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The Right Moment

Ronald Reagan's First Victory and the Decisive Turning Point in American Politics

About The Book

Ronald Reagan's first great victory, in the 1966 California governor's race, seemed to come from nowhere and has long since confounded his critics. Just two years earlier, when Barry Goldwater lost to Lyndon Johnson by a landslide, the conservative movement was pronounced dead. In California, Governor Edmund "Pat" Brown was celebrated as the "Giant Killer" for his 1962 victory over Richard Nixon. From civil rights, to building the modern California system of higher education, to reinventing the state's infrastructure, to a vast expansion of the welfare state, Brown's liberal agenda reigned supreme. Yet he soon found himself struggling with forces no one fully grasped, and in 1966, political neophyte Reagan trounced Brown by almost a million votes.
Reagan's stunning win over Brown is one of the pivotal stories of American political history. It marked not only the coming-of-age of the conservative movement, but also the first serious blow to modern liberalism. The campaign was run amidst the drama of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement, terrible riots in Watts, and the first anti-Vietnam War protests by the New Left. It featured cameo appearances by Mario Savio, Ed Meese, California Speaker Jesse "Big Daddy" Unruh, and tough-as-nails Los Angeles Police Chief William Parker. Beneath its tumultuous surface a grassroots conservative movement swelled powerfully. A group that had once been dismissed as little more than paranoid John Birchers suddenly attracted a wide following for a more mainstream version of its message, and Reagan deftly rode the wave, moving from harsh anticommunism to a more general critique of the breakdown of social order and the failure of the welfare state. Millions of ordinary Californians heeded his call.
Drawing on scores of oral history interviews, thousands of archival documents, and many personal interviews with participants, Matthew Dallek charts the rise of one great politician, the demise of another, and the clash of two diametrically opposing worldviews. He offers a fascinating new portrait of the 1960s that is far more complicated than our collective memory of that decade. The New Left activists were offset by an equally impassioned group on the other side. For every SDS organizer there was a John Birch activist; for every civil rights marcher there was an anticommunist rally-goer; for every antiwar protester there were several more who sympathized with American aims in Southeast Asia. Dallek's compelling history offers an important reminder that the rise of Ronald Reagan and the conservatives may be the most lasting legacy of that discordant time.

About The Author

Product Details

  • Publisher: Free Press (September 19, 2000)
  • Length: 304 pages
  • ISBN13: 9780743213745

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Raves and Reviews

Dr. Kevin Starr State Librarian of California and author of The Americans and the California Dream series Exhaustively researched in primary sources, The Right Moment nevertheless moves at a breathtaking pace. Ours is a golden age of political biography and reportage, and with this stunning debut Matthew Dallek joins the front ranks of practitioners. In the 1966 gubernatorial contest between Ronald Reagan and Edmund G. (Pat) Brown, long-standing alliances collapsed and the politics of the nation itself veered in a new and post-New Deal direction. Here at once is the inside story and the national significance of what happened that summer and fall in volatile California.

Herbert S. Parmet author of Richard Nixon and His America A valuable and perhaps definitive account of a most crucial encounter. I admire its lucid and judicious approach, which gives it a voice that inspires confidence. This is essential reading on the 1960s and the rise of contemporary conservatism.

Alan Brinkley author of Liberalism and Its Discontents A rich, multidimensional picture not only of the 1966 California gubernatorial election but also of the contrasting political worlds out of which the two candidates came. The Right Moment helps explain how and why the confident, optimistic (and at times somewhat arrogant) liberalism of the 1950s and 1960s unraveled, and how newly powerful conservative forces moved in to pick up the pieces.

William E. Leuchtenburg William Rand Kenan Professor of History at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and author of In the Shadow of FDR: From Harry Truman to Bill Clinton In his very lively account, replete with many vivid characterizations, Matthew Dallek convincingly demonstrates that Ronald Reagan's election to the California governorship in 1966 was not only a milestone in the rise of the American right, but also a gravestone in the demise of American liberalism.

Irwin F. Gellman author of The Contender: Richard Nixon, The Congress Years, 1946-1952 Matthew Dallek dissects the complex drama of Ronald Reagan's rise in 1966, with its fascinating characters and explosive issues. Edmund "Pat" Brown comes to life as both a sympathetic liberal Democratic governor and a politician unable to cope with the dilemmas created by student upheavals, African-American frustrations, and Vietnam protests. Reagan gradually changes from an image on a movie screen to a voice for sanity and the voters' choice. The Right Moment is well balanced, well researched, and riveting.

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