Brown studies Miriam Pawel gives Jerry and Pat Brown their due in “The Browns of California.”

By Paul Wilner

Gov. Jerry Brown’s departure from Sacramento last month marked the end of California’s most intriguing political dynasty. Jerry Brown and his father Pat have shaped the fate of the state as long as many of us have been alive.

As the fifth largest economy, California is significant on the national stage, according to Miriam Pawel, who wrote the definitive book about the Brown Dynasty and its influence on the state. And their influence is unlike any other in America’s history, she said.

“If you look at the other dynasties, the Kennedys weren’t really known for what they did in Massachusetts,” she said. “That’s one of the things that makes the Brown dynasty a little different, they were able to have a major impact without leaving the state.”

Pawel spent years in research on her book, “The Browns of California: The Family Dynasty that Transformed a State and Shaped a Nation,” published in September to rave reviews.

Pawel, who will appear in Pacific Grove on Feb. 21 to discuss the Brown family, earned her stripes at Newsday, where she dircted the team that won the Pulitzer Prize for spot news reporting in 1997 about the TWA Flight 100 crash and its aftermath. She went on to the Los Angeles Times, where her reporting on the struggles within the United Farm Workers union led to two authoritative books: “The Union of Their Dreams — Power, Hope, and Struggle In Cesar Chavez’s Farm Worker Movement’’ in 2009,  and “The Crusades of Cesar Chavez’’ five years later.

Her powerful L.A. Times reporting on little-known aspects of Chavez’s legacy — his insistence on absolute control of the movement, and paranoia about those who dared to disagree or challenge his leadership, did not endear her to UFW leadership, but the factual basis remained unchallenged, as she pointed out in a 2009 interview.

Her travels across the state reporting on the farm workers led Pawel to her new project, “The Browns of California: The Family Dynasty That Transformed A State And Changed A Nation’’ (Bloomsbury Press). She is the scheduled speaker at the Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History at 6:30 p.m. Feb. 21.

The book is a deeply researched look at the historical roots of Pat and Jerry Brown’s respective paths to governorship. The family’s California trajectory was set by Jerry’s great-grandfather, August Schuckman, who arrived in New York from Germany on a boat aptly named Perseverance, in 1849. Schuckman then set off on a rugged trip to California, across the Great Plains and the Oregon Trail, reaching Sacramento in 1852, before moving on to a Colusa County ranch.

The family, and the state, would never be the same.

Pawel drew on historical records, reminisces from family and friends, including several in-depth conversations with Jerry Brown, to make up a definitive portrait of this West Coast political dynasty with two of the most successful governors in California history. Although this may not have been the specific intent, it also serves as a useful corrective to political narratives centered on the other parts of the country, as in the endless flood of Camelot-related accounts of the Kennedy family, or, more recently, historian and presidential biographer Jon Meacham’s reverential biography of Bush the Elder: “Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George H. Walker Bush.’’

Out here on the West Coast, we don’t seem to get respect, and that’s something the new book helps to address. Pawel, a contributing editor to the New York Times opinion page, where she writes about California-related issues, including the recent L.A. teacher’s strike, spoke with Voices about Jerry and Pat Brown, the state of the farmworkers’ struggle, and other matters.

Paul Wilner: What was the genesis of the new book?  You mention in the preface your conversation with Jerry Brown at his isolated Northern California ranch.

Miriam Pawel: I really like writing about history when there are documents and archives, but also a lot of people to talk to, so there’s an ability to triangulate between people, documents and primary sources. My earlier books took me to lots of parts of the state and gave me a sense of the vastness and diversity of California. I listened to the governor’s 2015 inauguration speech, in which he talked about his great-grandfather, August Schuckman, so I knew he was interested in his lineage and I was intrigued by his idea of getting back to his roots.

I went to see him at his ranch — at the time, there was really nothing much there, just a bunch of falling-down buildings — and arranged to have a conversation with him there. Listening to him talk about his great-grandfather, and that he’d come here in 1852, just two years after California joined the union, it became apparent that the history of the Brown family parallels almost completely the history of the state, and touches on many of the themes that make California so different and special.

PW: Although Jerry is always articulate, he’s not someone famous for making himself available, holding very few press conferences in his last two terms. How did you get around those sorts of obstacles?

MP:  After the first conversation, when I told him about the idea for the book, I did not talk to him for two years. In that time, I did a lot of chronological research, and also spoke with his sister, Kathleen, who lives in Los Angeles and was very helpful in sharing work she’d done on the early genealogy of the family, as well as some close friends of his going back to his boyhood and his time at St. Ignatius (College Preparatory) school in San Francisco. He knew what I was working on, and heard back from people I’d spoken with, but I didn’t actually talk to him again for another two years.

I wanted to know as much as possible and to be clear about where the book was going before I talked to him in order to make the best use of that time. I think he’s someone who engages more and more with people (as) the result of the respect he has for how much work you’ve done. He was intrigued by anything I dug up on those early days, and his grandfather’s ship, Perseverance.  

PW: Did you feel he was guiding the interviews in any way, or was conscious of his legacy or image?

MP: No, I wasn’t talking with him about (current events), more about the history. He tends to have … non-linear conversations. For my purposes, that was very useful, because I was interested in seeing how his mind works. But he kept coming back to professors he had at Berkeley, including (the political scientist) Sheldon Wolin and (historian) Carl Schorske.

PW: Had he read your books on the farmworkers?

MP: He read the first book, I don’t think he had read the second.

PW: As someone whose legacy is intertwined with Chavez, what was his reaction to some of the revelations?

MP: He found some elements … disturbing.

PW: What’s your take on the state of the UFW now?

MP: I continue to be saddened by the demise of the farmworker movement. The Agricultural Labor Relations Act and the creation of the ALRB Board are very much a part of Jerry Brown’s legacy. California is still the only state that has a mechanism for farmworker elections and protected union activity. But the fact is that law was written for a situation where there’s a union actively trying to organize farmworkers, and if that’s not happening, it’s a sad coda to a major accomplishment.

PW: Do you think Trump’s anti-immigrant policies have had a negative effect on possible attempts to organize farmworkers?

MP:  On the contrary, there’s all kinds of factors which make it a good time to organize, and if you look at union activity in general, it’s way on the upswing (in the Los Angeles teachers strike and elsewhere). There’s certainly an increased degree of fear on the part of undocumented workers, who probably make up the majority of farmworkers, but on the other hand, there’s a labor shortage, which would make it a good time. Still, organizing is very hard work, and people have to be passionately committed, and I don’t see much evidence of that.

PW: There’s a lot of attention paid to other political dynasties: Kennedy, Bush, Clinton, even the Cuomos. Why do you think the Browns’ impact on California gets relatively short shrift?

MP: Even though Jerry Brown ran for president three times, California is so large in itself, as the fifth largest economy and all that, that everything California does becomes significant on the national level — whether that’s immigration, air emissions or all sorts of other things. If you look at the other dynasties, the Kennedys weren’t really known for what they did in Massachusetts! That’s one of the things that makes the Brown dynasty a little different. They were able to have a major impact without leaving the state.

PW: So even though Jerry never became president, he and his father were president of California, which is almost like a republic of its own.

MP:  Exactly. One of the things that’s interesting about Jerry Brown over the last 25 years is how successful he was in using that bully pulpit, if you just look at his impact on climate change, nationally and internationally.

PW: How do you view his presidential races — why weren’t they more successful? He said recently that his advice to West Coast candidates is that they should move to New York so they’re not disadvantaged by the time difference.

MP: I think he would say the timing wasn’t right. In 1976, he jumped in late, but did pretty well considering. And if he’d jumped in earlier, that would also have been problematic, since he’d only been governor for a year.  His 1980 campaign was just kind of a disaster, and I think he’s often said that it was a mistake. And the ’92 campaign was just a way to get back into the political game.

PW: He opposed NAFTA, so you can’t really call him a neoliberal, but has been a globalist on issues like climate change.

MP: His point of view has changed on a lot of things, which you can call either being flexible, or flip-flopping, depending on your point of view.

PW: Cal Matters columnist Dan Walters was critical of Brown — and the book — for changing his position on Proposition 13, which he strongly opposed, then supported, famously saying sometimes you have to paddle the canoe a little to the left, other times a little to the right. But I don’t know how much choice he had given its overwhelming margin of victory.

MP: I agree, he didn’t have much choice at that point.

PW: Has his attitude to his father, who was a pro-growth New Deal Democrat while he championed the era of lowering expectations, mellowed over time?

MP: I think that’s accurate. When he was first elected governor in ’75, he had been Secretary of State, but he really had to establish his own identity, apart from being Pat Brown’s son. And he had very different ideas about the role of state government, so there was a degree of built-in tension.

Their philosophical differences go back to the Vietnam war. He was anti-war and his father supported Lyndon Johnson and Hubert Humphrey. But people who know them well, and grew up around Jerry and his father, say they always had a strong personal relationship. And in later years, particularly, he came to very much embrace his father’s legacy. When he ran for Attorney General, he talked about the fact that his father said it was the best job he ever had, and on election night, he held up a poster of his father. And in his office as Governor this time around, there were many pictures of Pat up on the wall.

PW: In the book you report on the fact that the late San Francisco financier Lou Lurie financed Jerry’s law school education at Yale as a favor to the family.

MP: They were very different times. The whole ethics of the political world were very different. Campaigns took plane rides from different people, and Pat Brown accepted presents…

PW: Do you think Jerry has a political future?

MP:  I would never predict anything about Jerry Brown. I doubt that he has any interest in running for Colusa County supervisor, but I think he’ll want to remain relevant and engaged in the issues that are important to him, which at this moment are climate change, nuclear proliferation and criminal justice.

MIRIAM PAWEL will be speaking at the Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History, 165 Forest Avenue, on Thursday, Feb. 21, from 6:30 to 8:00 p.m. Admission is $5 for members online, $10 for non-members online, and $15 at the door.

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Paul Wilner

About Paul Wilner

Paul Wilner is a Monterey-based writer and editor who has worked for the Monterey County Weekly, San Francisco Examiner and Chronicle, The Hollywood Reporter and the New York Times. He grew up digging Bobby Darin, Sinatra and The Beatles.