Features & Columns

The Golden Browns

An illuminating new book traces the history of modern California
through its most famous political dynasty
Pat and Jerry Brown were very different leaders when the younger first took office as Governor of California. However, during his second tenure, Jerry found a happy medium between iconoclast and prudent politician.

On its face, California's Brown family political dynasty is the story of two men, but metaphorically it's really the story of three.

In the dialectical tale of the Browns, the thesis is Pat Brown, the buoyant old-school liberal who served as California's governor in a time of expansion and optimism. Antithesis would be Brown's brainy, aloof and austere son Jerry, who moved in to the governor's office at the insufferable age of 36 with rock star Linda Ronstadt by his side, in a time of cynicism and retrenchment.

Then, in 2010, came synthesis, with the unlikely election of an older but wiser Jerry Brown, still the intellectually restless ex-Jesuit seminarian who, at the same time, had internalized much of the practicality and human touch that shaped his father's career.

In a couple of months, Jerry Brown, at 80, is poised to step aside as California's governor for the second time. As a narrative of political redemption, the Browns' story is satisfying because it's surprising. Back in 1983, when Jerry Brown's first two-term stint as governor ended—brought low by Proposition 13, the Mediterranean fruit fly and his own reckless presidential ambitions—he was soundly defeated in a race for the U.S. Senate by Pete Wilson.

At that point, it looked like California's relationship with the Browns was over. If any Brown was going to achieve statewide office again in California, it would be Jerry's kid sister Kathleen. (A decade later, Kathleen Brown came up short in her run for governor, also defeated by Brown-killer Wilson).

Today, at least to California's majority Democrats, nothing seems more natural than Jerry Brown in Sacramento. (To get a sense of just how inevitable Brown is in California's modern political imagination, ask yourself this question: Who did he defeat for governor in his most recent election, just four years ago? Unless you're particularly Sacramento-savvy, you probably have no idea. Answer: Somebody named Neel Kashkari.)

Now, though, it's almost a certainty that the Brown era is coming to an end in California. Jerry is both the only son in the family and childless, so at least the family name has reached the end of the line.


It is then an ideal time for the intimately familiar story to be told in wide-angle grandeur. Journalist Miriam Pawel has risen to the occasion with her new book The Browns of California: The Family Dynasty That Transformed a State and Shaped a Nation (Bloomsbury). Whether you're a Brown admirer or otherwise, this epic tale belongs on any Californiana-heavy bookshelf, next to Kevin Starr and Carey McWilliams.

Conveniently, the story of the Brown family almost exactly parallels the U.S. history of California. The family's patriarch, German immigrant August Schuckman, arrived in California just a couple of years after statehood in the midst of the Gold Rush.

"I wanted to write a book that was a history of California as much as it was a biography, something that I thought would explain some of the unique and significant things about California," Pawel says. "The (Brown) family was a good vehicle to do that. I like to write history through people, and so this seemed to be a conjunction between an interesting and unusual family and an interesting and unusual state, and the impact and interplay that each one had on the other."

Pawel, a Los Angeles Times reporter and native New Yorker who first moved to California in 2000, fills in the colors of the Brown family with plenty of compelling secondary characters, chief among them Pat Brown's freethinking mother and self-described "mountain woman," Ida Schuckman Brown, who died at 96 the same year her grandson Jerry was first elected governor.

Ida Brown, in fact, is given much credit for establishing the Brown family's progressive political instincts. After World War II, she supported left-leaning former vice president Henry Wallace over incumbent Harry Truman, and during the Vietnam War, she suggested that President Lyndon B. Johnson should be chloroformed.

But mostly, Browns is a story of a father-and-son pair who provide an almost archetypal generational contrast, familiar to many who came of age in post-war America. Pat and Jerry Brown—that is, Edmund G. Brown Sr. and Jr.—were largely simpatico in political values. But in political styles, they could not have been more different.


Pat Brown was an engaging, exuberant, extroverted Hubert Humphrey-style liberal whose love of California was visceral and immediate. Pawel shares Pat's enthusiasm for flying low in a propeller plane and gazing lovingly at the California landscape, and his habit of stopping in roadside restaurants to glad-hand potential voters. His upbeat personality reflected a kind of post-war optimism that guided him in initiating ambitious and legacy-building projects, particularly in the realms of higher education and water.

Paradoxically, for a man considered the patriarch of a California dynasty, Pawel believes that Pat Brown has often been forgotten, especially considering his profound influence on the growth of California.

"It's true that he's been somewhat overlooked," she says. "Part of that is the East Coast vision of California that he was a victim of, in some ways. There is one good biography of Pat Brown, and that's it. And for someone who had such a major impact on the built environment of California—the water, the roads, the universities and the schools—it's surprising there hasn't been more exploration of his impact on the state."

He was what is today an extinct American political species: the can-do liberal who dreamed big, then delivered. Along with educator Clark Kerr, the first Governor Brown championed an ambitious master plan that turned the University of California system into the "model for modern research universities across the country," with a commitment keep the tuition free for all Californians.

Pat Brown also took on perhaps the state's most intractable problem with one of its most ambitious solutions. Though the population of California was mostly in the south, the state's water was mostly in the north. Early on, Brown declared a satisfactory solution to the water problem as "a key to my entire administration." The result was the massive California State Water Project, featuring the giant aqueduct, now named for Pat Brown, that runs along the spine of California's Central Valley.

In Pawel's account, Pat Brown's enthusiasms for governing California were charmingly sentimental. Brown was especially attentive to the moment when California surpassed New York as the nation's most populous state. A billboard tallying the numbers was installed near the Bay Bridge, and when the moment finally came at the end of 1962, Gov. Brown declared a four-day celebration. (In an era of clogged freeways and outrageous housing prices, celebrating such a thing today is inconceivable for anyone but real estate speculators). Pat Brown also comes across as a proto-environmentalist who could not stay away from Yosemite and who said that his favorite spot in California was a High Sierra camp called Glen Aulin.

Brown was defeated for a third term by revanchist Republican Ronald Reagan. After eight years of Reagan in Sacramento, turned off by the corruption of California favorite-son Richard Nixon in the Watergate scandal, California turned again to an Edmund G. Brown, this time the son.

Miriam Pawel's book, 'The Browns of California,' tells the story of both Pat and Jerry Brown—and the impact they had on the Golden State. Photo by Wendy Vissar


In contrast to his father, Jerry Brown—at least in his first term as governor, from 1975-83—was more a reflection of the Vietnam-Watergate generation: arrogant, intellectually voracious, almost puritanical in his disdain for mainstream politics, the brooding iconoclast who simultaneously hated displays of wealth and loved hanging out with rock stars. Though it was never overt, young Jerry was a walking rebuke of his father's entire orientation to the world.

Jerry Brown's mission was to attack the status quo, and he often did so in the most theatrical ways imaginable. He canceled the inaugural ball, flew commercial, rented a small apartment while turning his back on the Reagans' governor's residence, and chose to drive a blue Plymouth instead of ride in the governor's Cadillac limo. His staff, often called "the Brownies," were a collection of friends and acquaintances, many of whom had no experience in politics. He had no chief of staff or other gatekeeper, and he often conducted the state's business during hours only a vampire would love.

Jerry's style resonated in a post-Watergate era of limits, but it bewildered many of his constituents, not the least of which was his dad.

In interviewing many of Jerry Brown's friends, Pawel says that many of them told her that "Pat never quite got Jerry. He was off dating Linda Ronstadt and sleeping on a bed on the floor and canceling the inaugural and all that. A lot of people thought it was for show. At the time, it happened to be good politics, but it also was a reflection of who he was. But I think his father was hurt by not being relied on, or let in more as an adviser. In fact, the worst thing you could do if you wanted to lobby Jerry Brown was to have his father intercede on your behalf."

In writing her book, Pawel scored four separate interviews with Jerry Brown, from 2015 to '17. She has appeared with the governor at public events as well, including a recent Q&A at the City University of New York.

"He's very funny," she says. "He has a good dry sense of humor. He talks in nonlinear ways; that was very useful and interesting for my purposes because I wanted to understand better how his mind worked. Also, he was unusual for politicians, he was very noncontrolling. I went off and did whatever I did, and if people asked him whether they should talk to me, he said, fine."


The last third of The Browns of California retraces Jerry Brown's time in the political wilderness—the doomed 1992 presidential campaign, the stint at the head of the California Democratic Party, a gig as a talk-radio host. Pat Brown died in 1996 and the next year, Jerry announced his candidacy to be mayor of Oakland. In '99, he took office in Oakland and experienced a political reawakening. Ironically, he found himself fighting laws that he had created as governor. He vowed to bring 10,000 people to downtown Oakland. He got involved in potholes and karaoke permits. He was a common sight on the streets with his dog Dharma. The move from philosopher king of Sacramento to pragmatic mayor of Oakland invigorated him.

The other x-factor that transformed Brown was Anne Gust, the retail executive who became his wife in 2005. Gust provided a counterbalance to his harsher political instincts. Both Oakland and Anne, rounded off Brown's rougher edges, according to Pawel, made him more of a practical and effective politician.

In a remarkable turn of events to which we've all been witness, Jerry Brown then got a second bite at the apple, becoming governor again in 2010. (Since Brown served as governor before the term limits law was passed in 1990, he was eligible to run again). Instantly he became a trivia question, as both the youngest California governor since the Civil War, and the oldest one ever.

Brown came into office ready to wrestle with the state's chaotic finances and take on its dysfunctional penal system. He proved to be more moderate than many of his liberal supporters had hoped, but turned around a huge state deficit—thanks in large part to Democratic supermajorities and revenue-friendly ballot measures. Pat Brown didn't survive to see his son's second ascent to the governor's office, but the older Brown would have found the second Jerry Brown administration much more comprehensible than the first.

The election of Donald Trump as president in 2016 marked another turning point in Jerry Brown's career, giving him the confidence to thumb his nose at a hostile administration and act as a de facto head of state in areas such as climate change and immigration. In 2017, Brown's approval rating as governor reached 62 percent.

As a broad history of Brown's family going back to the 19th century, Pawel's book is centered on the family's ancestral piece of California, the ranch known as "The Mountain House" near Williams, northwest of Sacramento. However much Jerry Brown presents a picture of engaged leadership (if you're a Democrat) or persistent obstruction (if you're a Republican), the fact is that in a few months, he'll be just a retiree on the ranch in Williams. In an era when Democrats are scrambling to find leadership to challenge Trump in 2020, Brown has finally fashioned a political career that defies easy labels, pursued bipartisanship (he's credited former governor Arnold Schwarzenegger as a kind of pioneer in California's climate-change approach) and forged ahead with a new approach that Pawel calls "the party of California," an idea borrowed from California's political mahatma, the late writer and historian Kevin Starr.

But time has run out for Jerry Brown and the Brown family dynasty. Brown has mastered the art of politics just when it's time to leave the stage.

"On the other hand," Pawel says, "he's still the same person, the same intellect, the same spirit, with the same willingness to challenge authority. How many people get a chance to go back and fix the things they screwed up the first time around? It's a pretty odd situation."