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Original Issue


In an informal chat at his Los Angeles home, California's Ronald Reagan—whose outdoor interests have ranged from The Gipper to broodmares—reveals his thoughts on conservation, racing and the need for room to relax

On the way, the streets are like childish doodles inscribed on the gentle slopes of the hills overlooking the plain of Los Angeles. Having twisted your way up from the curlicues of Sunset Boulevard, you see the flat mirror of ocean in the hazy distance. The neat houses crowd the winding streets, all vigorously gardened with the flora of the subtropics—palmettos, bougainvillea and patches of pachysandra and ivy ground cover to hold the hillside upright. The neighborhood has been christened Pacific Palisades, and if you had $60,000 or so it was the good new place to build a house after World War II when most of the best Beverly Hills real estate had already been occupied. The rising generation of successful actors, writers and directors took root there, followed in time by the electronics executives and the arrivistes of savings and loan.

The roads are beginning to dwindle, and you are almost at hilltop when you reach the Ronald Reagan residence, now hidden from view by a dozen years of lush foliage. Up the brief driveway is a house in California ranch style, contemporary but comfortably conventional like its owner. It could just as well be the house of any of the neighbors until you reach the parking area in the back and find the state highway patrolman sitting in a squad car. His presence testifies that the governor is at home—back in southern California for a weekend of ceremonials: an Academy Award function, the opening of a new civic theater downtown, a baseball game at Anaheim. Drama and sport. Both essential ingredients of this rapidly filling landscape along 1,200 miles of the Pacific shore, and it was to these the governor was paying his respects on this particular weekend—a happy respite from the budget and politics.

The windows of the large living room look out over the sprawling panorama of the new city, but the governor sits at a table in a somber corner near the front hall, eating lunch with an aide. It is the spartan lunch of a man who takes care of his figure—chicken noodle soup, a toasted-cheese sandwich and a dish of fresh fruit.

This is a working day, but one away from the minute-to-minute pressures of Sacramento, and the governor is relaxed. He wears a knitted sports shirt and yellow linen slacks that accentuate his fitness, and his brown suede shoes are a reminder of the actor's blood in his veins. On the nearby piano are the framed photographs of family and friends—General Eisenhower, Richard Nixon and Barry Goldwater serving as milestones along the new road, Colleen Moore and Lillian Gish as memories of the past. The paintings on the walls are tasteful and unspectacular—no big names.

The governor is talking about a helicopter trip that he and his wife had just taken to Palm Springs for a night with friends. "I was struck, as I always am," he was saying, "by the endless stretches of housing, almost as far as the mountains. All you see are those miles of houses and practically no recreational areas."

The vast, inescapable dilemma of California comes to the governor's mind—every week roughly 10,000 new arrivals in his state, half a million immigrants a year, the "westward tilt," as it has been called. These people come from the anemic farmlands of the South and the dark slums of the East looking for jobs and fresh air and room for a man to grow. Yet their very presence is destroying what they seek, replacing it with noxious fumes and bungalow ghettos. "It is my feeling," the governor went on, "that one of our biggest needs today is to provide some place for the children in these homes to be able to go out and play. I think it is a much more immediate problem than providing wilderness areas for those relatively few people who like to put a pack on their backs and go into the mountains for a week. Of course, it is important to provide for both, but unless we can furnish space for the people in those houses we will have something like the big metropolitan areas of the East, where there is little or no recreational area for the people who can't afford to take trips." As he speaks, the governor tilts his head to one side with just the trace of an eager smile on his face. He is sincerely concerned and he is reaching out for sympathy and understanding.

"I know a builder," he continues, "who is putting up a housing development north of Sacramento, and he has done a very interesting thing. He has a 368-acre tract on which he is selling 200 one-acre lots. Everyone who buys one of these lots also buys an undivided share in the remaining 168 acres, which will be a kind of park in the middle of the development. It will take a 75% vote of the shareholders to change the status of this community land, but it is conceivable that if the tax load on this area became too heavy the shareholders might be forced to subdivide it and ruin one of the great assets of their community. This kind of project should be looked at and studied, and we ought to find some way to encourage the private development of such recreational areas through some kind of tax benefit.

"I think rapid transit is a good parallel illustration. I am opposed to a state subsidy for rapid transit, such as those now under consideration for San Francisco and Los Angeles. Why should you tax the guy in Visalia to get the fellow in Los Angeles to work on time? I think these new programs for the benefit of a particular community, whether it is recreation or rapid transit or whatever, should be self-liquidating and paid for by bonds or some other form of borrowing instead of by state taxes."

Like so much that Reagan says, it all sounds reasonable—plausible, his opponents might prefer. He took the plunge into politics on the noble assumption that there is a place in government for the high-minded "citizen-politician," the man who abandons the pleasure and profit of private life to bring some common sense to the halls of bureaucracy. His ungrateful opponents—who insist on deliberately mispronouncing his name as if it were Reegan and whose favorite denigration is to refer to him as an actor—just shudder whenever Reagan gives out with his thoughts on such matters as conservation and wildlife, or any other subject that involves the conflict between the use of public funds and private financing.

"Reagan's rhetoric," says an old-school San Francisco Democrat, "is the Chinese dinner of politics. At first you think he has given you some meaty idea to chew on, but after you have thought it over awhile you find it has no real substance. It leaves you empty."

Among the thorniest problems that Reagan has had to face during the first tumultuous months of his administration has been the dispute over a national park in the redwood forests of northern California, a matter of almost cataclysmic concern to conservationists. On the one side is the Sierra Club, an organization of intense conservationists founded by John Muir in 1892, which has been struggling for years on behalf of a national forest to protect one of the last major stands of these noble trees. On the other side is the lumber industry, which until quite recently has harvested the trees at such an alarming rate as to threaten them with extinction, save for some 50,000 acres that have been protected in California state parks.

Early in 1966—at about the time when Reagan's campaign for governor was picking up momentum—President Johnson endorsed the plan for a redwood national park, thus virtually insuring a park of some form and dimension. The question was what and how much.

During a speech before lumbermen in San Francisco a short time later, Reagan was quoted as saying, "A tree is a tree—how many do you need to look at? See one and you've seen them all." This, of course, set the conservationists to whining like a buzz saw for, without the strong help of the governor of the state, not just the remaining stands of virgin redwoods but much of the rest of California's superb wilderness and scenic marvels might disappear under the avalanche of new population.

Now Reagan is the governor, and his position has proved to be much more temperate than his if-you've-seen-one remark might suggest. He cites statistics to show that only about 6,000 to 8,000 acres of what he calls the "scenic, cathedral-like redwoods"—those immense virgin trees that tower as high as 368 feet and date back more than 2,000 years—are now unprotected and that half of these are earmarked for future protection.

"I don't know any subject on which there is more misinformation," the governor complains. "The truth of the matter is that we have preserved the redwoods. We have very stringent lumbering laws about cutting trees in the watersheds. But basically you must remember that a redwood park is not a place for recreation. It is just a place where you go to look at trees. When you are talking about the use of these redwood parks you are talking about no more than 100 days a year at best.

"In considering the redwood problem, you have to measure the value of the trees as a scenic resource against their value as lumber to be used by the people for building. You have to ask yourself: Where is the middle ground?"

Having asked himself this question, the governor recently made an appointment that is nothing if not on the middle ground. As administrator of the Resources Agency he named Norman B. Livermore Jr., a rugged Californian whose lineage goes back to the Gold Rush. Livermore spends his summers on pack trips into the Sierra wilderness, and he served for 10 years as a director of the Sierra Club. So far so good in the eyes of conservationists. But Livermore was also treasurer of Pacific Lumber Company, the largest harvester of redwoods in the country, and even if it has a history of being praised by conservationists for its model operations, it is, after all, in the business of cutting down trees.

On Livermore's advice Reagan joined with Senator Thomas Kuchel to endorse one of the three competing plans for the redwood national park. And both before and since Reagan has expounded on a plan he has in mind for exchanging some of the state-owned land that will be needed for the national park for some glorious stretches of beach property in southern California, where the Federal Government now operates Camp Pendleton and other such potential recreation properties.

"We're going to be darned tough traders, too," Reagan added with a smile that afternoon at his home. Perhaps Reagan learned something from "The Gipper," the Notre Dame football hero whom he somewhat less than immortalized in the Knute Rockne movie. Like George Gipp, the governor is demonstrating a knack for turning an apparent setback into last-minute victory.

The governor's thoughts on conservation were interrupted by a commotion at the front door, and in came Nancy Reagan, who had been out shopping. The governor rose and embraced her, and they clung together affectionately for a moment as if one of them had returned from a long voyage, not just a Westwood shopping center. Alongside his slim, rather petite wife, the governor stood much taller (he is 6 feet 1) than one expects. And with his blue eyes no longer peering severely over the tops of his Ben Franklin spectacles, there was an open friendliness to his face that could never have been learned on the Warner Brothers' sound stages.

With his wife in the house, an ease came over the governor. He talked of more personal matters—including his interest in Thoroughbreds, his love of riding and how, as with so many things, his enthusiasm for horses no longer could be quite so casual.

California has had a topsy-turvy racing history. Toward the end of the 19th century more Thoroughbreds were foaled in California than in any other section of the U.S., and the silks of such breeders as Leland Stanford and James Ben Ali Haggin were almost as famous as the bonanza that financed them. It was a freewheeling frontier society, and during the early years of the 20th century some highbinders who would make modern baseball tycoons look like scoutmasters moved in on racing. Eventually even the big breeders could no longer stand the aroma their sport was exuding, so racing was outlawed. This condition lasted until a new racing law legalized pari-mutuel betting in 1933.

In the years since Santa Anita opened, California has offered some of the best and the worst in Thoroughbred racing. Around Los Angeles, where Santa Anita and Hollywood Park have presented 55 days of winter and summer racing respectively, the quality of the sport has been superb. At the three tracks around San Francisco—the now defunct Tanforan, Bay Meadows and the newer Golden Gate Fields—racing has never quite achieved complete respectability. As a result, a truly first-class California stable can find only 110 days of racing at home with adequate purses and a satisfactory program. To stand any chance of showing a profit, it has to ship to eastern tracks for the remainder of the racing season.

By comparison, New York, with a population slightly less than that of California, has 64 more days of racing and extracts $29 million more in tax revenue from the sport. Stimulated by a recent study by the Stanford Research Institute, the California legislature is currently in the process of rewriting its outdated Horse Racing Law to permit continuous Thoroughbred racing at Santa Anita and Hollywood Park through the first seven months of the year and some simultaneous racing at the northern tracks. The new provisions for Thoroughbred racing are practically without enemies. But problems have arisen over harness and quarter-horse racing, neither of which has achieved the same degree of respectability or popularity that it has in other parts of the U.S.

When he discusses racing Reagan is dealing with a subject he enjoys. For 16 years he has owned a 300-acre ranch in the Malibu hills behind the famous beach colony, and there he has ridden and raised Thoroughbreds. "It is just a small operation," he says modestly, "but until I got mixed up in all this politics a couple of years ago I had half a dozen mares on the place and usually produced four or so foals a year, which I sent to the Del Mar Sales. It was just middle-bracket stock, not Kentucky Derby quality or anything like that."

Early this year, however, Reagan sold the ranch to 20th Century-Fox, which owns the adjoining property, and he now has only one broodmare. "I couldn't have afforded to do what I'm doing if I didn't sell," he says.

It is not surprising that the governor strongly supports the new racing bill, which everyone assumes will pass the current session of the legislature. In a recent interview with the Daily Racing Form, a publication that gets very little circulation in governors' mansions, Reagan spelled out his philosophy in a way that even the most critical horseman would have to applaud. "My approach to legislation concerning racing," he said, "is that we must resist those who think of it only as a source of tax revenue. Already the state is the biggest winner in the racing business. Any legislation must approach racing from the standpoint that it is a sport.... I personally believe that there is nothing so good for the inside of a man as the outside of a horse.

"My first love, of course, is the horse as something to ride. I dearly love hunters. Thoroughbreds usually make the best hunters, and a moderately successful Thoroughbred-production business makes it economically possible for a farm to be self-sustaining. In other words, carry the hunters along with the sales business."

Some of those whose love runs more to Standardbreds, or at least the ones that get hitched up to racing sulkies, fear that the governor's affection for horses stops somewhere short of their particular form of racing. For one thing, experience in other states has shown that harness racing thrives at night on half-mile tracks, and Reagan has said: "I do not favor and am personally opposed to night racing." California has no night racing now. It is a matter, however, that Reagan is quite willing to leave up to the judgment of the public and the legislature, with one qualification. "If you are going to have it," he told a press conference not long ago, "I do not believe it should come as just night harness racing or night any-other-kind-of-adjective racing. It should simply be night racing, open to anyone who wants to take a crack at it. It should not be restricted as a kind of monopoly practice to one form of racing."

Those who would understand Reagan as a political animal could do no better than study his stand on this subject. Realizing there is strong sentiment for night racing in his state, he is perfectly willing to bow to the majority decision even though it may not jibe with his own convictions. The democratic process, square as this may sound, is to Reagan a sacred way of life, just like all of the other quadrilateral American ideals he brought with him when he came to California from the little town of Dixon in northern Illinois and which he later transferred to the screen in the form of one character or another.

For a dozen years before Reagan entered California politics his schedule as host of television's General Electric Theater allowed him stretches of four or five days in a row on his ranch. He could school his hunters, swim in the pool, golf to his 8 handicap at Bel Air and otherwise lead the vigorous life that is now becoming as much a part of a politician's appeal as stentorian hyperbole was in the days of William Jennings Bryan. And this came naturally to a man who had been a lifeguard at Dixon's Lowell Park in his youth, played on the football team and captained the swimming team at Eureka (Ill.) College and started professional life as a sports announcer, first for football games and later for the Chicago Cubs. Ironically, once he took office in Sacramento, there was no longer time for the very activities that might have done such wonders for his image in a state where sport is an industry that rivals citrus culture.

After three months of confinement to his office, the governor—spurred by some gentle prodding from Nancy Reagan—rebelled. He recalls that he had to "alter this pattern or I'd be no good to myself or anyone else. I decided to have a horse shipped up to a ranch near Sacramento where I could at least get out and ride now and then."

So far, the rebellion is not in the Dodge category, but it shows promise. The governor has been doing some riding of late, and he and Nancy, accompanied by a large delegation of the capital press corps, went on a weekend skiing trip into the Sierra. During his Palm Springs visit there was a morning of golf on Publisher Walter Annenberg's private course, although Reagan admits that "when my friends allow me a 16 handicap they are not being generous." So far, the governor is a long way from challenging Bobby Kennedy for Mr. Vigorous of 1967, but he is breathing a little fresh air.

Reagan's sporting background, however, may yet develop into a political asset that neither he nor the voters had anticipated during his surprising vault into the governor's office. Henceforth he will need all the persuasion he can muster to guard horse racing from the depredations of politicians who would milk it for every possible tax dollar, as has been happening in New York. He must keep a stern eye on boxing, which has displayed signs of new life in California. Fish and game management is a source of perennial contention in a state that issues more hunting and fishing licenses combined than any other in the Union.

Last year the taxes on sport and recreation in California contributed $149 million to the state's budget. That figure alone is sufficient to make the subject of considerable importance to a governor whose major promise to the voters was to put their government on a sound fiscal basis.