With two of California’s most consequential governors emanating from successive generations of their family, “The Browns of California” provide compelling material for a biography. Their collective endeavors rib the narrative backbone of Pasadena resident Miriam Pawel’s lucidly written, discerningly researched new book. It is “not an authorized book in any sense,” according to Pawel, who says the Browns were very cooperative. Subtitled “The Family Dynasty That Transformed a State and Shaped a Nation,” it thoughtfully explores how California’s growth has been supported by parallel successes in the Brown family: the beloved, gregarious Edmund G. “Pat” Brown Sr., governor from 1959 to 1967; his more cerebral, complicated son Jerry, California’s current governor; Jerry’s sister Kathleen Brown, state treasurer from 1991 to 1995; and four generations of other memorable characters.
In a clan for whom conservation of natural resources and excursions to Yosemite are a family tradition, it’s small surprise that both Pat and Jerry prioritized environmental legislation in office. Somewhat more surprising is reading how spiritual convictions undergirded beliefs in public service, as expressed in numerous letter exchanges and conversations. Informed by documented historical accounts, Pat’s extensive papers, Jesuit archives, contemporaneous reportage and interviews, the book tracks the evolution of Pat’s Catholic convictions as well as his political rise and landmark achievements as governor, particularly the California Master Plan for Higher Education and the California State Water Project. It also sensitively depicts Jerry’s relentless intellectual and spiritual curiosity while growing up in a political household, his Jesuit training (and later Buddhist studies in Japan), gradual awakening to public service through politics — and his determination to avoid the “low comedy” of Pat’s political style and generation.
That father and son retained mutual respect despite significant differences in policy and style is but one remarkable aspect of their family dynamics. Another is the respect accorded Brown women. Pawel, a veteran journalist who logged 25 years with Newsday and the Los Angeles Times, carefully notes in the preface that the political legacies of Pat and Jerry “will become clearer with distance” to historians. But what’s clear already is the quiet strength and inspiration of Pat’s mother, Ida Schuckman, and wife, Bernice Layne, whom Pawel calls “really quite brilliant and frugal, as Jerry is.” Both women arguably shaped and inspired the family, and with it two governors who changed California’s direction.
PASADENA WEEKLY: To what extent is “The Browns of California” a continuation of stories told in your previous two books, “The Union of Their Dreams: Power, Hope, and Struggle in Cesar Chavez’s Farm Worker Movement” and “The Crusades of Cesar Chavez”?
MIRIAM PAWEL: That’s a great question. There is a connection, obviously; there’s a chapter in which I deal with the relationship between Jerry Brown and Cesar Chavez. Jerry Brown was very important to the farm worker movement in a lot of ways. I spent almost 10 years writing and reporting and researching the farm worker movement in one way or another, and Cesar Chavez and farm labor in general, so I knew that fairly narrow piece of history and the role that Jerry had played, and in Jerry’s first term of office as governor, there was a fair degree of overlap between the people and some similarities in terms of ambiance. It in some ways grew out of that, but obviously it is a much broader look at California history.
How cooperative was Jerry Brown with this project?
He was intrigued. He’s been very engaged in tracing his own history, and very interested in his ancestors. I came up with a lot of material, like I found the ship’s log that took his great-grandfather to New York from Germany in 1849; that was of interest to everyone in the family. Jerry’s sister Kathleen, who had her own political career; his older sister Barbara in Sacramento, who was not involved in politics; and then a brother-in-law — one of the four siblings died before I started this — I spoke with all of them and to a lot of cousins too. They were all really helpful. The most helpful thing [Jerry] did was let me go do what I want. He didn’t attempt to control in any way who I talked to or what they said to me or anything like that. He was fine with it.
Did you conduct any research locally?
I did, I spent a lot of time at the Huntingon Library, actually. They have some primary resources that were very valuable, but they also have an incredible collection of every obscure book about any aspect of California history that you could want to know. So that was a terrific resource for me.
Pat Brown’s mother, Ida Schuckman, makes a vivid impression. Reading about her rugged upbringing in Colusa as the daughter of German immigrants who were enterprising but never really mastered English, it seemed that’s what developed her independent spirit and made her such a powerful role model for her children and grandchildren.
I completely agree with that. I found her a very inspiring figure. … Everyone talked about how important she was, and how strong. Coming relatively uneducated to San Francisco at the turn of the century and becoming drawn to that whole literary, intellectual world and being able to read books and go to talks and become self-educated and instill that spirit in her descendants — I found that very impressive.
She merits her own book.
She would! I wish there were more about her; she didn’t do many interviews.
Pat’s bipartisanship in political decision-making and friendships is striking, especially his lengthy bond with Republican Governor (and later Supreme Court Chief Justice) Earl Warren. He also gathered stellar authors and legal minds — Warren Christopher, Carey McWilliams, Wallace Stegner — to write his position papers. Was he unusual in that regard?
I’d have to think about that. Pat was very aware of his own weakness — his lack of education, having skipped going to college. So he wanted to surround himself with the best and brightest and was very comfortable with that. He was part of the old boy political network and glad-handing school too. There’s a quote from Norton Simon, a Republican who went on to be a very rich person, that Pat’s “very, very real,” and “has a sense of what he needs to complement his own strengths.”
You quote a letter Pat wrote to a cousin: “To think that I will have some part, good or bad, in shaping [California’s] destiny is sobering. I hope that I am not conceited because I know my limitations, but I do know also that with firm principles a person does not have to fear in the slightest degree. I know what is right and realize when I err.” Does that sum up Pat’s ethos and legacy?
Yes. I think that’s true of the whole family too, in a sense. Jerry’s very different from his father in a lot of ways, but also very down to earth in a lot of ways. They’re not falsely humble in any sense. They’re certainly very proud of what Pat accomplished, and wanted his name on the California Aqueduct. But he saw himself as a piece of this greater whole. That’s the other thing that Jerry, Kathleen, and that whole family grew up with and absorbed: the importance of public service. You can be of service to the public in many ways, and politics is not everyone’s choice; that idea that you should be giving back in some way, that there’s a greater good and something more than achieving great material success, that that’s not the goal in life.
It’s fascinating to see cycles of history repeat within the state and the family. Still, it was surprising to read how Jerry reached out during his “wilderness years” to Richard Nixon for foreign policy mentoring — despite Pat’s negative experiences with Nixon.
He’s very pragmatic. Nixon had at that time something to offer and some expertise, and you take that where you get it. I don’t think this family is one to hold grudges. They move on.
Does Jerry ever pass that along and mentor others?
That’s an interesting question. I think so, in the sense that there are people who hope for him who are very, very devoted to him. Even in the current administration there are people who have stayed all eight years, which is a long time. And there are people who worked for him the first time who have come back … [Chuckles] It was not the kind of normal mentoring or positive reinforcement that you would associate with that term. But for that group of people, it was life changing. To be around him, and to be in that environment in the mid-’70s, y’know, that shaped their lives. He’s still very close to high school friends and some of the friends he grew up with. ‘Mentoring’ is maybe not exactly the right word [laughs], but I think he is willing in some ways to share his accumulated political wisdom over the years.
I was surprised to read Allard Lowenstein’s description of Jerry as not only “twice as frugal as Ronald Reagan, twice as Jesuit as Eugene McCarthy” but also “twice as ruthless as Robert Kennedy.”
Lowenstein’s dead so there’s no way to ask what he meant by it, so I would use “pragmatic.” If he decides something is not going to happen or not going to work, he’s not going to go tilt at windmills.
Talk about the “Party of California,” which is one of the book’s most important thematic threads.
It’s that feeling that there’s something special about California. This family really believes in the idea of California exceptionalism, which not everyone does. It’s also rooted in the different nature of political parties in California, which are really different [from the East Coast]; people don’t identify in that rigid way. The cross-filing system was part of that, and the open primary’s part of that in a way. Ultimately there is this allegiance to California as a place, as an idea, as an innovator, as an opportunity, that supersedes [political parties]. Jerry’s very much wanted to do things on a bipartisan basis, not just in order to get votes but because there’s something important about making a statement. His relationship with Arnold Schwarzenegger is a good example of that. He’s very clear about crediting Schwarzenegger for starting a lot of the important initiatives that he’s continued and executed.
Near the end, you quote a speech Jerry gave in Oslo in which he referenced what drove the Vikings, the Christians, Greece and Rome. What, at this juncture, would you say drives Jerry?
[Pauses] Two things. On the one hand, that relentless intellectual curiosity that he has always had; and then, honestly, he’s also driven by these existential threats to the planet, to existence as we know it, in the dual forms of climate change and nuclear proliferation. I think he’s very driven to do whatever he can to try to stop those disasters from getting any worse.
Miriam Pawel discusses “The Browns of California” with David Ulin at Vroman’s Bookstore, 695 E. Colorado Blvd., at 7 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 20; free admission. Info: (626) 449-5320. miriampawel.com, vromansbookstore.com