Friday, March 30, 2012

We Didn’t Start the Fire: Berkeley and Its Confrontation with Ronald Reagan

Jeffrey Kahn writing for UC Berkeley News in 2004 repeated the popular claim that Ronald Reagan’s first campaign for governor emphasized two points:  to send "the welfare bums back to work," and "to clean up the mess at Berkeley."  While this is bandied about all over the Internet (e.g., here, here, here, and here—to name a few) I would like to “pull the thread” by asking just how much evidence there is for this claim.   To a very large degree, the answer hinges on what makes something a “central pillar” of someone’s campaign message.  Clearly Reagan did talk about how he would deal with the student protests…

…in addition to a great many other things. 

However, he contended that the issue of Berkeley arose in response to voters repeatedly asking him on the campaign trail what he planned to do about the island of academic anarchy:

I didn't make it a part of my speech until way late in the campaign when finally you knew that this was going to be the whole question, and you had answered it over and over again--then I finally put the answers I'd been given into a portion of the brief speech. When the hands would go up, the minute you opened the question period, the first question was [about] Berkeley, and you'd answer it. You'd see twenty hands then go down--that was their question. You knew that this was the number one thing on the people's minds.

Now, the opposition tried to make out that I was persecuting the university for political advantage. I wasn't. I had never mentioned Berkeley as an incident, or as an issue, until those question and answer sessions…
If the Berkeley unrest did indeed constitute a pillar of the Reagan campaign, it seems reasonable to expect this topic to feature prominently in Reagan’s campaign ads, speeches, and television appearances.  Indeed, unless it featured more prominently than other Reagan themes, I seriously question the legitimacy of calling it one of the “two points” the campaign “emphasized.” 

In his first appearance on Meet the Press (dated January 9, 1966), Mr. Reagan spoke at length about his views on taxation, crime, and federalism.  The closest he got to discussing Berkeley was when, after receiving questions regarding his relationship with the John Birch Society he opined that such questions might be little more than a thinly-veiled attempt by the Democratic Party to deflect attention away from its own connection to “certain demonstrations” in CA.  

I have located three different Reagan-for-Governor t.v. advertisements from 1966.  None of them mention Berkeley.  Rather they advocate cutting taxes, talk about Reagan’s personal integrity, and defend Mr. Reagan from Gov. Brown’s pitiful last-minute ad hominem attack

Print—at least such as I have been able to access via the Internet—has not proven much more fruitful.  Frankly, I have had a bit of trouble locating much mention of Reagan at all prior to his election night victory. One exception, however, (The California Courier Nov. 3, 1966, p. 10) includes a campaign ad, featuring four topics: taxes, crime and juvenile delinquency, education, and labor.  For the curious, here’s the full text of the advertisement:

Taxes:  “Taxes in California are the highest in the nation--$100 per person more than the national average.  Under the present administration’s costly budget practices, they will soar even higher next year.  This year’s budget could have been cut by $245 million, without elimination of a single program.”
Crime and Juvenile Delinquency: “California, with 9% of the nation’s population has 17% of the nation’s crime.  Willful murder is up 14% in one year; arrests of juveniles for narcotics violations are up a shocking 34.9%.  I will call on the Legislature to re-enact those key crime prevention bills passed in the last session but vetoed by the Governor.”
Education:  “Local control of education is basic to the traditions of America.  Only with local control can Americans be assured that their children will receive the finest education possible, with safeguards against political indoctrination.  I will call for legislation to put unification of school districts on a voluntary—not compulsory—basis.  And I will seek ways to relieve the growing burden on local property taxpayers.”
Labor:  “I will seek machinery to insure fair bargaining for both management and labor with protection for the public in those areas not now covered by federal legislation.  Such machinery is non-existent in California.  I will also seek legislation to guarantee every union member the right in his union to a secret ballot on all matters affecting that union.”
Ummmm…..yeah….I’m not really seeing a “bash Berkeley” message here either. 

Notwithstanding the sound and fury from the Left, there seems to be a dearth of evidence that the Reagan campaign was characterized by vindictiveness or academic oppression.  However, there is evidence that the thin-skinned sense of incredulity that anyone might stand athwart ANY impulse enchanted by the Berkley faculty is nothing new. 

For example, Mel Ziegler wrote in Pennsylvania State’s Daily Collegian (Nov. 11, 1966, p. 2):
At eight o’clock Wednesday morning a University professor stood before his ancient history class and began to talk, but the subject wasn’t Rome.

Noticeably upset by the outcome of Tuesday’s election, he set aside his prepared lecture notes for the first time this term...

Then he paused for a moment, looked up at the class and asked that they please, “all say a silent prayer this morning for our brethren at the University of California.”

Ronald Reagan had been elected governor of California.

“At first I felt that if California elects Ronald Reagan, then they deserve him,” he said.

But you could see he didn’t mean it.  For no matter what he thought of California, he had a deep sense of affection for Berkeley.  It was here that the nation’s universities found their “moral and social conscience,” he said of the one campus that has consistently fought the bondages of conventional academic and social morality. [emphasis added]

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