California's Master Builder

California Rising: The Life and Times of Pat Brown by Ethan Rarick (University of California Press, 501 pages, $29.95)

On the rainy January morning in 1959 when Pat Brown took the oath as governor of California, he delivered an inaugural address that today would stun listeners as breathtakingly bold, if not suicidal. Seven times in the first eight paragraphs, notes Ethan Rarick in this engaging and important biography of California's greatest governor, Brown used the words “liberal” or “liberalism.” Brown committed himself to a vast range of progressive policies: banning racial discrimination in employment, limiting consumer-credit charges, expanding publicly funded medical care for the poor, establishing a state minimum wage, improving public schools, doing something about that smog that had settled over much of the state, setting up a state office of research and development, and even enabling workers to have portable pensions.

It was an expansive agenda, but “liberalism” still enjoyed a good name. Besides, Brown had the mandate to back up his proposals. He had just defeated one of the nation's leading conservatives -- U.S. Senate Republican leader William Knowland -- by more than a million votes in November's gubernatorial election. Democrats had swept to power in both houses of the California Legislature. The state was growing by leaps and bounds (it was soon to surpass New York as the nation's largest). And Brown had run on a platform of expansive public investment and targeted public provision, with pioneering civil-rights guarantees thrown in for good measure.

Brown didn't have a catchphrase with which to label his program, but by 1966, his final year as governor, he came up with an evocative comparison. Lyndon Johnson called his vision the Great Society, Brown noted. “We call that same vision California.”

Today, both Brown and his California are cloaked in the mists of nostalgia. On his watch, the freeways worked, the traffic flowed, the University of California doubled in size, the public schools were the nation's best, gigantic aqueducts were erected, industry flourished, the beaches were clean, knowledge increased, the sun always shone. During the 2003 gubernatorial recall election, even the rightmost candidate, libertarian state Senator Tom McClintock, waxed rhapsodic about Brown and the earthly San Fernando Valley paradise to which McClintock's family had relocated from the Midwest in 1965.

But 1965 was also the year of paradise lost in California. The preceding December, the student left burst forth in Berkeley with the Free Speech Movement's occupation of the administration building. Then, in August, Watts exploded in a spasm of rage against the L.A. cops and the exclusion of black Angelenos from the world's most prosperous society. Abruptly, Brown and his liberalism toppled from grace. One year later, state voters rejected his bid for a third term, choosing instead a onetime New Dealer named Ronald Reagan, who won the allegiance of white working-class voters by railing against welfare, the threat of housing integration, the mess at Berkeley, the lawlessness of the “urban jungle,” and Brown's failure to do anything about them.

The rise and fall of Pat Brown -- and then, over the past 15 years, his rise again in the assessment not just of historians but of California's political elites of all tendencies -- is an important and instructive tale, not just of Brown and California but of American liberalism more generally. Brown's comparison of his vision -- and, one might add, his fate -- to President Johnson's was apt. Both enacted popular and enduring universal programs; both tilted their respective Democratic parties decisively in the direction of civil rights, at considerable political cost; both mildly inspired and then enraged the early student left (though Brown nowhere remotely near as much as LBJ); both engendered a huge white backlash at the polls; and both took the New Deal coalition about as far as it could go, only to see it disintegrate on their watch.

The similarities in their stories are all the more striking because the two pols themselves could hardly have been more different. Johnson, as everyone knows, was brilliant, domineering, and sadistic; Brown was affable, good-hearted, irresolute, and sometimes bumbling. But each was sufficiently accomplished to get a great deal done, even when it undermined his own base of support.

For a time, Brown could do no wrong. Rarick does a particularly good job relating the glories of Brown's first legislative session as governor: persuading the Legislature to double the budget for the University of California, build three new campuses, triple the budget for the state colleges, enact the nation's first auto pollution standards, and authorize an immense dam-and-aqueduct program to bring water to both Central Valley farms and Los Angeles residents. He insisted on paying for all this (all but the aqueduct, which passed as a separate bond measure) through the first tax increase in 25 years, greatly increasing the progressivity of the state income tax and raising bank, corporation, capital-gains, and tobacco taxes. Legislators balked, but Brown would not relent -- “I have nothing but contempt for those who say that no new taxes are necessary,” he wrote in his diary -- and in the end prevailed. The other measure he refused to compromise on was establishing a powerful Fair Employment Practices Commission, and on that, too, he emerged victorious.

On other issues, Brown dithered. An opponent of capital punishment, he commuted an increasing number of death penalties as his term progressed, but in one case where he could only delay, and not commute, the sentence, political calamity struck. Caryl Chessman, a rapist condemned to death under the state's “Little Lindbergh” law, had become a celebrated (in some eyes) and notorious (in others) author while on death row, and something of a liberal cause célèbre. Brown had resolved to let him die because the state Supreme Court, whose concurrence was required to commute the sentence, had made clear it had no desire to commute. But Brown was visited the night before the scheduled execution by his son (and future governor), Jerry, a dedicated death-penalty foe, who persuaded his father to call San Quentin and delay the sentence. Chessman was executed a few months later, and Brown was subjected to popular rage and ridicule for his intervention. (“I knew I shouldn't have gone” out of town that night, Brown's wife, Bernice, later recalled, because she had feared that her son might change her husband's mind.)

Chessman notwithstanding, Brown won a resounding re-election in 1962 against Richard Nixon, who charged that Brown had stifled the state with high taxes and regulations, and was insufficiently anti-communist to boot. But Nixon's charges didn't stick. California was booming, with freeways and schools popping up everywhere. Taxing and spending and New Dealish liberalism still struck a majority of Californians as a proper way -- a necessary way -- to build the state.

In his second term, Brown stumbled. At his prodding, the California Legislature enacted a bill that outlawed racial discrimination in housing, five years before the federal government passed such a measure. State voters overwhelmingly repealed it by initiative one year later (1964); even San Francisco voted for repeal. Worse was to follow.

Brown agreed with the Berkeley Free Speechers that the ban on political speech on campus was unconstitutional; several months after the demonstrations, the University of California's Board of Regents repealed the ban at Brown's behest. But occupying a building crossed a line in Brown's mind. At first, he simply planned to go into the building the next day and persuade the students to leave, but state police eventually persuaded him to send them in. In the ensuing uproar, Brown won the rebuke of both the left, which thought him draconian, and the right, which viewed him as too lenient.

But it was in Watts where Brown's political prospects went up in flames. Once the riots began (he was in Greece when they started) he did what any governor would, ordering in the National Guard when the Los Angeles Police Department could not restore order. (As Rarick reminds us, many South Central residents wanted the Guard to stay and the notoriously racist LAPD to go -- forever.) But Brown believed, and stated, that the riots, while inexcusable, could at least partly be traced to poverty and exclusion -- a belief for which both L.A. Mayor Sam Yorty and fledgling politician Reagan excoriated him. Yorty took 40 percent of the vote away from Brown in the next year's Democratic gubernatorial primary; in the general, Reagan took away Brown's job. Working-class whites were becoming Reagan Democrats: Although Brown had carried 78 percent of the white union household vote in 1958, he won just 57 percent of it in 1966, and far less than that in white communities abutting South Central.

In subsequent years, in California as elsewhere, the white working class, among others, came to view taxing and spending as a way to drain it to the benefit of minorities. In 1978, it enacted Proposition 13, which hastened the downward spiral of schools and services in the once Golden State.

Over the past decade, however, a new, largely Latino working class has supplanted the old at the ballot box. At its insistence, the state is bonding and building once more, schools in particular. After 30 years, the University of California is finally opening a new campus. And Pat Brown is back in vogue. With a good half the state in need of reconstruction, the master builder's moment has come round again.

Harold Meyerson is editor-at-large of The American Prospect.

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