WASHINGTON — When, in October of 1965, Ronald Reagan was still insisting that he hadn't made up his mind yet on whether to run for governor of California the following year, I joined him and Mrs. Reagan as they drove around the state in an effort to find out whether the voters would back a non-professional politician like him.
Mr. Reagan was driving a dust-covered Chevrolet; there was not a speck of Hollywood glitter about either of them.
Reagan said he had been talking to a lot of people over the past week or two and "there seems to be this feeling - and I find this from scattered areas, not in just one place: People seem to feel we are ready for more of the rank and file to get into public life. .... There is a drive for more representation from the ranks."
And the next year when Reagan took on and defeated, first, a moderate Republican in the primary and then the liberal governor, Edmund G. (Pat) Brown, in the general election, it became clear that he'd been correct about his acceptability in high public office in California.
Today, of course, Arnold Schwarzenegger is citing the Reagan rise into politics, from Hollywood to Sacramento, as the precedent for his own entry in California's Oct. 7 election for governor. (The actor is one of 135 candidates on the recall ballot. Should a majority support the recall of Gov. Gray Davis, the candidate with the most votes becomes governor.)
Obviously there is this similarity in the candidacies of these two men: movie actors who decided to run for public office.
But there is a big difference: Mr. Schwarzenegger, should he win, would replace a governor who is being held in very low esteem by the voters, while Reagan defeated a very formidable opponent in Governor Brown. Brown was being mentioned as a possible presidential candidate because of his impressive victory in 1964 over Richard Nixon.
Reagan, too, ran as a conservative, never deviating from that position. Conservative Hollywood pals of his, like John Wayne and Bob Hope, went out on the campaign trail with him. And he never tired of telling the voters how he would cut back on state-government spending after they elected him governor. Actually, he never was able to accomplish this. But the voters didn't hold it against him, electing him to two four-year terms.
Schwarzenegger calls himself a conservative, at least at times; but he is somewhat of a moderate.
Indeed, he is on the record as saying in an interview back in 1999 that the GOP should "become a party of inclusion" and then adding "that you love the foreigner who comes in with no money as much as a gay person, as a lesbian person, or anyone else...."
Reagan, also, had far greater political potential than Schwarzenegger, who can't become president simply because of his foreign birth (in Austria).
But right after the June 1966 gubernatorial primary, and five months before Reagan would be taking on Brown in the general election, political observers in California and Washington were predicting big things for him on the national stage. "Make no mistake about it," wrote one, "Once governor, Mr. Reagan could become the GOP presidential nominee."
And then after Reagan beat Brown in November, he did make a few moves in the direction of gaining the GOP presidential candidacy in 1968.
Indeed, he stirred up some support quickly among both party leaders and the public. But then he pulled out when it became clear to him that he was too late to catch Nixon.
Brown had this favorite little way of holding Reagan up to scorn.
"You're sitting in a big jet," he would tell audiences. "You're ready to taxi out, and a nice looking man in a uniform comes up the aisle heading for the controls. You stop him and tell him you're a little nervous because it's your first flight. 'Mine, too,' he says. 'but don't worry. I've always had an active interest in aviation.'"
Reagan told the crowds that turned out to support him that his political inexperience was his strength - and their opportunity to elect a governor who would be turning to the people, not to the long-time political hacks, for advice on how to run the state.
The voters seemed to like what he was saying: They elected him to Sacramento for eight years and then to Washington for eight years.
And now could it be that Schwarzenegger's political inexperience will - like Reagan's - be his strength in his bid for the Californian governorship?