By Rick Perlstein
When Ronald Reagan ran against Pat Brown in 1966 for the governorship of California, the defining issue was college. Governor Brown was completing the biggest university expansion in modern history - nine new campuses. California's colleges and universities had been instrumental in turning the nation's biggest state into the world's seventh-biggest economy and an international cultural mecca - and they formed the heart, Brown presumed, of his re-election appeal. Ronald Reagan's advisers agreed and sought to neutralize the higher-ed issue by having the actor announce his candidacy flanked by two Nobel Prize winners. Reagan had other ideas. For months he told campaign-trail audiences horror stories about the building takeovers, antiwar demonstrations and sexual orgies ''so vile that I cannot describe it to you'' at Berkeley, the University of California's flagship campus. Reagan's advisers warned him that disparaging the jewel of California civilization was political suicide. The candidate snapped back, ''Look, I don't care if I'm in the mountains, the desert, the biggest cities of this state, the first question: 'What are you going to do about Berkeley?' And each time the question itself would get applause.''
It's unimaginable now that a gubernatorial race in the nation's largest state would come down to a debate about what was happening on campus. But it seemed perfectly natural then. The nation was obsessed with college and college students. It wasn't just the building takeovers and the generation gap; the obsession was well in gear by the presidency of John F. Kennedy. (In October 1961, Harper's devoted an issue to the subject.) The fascination was rooted in reasons as fresh as yesterday's op-ed pages: in an increasingly knowledge-based economy, good colleges were a social-mobility prerequisite, and between 1957 and 1967, the number of college students doubled. Reagan actually cast himself as this new class's savior, asking whether Californians would allow ''a great university to be brought to its knees by a noisy, dissident minority.'' To that, liberals responded that these communities' unique ability to tolerate noisy, dissident minorities was why universities were great.(More...)