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Ronald and Nancy Reagan, 1964 Ronald Reagan and Nancy Reagan aboard a boat in California, August, 1964 (Ronald Reagan Presidential Library)

Ronald Reagan launched political career using the Berkeley campus as a target

– Ronald Reagan launched his political career in 1966 by targeting UC Berkeley's student peace activists, professors, and, to a great extent, the University of California itself. In his successful campaign for governor of California, his first elective office, he attacked the Berkeley campus, cementing what would remain a turbulent relationship between Reagan and California's leading institution for public higher education.

"This was not a happy relationship between the governor and the university — you have to acknowledge it," recalled Neil Smelser, who was a Berkeley professor of sociology during the Reagan years. "As a matter of Reagan's honest convictions but also as a matter of politics, Reagan launched an assault on the university."

As the Vietnam War expanded and the death toll climbed, students at Berkeley launched a determined and, at times, confrontational attempt to stop the war with demonstrations and protests that eventually spread to college campuses across the country. Years later, much of the public came to agree with the students but in 1966, those opposed to the war were a distinct minority in America. Candidate Reagan capitalized on this.

political cartoon
"Just show me one of them Beatnik varmints."
(A political cartoon from the San Francisco Chronicle, reprinted in Clark Kerr's "The Gold and the Blue")

Smelser, assistant chancellor for educational development at the time Reagan ran for office, recalled that "Reagan took aim at the university for being irresponsible for failing to punish these dissident students. He said, 'Get them out of there. 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 had two themes in his first run for office. The man who later became known as "The Great Communicator" vowed to send "the welfare bums back to work," and "to clean up the mess at Berkeley." The latter became a Reagan mantra.

Earl Cheit, dean emeritus of the Haas School of Business, was executive vice chancellor at Berkeley from 1965 to 1969. Like many at Berkeley, he remembers being at the wrong end of Reagan's political broom.

"Incidents of campus disruption and reports about what was going on here – often exaggerated reports– became a standard part of his campaign rhetoric," said Cheit. "Reagan also argued that the faculty was too permissive, or supportive, of the students. One of his great skills was to understand popular feeling. He really tapped into the discontent people felt about what was happening on the campus. I have no doubt that this was a big factor in his election as governor."

After defeating incumbent governor Edmund G. "Pat" Brown, Reagan did not relent in his campaign to "clean up the mess" at Berkeley.

Said Smelser, "The governor could not intervene directly in the administration of Berkeley. The two weapons he had were verbal abuse and the budget. He heaped a great deal of abuse on the Berkeley campus, and particularly on liberals and liberal faculties. He even singled out sociology and philosophy as hotbeds. He tried to cut the budget. And, he did get Clark Kerr fired as UC president."

political cartoon
"One for the gipper."
(A political cartoon by Bob Bastian published in Clark Kerr's "The Gold and the Blue")

Kerr was fired three weeks after Reagan took office. The act was the culmination of a process that began long before, when then-FBI director J. Edgar Hoover first tried to persuade Kerr to crack down hard on Berkeley students involved in the 1964 Free Speech Movement, which Hoover alleged was a front for communist sympathizers. Unable to convince Kerr, Hoover turned to gubernatorial candidate Reagan, a rising conservative star. As revealed by a 2002 investigation by San Francisco Chronicle reporter Seth Rosenfeld, Reagan and the FBI interacted throughout the campaign about dealing with Kerr and the student protesters.

Cheit said Kerr's firing galvanized the campus. "The firing of Clark Kerr really caught the attention of everybody on campus and to a great extent unified the students and faculty. It was a very emotional time. Most fundamentally, because of the constitutional independence of the university, the idea that a governor could force out a president was very disturbing."

John Douglass, a historian and senior research fellow at UC Berkeley's Center for Studies in Higher Education, faulted Reagan for a "failure to understand the importance of the University of California in the life of the citizens of this state." Douglass said that after his election in 1966, Reagan proposed cutting the UC budget by 10 percent across the board. He also proposed that, for the first time, UC charge tuition and suggested that Berkeley sell collections of rare books in the Bancroft Library. By and large, Douglass said, these measures were not approved by the Legislature, but lesser funding cuts were imposed.

Ray Colvig, the chief public information officer for the campus during these years, said the notion to sell rare books was quite telling. "Reagan did not think you needed a great university supported by public funding," said Colvig. "He thought if you wanted a world-class university, let the students pay for it. The idea of selling rare books went along with that."

In some sense, said Colvig, "Reagan's bark was worse than his bite about the university. He wanted to establish a special process to select faculty in several disciplines. In other words, he wanted to set a political standard for appointing faculty members. This idea was widely opposed, and it went away. Often, nothing came of these things. But sometimes it did. The financial cuts were real, and they introduced new special fees that, in effect, were the beginning of charging tuition."

May 1969 was the low point in the relationship between Reagan and UC Berkeley. Students and activists had begun an attempt to transform a vacant plot of university property into "People's Park." Attempting to head off the activists, the university engaged a fencing company, accompanied by 250 police, to erect a chain-link fence around the land at 4 a.m. on May 15, 1969. Five hours later, a rally was called on Sproul Plaza to protest the action. Resource, a current UC Berkeley reference guide for new students, relates the story of how Reagan intervened, sending in the National Guard:

"The rally, which drew 3,000 people, soon turned into a riot, as the crowd moved down Telegraph (Ave.) towards the park. That day, known as Bloody Thursday, three students suffered punctured lungs, another a shattered leg, 13 people were hospitalized with shotgun wounds, and one police officer was stabbed. James Rector, who was watching the riot from a rooftop, was shot by police gunfire; he died four days later.

"At the request of the Berkeley mayor, Governor Ronald Reagan declared a state of emergency and sent 2,200 National Guard troops into Berkeley. Some of these guardsmen were even Cal students. At least one young man had participated in the riots, been shot at by police, gotten patched up, and then returned to his dorm to find a notice to report for guard duty. In the following days approximately 1,000 people were arrested: 200 were booked for felonies, and 500 were taken to Santa Rita jail."

From the standpoint of campus administrators attempting to manage the situation, Reagan's actions were counterproductive.

Said Cheit, "The campus and other academics were appalled that the Guard came in, that tear gas had been sprayed on campus from a helicopter. Sending in the Guard was quite peremptory. There were local and campus police available. The Guard, in some ways, inflamed the situation. Within the administration, this was considered provocative. To the outside observer, it might have appeared justifiable. To those of us who were trying to control the situation, it seemed to exacerbate it."

Cheit added that, ultimately, "Reagan's political career owed a lot to the people who used the campus as a radical base for political activity. It is an irony that helped elect him."

The late Clark Kerr agreed with that assessment. In The Free Speech Movement: Reflections on Berkeley in the 1960s, an anthology of essays edited by Robert Cohen and Reginald Zelnik, Cohen discusses Kerr's essay for the volume. Kerr details the progress he had made in expanding free speech at the university and ending the "repressive 1950s" at Berkeley, documenting his battles with the Regents and the Legislature in defense of the principle of free speech.

"In the Kerr narrative," writes Cohen, "it is the FSM [Free Speech Movement] and its heirs that set in motion the political backlash that allowed Ronald Reagan to capture the California governorship by promising to 'clean up the mess in Berkeley.' According to Kerr, the FSM's significance rests less with its role in the emergence of the New Left than with its displacing his careful, effective liberalism by a reckless mass movement that inadvertently facilitated the ascendancy of the New Right."

Ronald Reagan is an icon of conservatives. He will be buried on June 11.

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