Miriam Pawel dives deep into the personal histories and public influence of ‘The Browns of California’

By Bliss Bowen

Gov. Pat Brown (1959 to 1967) and his wife Bernice with their children Barbara, Cynthia, Jerry (governor from 1975 to 1983 and 2011 to present) and Kathleen (California state treasurer from 1991 to 1995)
Photo courtesy of the Brown family

To read Miriam Pawel’s “The Browns of California: The Family Dynasty That Transformed a State and Shaped a Nation” is to be reminded of the concept of public service. It’s a core belief that animates letter exchanges and conversations throughout Pawel’s lucidly written tome about the family that birthed two of the Golden State’s most consequential governors — the beloved, gregarious Pat Brown and his more cerebral, complicated son Jerry — as well as Jerry’s sister (and former state treasurer) Kathleen Brown, and four generations of lesser-known, determined characters.

Their collective endeavors provide a compelling narrative arc and parallel California’s development as a state. Even the theme of nature’s pervasive presence in California’s culture is embodied by the Browns. Excursions to Yosemite are a family tradition, and conserving resources — especially water — was a key priority during Pat Brown’s two terms, just as Jerry has sought to prioritize environmental and climate change legislation.

Pawel relies heavily on documented historical accounts, Pat Brown’s archives, Jesuit archives and contemporaneous accounts. A veteran journalist who logged 25 years with Newsday and the Los Angeles Times, Pawel estimates she devoted three years to researching the book. It is not a political critique; in the preface she carefully notes that the “Brown legacy will become clearer with distance” to historians. Rather, it holds up California’s human and geographic diversity; illuminates how a relationship with the state’s natural beauty and outdoor environment “changes the way people live in really profound ways”; and shows how that has inspired the Browns, personally and politically.

“I wanted it to be a book that explained things about California that people outside of California don’t understand, and many people who grew up here don’t know either,” says Pawel, whose previous two books focused on Cesar Chavez and the California farmworkers movement.

In “The Browns,” Pat Brown’s mother, Ida Schuckman Brown, makes an especially vivid impression. Reading about her rugged upbringing in Colusa as the daughter of German immigrants who were enterprising but never really mastered English, I was left with a sense of the independent spirit that made her such a powerful role model for her children and grandchildren.

How cooperative was Gov. Jerry Brown with this project?

I talked to all the family members, pretty much, multiple times. It was not an authorized book in any sense; I came up with the idea, I told them I was doing it. But 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 for the ship that took his great-grandfather to New York from Germany in 1849; that was of interest to everyone in the family. But 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.

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. And the writers and legal minds he gathered to write position papers were stellar: Warren Christopher, Carey McWilliams, Wallace Stegner. Was Pat unusual in that way?

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. Still, it was surprising to read how Jerry reached out during his “wilderness years” to not only Armand Hammer and Pierre Trudeau but also 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.

Let’s talk about the “Party of California,” a concept you just revisited in a New York Times op-ed. It’s 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 has 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” at 6:30 p.m. Thursday (Sept. 6) at Diesel Bookstore, 225 26th St., Santa Monica. Call (310) 576-9960 or visit miriampawel.com.