SACRAMENTO, Calif. – Ronald Reagan's (search) road from the sound stages of Hollywood to the world stage of the White House was through the capital of California, where for eight years he honed his conservative message and pragmatic political skills.
Reagan had already enjoyed successful careers as sportscaster, movie star and television personality when a volunteer fund-raising speech for the presidential campaign of Barry Goldwater (search) in 1964 opened the door for Reagan, at age 53, to a political career that would span 2 more decades.
Reagan's speech was too late to help Goldwater's faltering campaign, but it attracted the attention of California Republican leaders, who saw in the glamorous and charismatic actor someone could recapture the California governor's office in 1966 from Democrat Pat Brown.
Reagan was a skeptical, reluctant candidate initially. But he agreed to tour the state to test the political waters, and the public response was enthusiastic. In a few months, he was a declared candidate.
Brown had defeated two political giants in his earlier campaigns for governor, former U.S. Senate Majority Leader William Knowland in 1958 and the then-former Vice President Richard Nixon (search) in 1962, and he was delighted when the inexperienced Reagan upset former San Francisco Mayor George Christopher for the Republican nomination.
But in the general election of 1966, Reagan defeated Brown by a landslide 1-million-vote margin.
When Reagan took the governor's oath of office two months later, the nation's news media converged on Sacramento to put him in a brighter spotlight than he had ever enjoyed in Hollywood.
But after a campaign in which his solution to most problems was simply to "get government out of the way," Reagan was ill-prepared to lead a $4-billion-per-year state government with 150,000 employees.
He was distrustful of bureaucrats who remained from Brown's administration, and many of his early appointees were as inexperienced in government as Reagan himself. Although the glamour of the actor-turned-politician never faded in public, his early performance as governor was shaky.
His suggestion that state employees volunteer for free holiday work to help save money was ridiculed and barely drew a 1 percent turnout. His proposed 10 percent cut in each state department was called ham-fisted even by friends. Reagan conceded it was unworkable, and quickly abandoned it.
Reagan's inexperienced staff misjudged revenue estimates, raising taxes which produced embarrassing surpluses. His disdain of the professional politicians in the Legislature initially prompted open hostility from Democratic and even some Republican lawmakers.
But even in that stormy period, Reagan was putting his imprint on state government. With Democrats controlling the Legislature for six of his eight years as governor, Reagan never reversed the growth of state government as promised, but he put on the brakes and slowed it.
In a preview of his later presidency, Reagan's rhetoric as governor was frequently more conservative than the policies of his administration.
He waged verbal war on taxes and government. "Cut, squeeze and trim" was the slogan of his administration. But taxes still went up, and the annual state budget doubled from $4 billion to $8 billion during his two terms.
When thwarted by the Legislature, he used the skills he developed as an actor and broadcaster to go on television to rally public support. The public responded with thousands of letters, telegrams and phone calls which pressured legislators to compromise.
A late-starting campaign against fellow Californian Richard Nixon for the Republican nomination for president in 1968 fell embarrassingly short at the time, but laid the groundwork for a stronger bid in 1976 and success in 1980.
Reagan gave an eight-year performance that was dazzling in public, inspiring legions of conservatives in California and nationally, while in fact he was a pragmatic compromiser who negotiated the best deal he could from a Democratic-controlled Legislature.
He won tighter welfare eligibility rules, but gave automatic annual cost-of-living increases in grants in return. He raised taxes, but shared billions of those new tax dollars with California local governments and gave millions more back to taxpayers in periodic rebates.
He publicly ridiculed government bureaucrats and cut some programs, but he created new agencies to protect consumers and fight air and water pollution. He nearly tripled state support of local schools and purchased more acres of park land than any other governor in California history.
His public missteps were few, but memorable.
Angered by violent anti-war protests on California's campuses, he mused that "if it takes a bloodbath" to end the disruptions, so be it. Reacting to a food giveaway program demanded by the kidnappers of newspaper heiress Patty Hearst, Reagan facetiously suggested that it might be a good time for an outbreak of botulism.
Although it was widely quoted, Reagan never said, "If you've seen one redwood, you've seen them all." But environmentalists were still antagonized by his actual words: "A tree is a tree. How many do you have to see?"
Through it all, Reagan's sunny disposition and sincere belief in his conservative values prevailed over the occasional public gaffes and the nuances of many compromises which constituted his actual record as governor.
The former movie star entered office as a political curiosity, but left eight years later as the nation's leading spokesman of conservative principles.