What Might Have Been

It’s human nature, I think, to wonder about alternatives to events as they actually unfolded, or the results of pursuing different paths at key moments in life. “What might have been, if only…” and so forth. I get into those moods now and then myself.

The other day, I was cleaning a few things out of the house my mom has lived in since the 1950s when I stumbled on this (above) antique campaign bumper sticker affixed to the garage wall.

Now, I don’t assume all my readers know ancient California history, so here’s the background.

In 1965, the governor of California was a Democrat named Pat Brown (current governor Jerry’s dad, by the way). The very first Republican to announce his candidacy for his party’s nomination to run against Brown was Laughlin Waters, a man who had a lot going for him as a candidate.

Waters was a legitimate World War 2 hero, having led a rifle company onto the beaches of Normandy on D-Day. He was a universally acknowledged person of intellect and substance. He was a brilliant lawyer, well-experienced in private practice and as US Attorney for Los Angeles, a huge and important position. He was a well-regarded public servant, having served three terms in the state legislature.

And, as I can personally attest (his wife was a lifelong friend of my parents), he was a very nice guy off the clock. A solid storyteller. A real, honest-to-God family man. Funny in social settings. Nice as the day is long.

Here’s what he didn’t have: a particularly photogenic face (his photo, above), jump-off-the-page charisma, star power, famous friends.

Pat Brown was a popular governor. It was going to take just the right Republican to have even a chance of beating him in the general election. And, in the end, California’s Republicans went in a direction that very much represented a break from their party’s history.

Their eventual nominee was no war hero (he’d sat out World War 2 safely stateside), no genius lawyer, no public servant (aside from his career in the arts, his only real grown-up work experience was serving as his small union’s president). But he had in spades the precise qualities Waters lacked: prettiness, attractiveness, connections.  And they turned out to be what enough Californians wanted to vote for in the general election to unseat Pat Brown.

So was born our current political era, in which American voters support candidates for their attractiveness over their substance. And, too, was born a national political career for the man who forced Laughlin Waters out of the race, Ronald Reagan.

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