the high Sierra to a place where a proposed trans-Sierra highway would be built. Once there, he declared it would not be built. So much for the water and highway lobbies.

Cannon dissects Reagan’s management style, which consisted of delegating operational details to subordinates once he had determined his objectives. Cannon writes, “He was not lazy. He didn’t work hard unless he needed to, but he was disciplined and sensible in the way he used his time.”

Reagan was “simultaneously conservative and pragmatic,” Cannon writes, as if the two were inherently incompatible. Apparently, he means that Reagan was willing to compromise on tactics, but not on principles, which is true. Several years after the welfare reforms went into effect, he said to me, “If I can get 70% of what I want from a legislature controlled by the other party, I’ll take it. I figure it will work well enough that we can go back the next year and get more.”

For those who lived through the Reagan governorship, either in or outside Sacramento, Governor Reagan will bring back memories and make larger sense of events which may not have seemed revelatory at the time. For those who admired President Reagan, this book will is an informative and important part of his story. For younger readers in particular, for whom even the Reagan presidency is something not experienced personally, this book will be an important step in learning about what it takes to be a leader.


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