The Reagan "Revolution" -- California in the 1960s
IT WAS P.T. BARNUM who said, "There is no such thing as bad publicity." Such a notion may be true for the entertainment industry, but for politicians it is the exception, not the rule—even in California, home of the longest running reality show in history, one that starred Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Jerry Brown and Arnold Schwarzenegger, to name a few of the marquee players. Ken Meade, a former three-term Assemblyman from the Bay Area, made a few notable appearances on that stage usually cast in a supporting role or playing a part that did little to advance his career. Yet the tale he tells reveals much about that transcendental state, our nation, and ourselves: It is a true story about the California politics of experience...
Assemblyman Donald Mulford was at the peak of his political power when all hell broke loose at U.C. Berkeley in 1964, during a series of momentous demonstrations and protests known as the Free Speech Movement (See Part II of this series).
Mulford ⎯ a conservative Republican serving the fourth of seven terms representing Berkeley and Oakland ⎯ was so politically entrenched that any Democrat who dared run against him knew they were little more than a sacrificial lamb offered to ensure that the local party faithful did not sit it out on Election Day.
Mulford chastised the protests at Cal as "mob law.” He blamed U.C. President Clark Kerr for encouraging the demonstrations by failing to discipline "the Savio crowd," whom he said violated "the laws of society" and "proper standards of conduct" at the university.
Clark Kerr was surprised at the vitriol. He was, after all, recognized around the world for what he accomplished at the University of California.
Kerr’s obituary, published in the Dec. 3, 2003 issue of The New York Times, said he “created the blueprint for public higher education in the United States.” Others suggested his accomplishments were considerably more, crediting him with the transformation of the UC system into one of the finest public universities in the world.
Yet during his career Kerr often appeared to straddle the fence. When at the height of the McCarthy era, UC Regents adopted a “loyalty oath” designed in large measure to ferret out leftists and libertarians, Kerr signed it. However as Chancellor of UC Berkeley from 1952 to 1958, and President of the UC system from 1958 until 1967, he resisted efforts to fire those who refused to sign the oaths.
Kerr thought that as a respected academic he could remain above the political fray surrounding the Free Speech Movement. But his scholarly detachment was cited by the right as further proof he was an “elitist,” which, in the jingoist phrase mongering of those times was a nuanced term for a left wing ideologue.
Initially Kerr managed to survive Mulford’s endless attacks coordinated as they were with a ruthless media campaign by former U.S. Senator William F. Knowland, owner of The Oakland Tribune, one of the most influential newspapers in California at the time.
But nobody was prepared for the counter-revolution brewing in Southern California, one that would change the nature of politics in the state and nation.
Ronald Reagan entered the 1966 California gubernatorial race pledging to “clean up the mess” at U.C. Berkeley. He pointed to Kerr and the "anarchy" he said existed at Berkeley as an example of how things were going “terribly wrong,” accusing the university president of being "too tolerant," and demanding the demonstrators be expelled.
"Get them out of there,” Reagan said about the protestors. “Throw them out. They are spoiled and don't deserve the education they are getting. They don't have a right to take advantage of our system of education."
Reagan ran for governor on a militant platform that also pledged to put “welfare bums back to work,” cut taxes, get the government out of people’s lives, and clean up the mess in Sacramento.
Looking back at the “Reagan revolution,” Ken Meade appeared to recollect a particularly painful episode in his life.
“Reagan altered the way we view democratic institutions in this country,” Meade said, pronouncing the former president’s name “Reegun.”
“He and his cronies convinced the people that politics and political institutions are corrupt and controlled by an elite⎯which they are. But Reagan’s backers were part of that elite, part of the concentration of wealth and power that rule the country today. Reagan’s strategy, or at least that of his backers, was to make people cynical and encourage them to drop out of the political process, the same tactics George W. Bush and Karl Rove use today. Needless-to-say, they have all been quite successful...”
Reagan stunned the political establishment when he easily defeated popular two-term Governor Edmund G. “Pat” Brown in 1966.
And Edmund G. Brown was no lightweight.
The father of current California Attorney General Jerry Brown (who, among other things served as governor from 1975-1983), Edmund G. Brown easily vanquished the powerful Senator William F. Knowland in the 1958 gubernatorial campaign. This was no small achievement. Knowland, heir to The Oakland Tribune Dynasty and family name, was a national figure and Republican kingmaker.
Then in 1962, Edmund G. Brown defeated former Vice President Richard M. Nixon, who ran for governor after having come within 118,000 votes of defeating John F. Kennedy in the 1960 presidential election.
After Brown’s stunning victory over Nixon, he seemed destined to be elected to a third term, something only Earl Warren had done before.
* * * *
RONALD REAGAN knew that attacking “the mess” in Berkeley played well with his campaign’s carefully choreographed law-and-order, restore morality marketing campaign.
During the 1966 campaign, Reagan’s handlers at one point suggested the candidate tone down criticism of the Berkeley protests and focus on other issues. Reagan disagreed, trusting instincts developed during his career as a Hollywood actor. “Look,” he said, “I don’t care if I’m in the mountains, the desert, the biggest cities of the state, the first question (I am asked) is ‘What are you going to do about Berkeley?’ And each time (my) answer would get applause…”
Yet the matter wasn’t simply a campaign issue: Reagan and his staff were serious about ousting Kerr. Long before polls or pundits suggested he would win the election, Reagan met secretly with Mulford at the assemblyman's grand home in Piedmont to discuss the situation at Cal and more specifically how to fire Kerr. The assistant director of UC’s Radiation Lab, Hardin Jones, and former Vice Chancellor Alex Sheriffs joined Mulford and Reagan.
According to an article by Jennifer Kline published in The Daily Californian nearly forty years later, Jones was a paid FBI informant and Sheriffs "steadily supplied the FBI with information from personnel files about students and professors involved in campus protests." Kerr was the object of an investigation launched by FBI Chief J. Edgar Hoover who suspected him of being a communist, according to documents that were obtained under the Freedom of Information Act after a 17-year battle by the San Francisco Chronicle. (An outstanding piece of investigative reporting by Chronicle writer Seth Rosenfeld lays bare the scheming of the FBI, conservative politicians, and some UC officials to destroy Kerr.)
Reagan, Mulford, and others gathered that summer day in 1966 -- months before the general election -- worked out a deal to oust Kerr, according to Kline.
Just three weeks after his inauguration Reagan moved swiftly to "restore order at Berkeley" and fired Kerr. This marked the beginning of a tumultuous relationship between Reagan, university students and faculty, and the City of Berkeley, one that would culminate in 1969 when Reagan declared martial law and ordered National Guard troops to occupy that city during the People's Park protests.
Armed with automatic weapons and glinting bayonets, soldiers stood on street corners glaring at citizens with menace, troop carriers and tanks stationed in parking lots all around town ready to move. After the tear gas cleared and residents awoke to see their city occupied, Berkeley would never be the same again…
* * *
Boalt Hall, U.C. Berkeley’s School of Law, is one of the most prestigious in the nation. The competition there is fierce, the workload backbreaking. Attending law school there is often compared with doing time in prison. More than one student found the pressure so intense that when they fell hopelessly behind they committed suicide.
Ken Meade said he studied law so he could “defend the poor and others left out of the system.” Yet one morning in 1964, at the birth of the Free Speech Movement, while students stood against the system and lay their bodies on its gears and wheels and levers, he left the scene and dutifully marched off to class.
"I was definitely torn by my decision. But I choose a career over politics―at that point at least."
While attending law school Meade worked as a legal clerk for the firm of Bennett and Van de Poel. When he graduated in 1964, they gave him the summer off so he could study for the bar exam. For months Meade kissed his wife Sharon goodbye as she stepped out the door on her way to work. After a cup of coffee, a glance at the morning paper and a law book, he would frequently jump into his car and race off to Tilden Park to play golf.
“I figured I’d settle down and study at some point, I knew I had to,” Meade said. “But the freedom, the opportunity, the allure of playing golf, it was just too much for me...”
Two weeks before the bar exam Meade got serious, studying from early morning until late at night, pumped up by a revitalized ambition and diet pills prescribed to his wife. Somehow he passed and was admitted to the State Bar in 1965.
For two years Meade served as an attorney for Bennett and Van de Poel, handling insurance claims. “Though grateful for the opportunity and the experience I gained, I was on the wrong side of the aisle,” he said.
Meade soon borrowed ten thousand dollars and formed his own law practice. “I guess I wasn't very loyal to my employers. I felt bad about it for a long time. But I wanted to practice more relevant law and get involved in all these struggles going on around me.”
It didn’t take long for Meade to jump into the fray ― not a difficult thing to do in the East Bay during those times. The young attorney gained notoriety by defending a man blinded by gunshots fired by members of the Alameda County Sheriff's Department as they marched down Telegraph Avenue to break up a student demonstration, one of many skirmishes fought on the street that led to Sproul Plaza, an area that epitomized the Cultural Revolution in Berkeley.
Sheriffs moved toward campus unloading so many volleys from their shotguns that they soon ran out of the standard crowd-control load of birdshot that, police manuals suggested, were dangerous but not lethal. They then loaded their weapons with buckshot, a potentially deadly load meant only as a last resort.
A 35-mm film shot at the scene of the shooting by an amateur revealed a bottle crashing near the sheriffs, who pivoted and fired at a young man sitting on a rooftop nearby. A trial would later prove he was an innocent spectator watching the drama during a work break.
Meade used half of the money he'd borrowed to purchase the film and filed suit against the Sheriff's Department. Meade and his wife took his client in and cared for him for a several months, not an easy chore for a couple with two young children, both husband and wife fulfilling many work-related obligations. Eventually the shooting victim recovered enough to go out on his own. Years later he was awarded a substantial financial settlement.
While Meade began to gain notoriety due to the case against the Alameda County Sheriff’s department, Mulford unwittingly played a pivotal role in introducing the nation to a new revolutionary movement, one that would make the Free Speech Movement appear tame by comparison.
* * *
Huey P. Newton, co-founder of the Black Panther Party, was in jail in 1967 after a shoot-out with Oakland police, awaiting a trial that would become a cause célèbre, liberals and radicals around the world wearing buttons that declared "Free Huey!"
Newton read in The Oakland Tribune that Mulford was introducing a bill to eliminate the right of Californians to carry weapons, which, prior to 1967, was entirely legal. Newton considered the legislation an attack on the Second Amendment and one aimed specifically at the Panthers who exercised what they called the right to "armed self-defense."
At Newton’s order on May 2, 1967, members of the Party ― shouldering rifles and shotguns, outfitted in black leather jackets, wrap-around sunglasses and black berets ― burst into a session of the State Legislature to protest the pending statute. The sight of armed militant Black men confronting members of the legislature created a national panic, though from the Panther's point of view the encounter proved to be a recruiter's dream. The gun control bill, later known as “The Mulford Act,” sailed through the legislature and was swiftly signed into law by Reagan.
It was against this backdrop of continuing attacks by Reagan on “welfare queens,” “radicals,” and “communists,” at the University of California that the unabashed liberal Meade announced his candidacy for Mulford’s Assembly seat. Meade said he sought office driven by the "desire to serve my district and make good public policy,” though he quickly added, “I was also motivated by a lot of ambition and ego…”
Meeting secretly in the conference room of a local Caldwell Banker, Meade and campaign manager Tom Bates mapped out a strategy to unseat Mulford. Though the two would later have what Meade described as a “painful falling out,” the college buddies planned a multi-faceted campaign assuming from the outset it would take Meade two tries to unseat the entrenched Mulford. (Bates, now the Mayor of Berkeley, would eventually follow Meade and serve twenty years as Assemblyman for the 16th District. His wife, former Berkeley Mayor Loni Hancock, currently holds that post now known as the 14th District.)
The Meade campaign strategy resulted in a dramatic increase in the number of registered Democrats in what for years had been a Republican stronghold.
Aided by volunteers from the Alameda County Central Labor Council, legions of college students and other Democratic Party faithful, the Meade campaign focused on an area they called the “demilitarized zone,” one where Democrats had voted Republican in the 1966 gubernatorial election. Volunteers would call voters in the area and identify what issues were key to them. Armed with a list broken down by household, Meade would make a personal visit to voter’s homes and speak to the issues that concerned them. Yet every now and then, especially on a warm, sunny day, Meade would sneak off to Tilden Park in the Berkeley hills and play a round of golf. “Tommy (Bates) caught wind of that, I think, and soon he started assigning a kid to accompany me,” Meade laughed.
More than once the candidate was able extol the virtues of the pastime to a young college student and convince him to join him. Yet most of Meade’s supporters declined the invitation, devoted to a campaign they saw as an important challenge to the status quo and an opportunity to defeat one of Reagan’s lieutenants.
Meade's first attempt to defeat Mulford was issued a fatal blow in 1968 when, just days before the election, The Oakland Tribune published a photograph of Black Panther Party leader Eldridge Cleaver grasping a semi-automatic rifle, bandoleers crisscrossing his chest. Cleaver was invited to speak to a political science class at Cal about his controversial book Soul on Ice. Asked by reporters his opinion of the scheduled speech, Meade played it safe and said he supported "academic freedom." However the headline above the photograph of the Panther leader declared: “Meade Supports Cleaver.”
To make certain voters got the message, the following day a letter was distributed door-to-door in the “demilitarized zone,” one penned by a couple who claimed to be life-long Democrats unable to support Meade due to his “support” of Cleaver, a copy of the Tribune photograph attached. It was too late to respond to the blindside and Mulford triumphed, though by a relatively narrow margin.
The day after the loss, Meade and Bates got together and began planning a second challenge, their main focus a thorough effort to identify, organize, and register Democratic voters. Yet the election-eve antics of Mulford and The Tribune weighed heavy on their minds.
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