Big Daddy

Big Daddy

Dear Big Daddy,
I suppose with Jerry Brown likely running for governor, we’ll have to sit through a barrage of “moonbeam” jokes. What’s in a name anyway?
–Bemused in Burlingame

Dear Bemused,
I’ll tell you what’s in a name and it’s not pretty. When you become known as “Big Daddy,” you know all about nicknames and what they imply.

When I came to Sacramento in 1955, I weighed 300 pounds. But I was very light on my feet and I moved fast.   

By the end of the decade – we’re talking less than five years here – I had solid legislation under my belt, including the Unruh Civil Rights Act and a consumer credit protection act that stood for 25 years. Both were considered, rightly, national landmarks. There are many other successes, too.

I was Assembly Speaker for eight years, and I was the best ever. I transformed the office from a ceremonial, custodial afterthought into a powerhouse. Later, with the Council of Institutional Investors, I did the same thing at the state treasurer’s office. I was the best treasurer the state ever had, and I say that with all modesty and accuracy.

Okay, I got beat in my campaigns for governor and mayor of L.A., and I got beat in my first two Assembly races before I finally got to Sacramento, but those were all the faults of the voters, not me. My professional reputation never suffered.

But all my accomplishments and all my legislative expertise have been overshadowed by the fact that I got nicknamed “Big Daddy,” and the name stuck. It was probably Dick Bergholz who came up with that moniker – I wouldn’t put it past him.

“Fad writers hit on the Big Daddy nickname and buried my legislative accomplishments. No legislator in California history has passed as much major legislation as I have,” I told a reporter years ago, and I couldn’t say it better now.  So I won’t.

But the bottom line is that for ever after, it was always “Big Daddy” instead of just plain Jesse Unruh or just plain Assembly Speaker.

But I hated that “Big Daddy.” It always reminds me of a Southern ward boss, or Burl Ives in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” or Nero Wolfe’s father.

If I could have picked my nickname, it would have been something entirely different. I always liked “Stud Muffin” or “Man of Steel” or “Iron Man” or even “Mr. Capitol.” I floated those around a few times, but nobody bit. During the Depression, the legend was that those cool nicknames of mobsters were coined by cop shop reporters, who came up with such names as “Greasy Thumb” for Jake Guzik or “Scarface” for Al Capone. I wish a newsie in the Capitol had come up with something cool for me. But no. You can never get a reporter when you want one.

So I have infinite sympathy for “Gov. Moonbeam,” a tag that was hung on Jerry Brown by Chicago newspaper columnist Mike Royko. Royko, an acerbic, touchy scribbler who saw himself as a blue-collar champion, later said the “moonbeam” appellation was a mistake. By then, of course, it was too late: Moonbeam has shone brightly all these years, and it’s glare is all but certain to spill over into this year’s race for governor.

Well, nobody ever apologized to me for “Big Daddy,” and I suppose it doesn’t matter now.

But just once, I would have liked “Stud Muffin.”

Want to see more stories like this? Sign up for The Roundup, the free daily newsletter about California politics from the editors of Capitol Weekly. Stay up to date on the news you need to know.

Sign up below, then look for a confirmation email in your inbox.


Support for Capitol Weekly is Provided by: