In search of the true Big Daddy

When Jesse Unruh came to Sacramento, the Legislature was a virtual backwater. As a part-time institution, legislators were dwarfed in political power and stature by professional lobbyists. Meanwhile, California itself was still coming to terms with its position in post-war America as an engine of the nation's economy, and a national destination synonymous with opportunity.

That all changed in Unruh's time. As speaker, Unruh led the transformation of the California Legislature into a full-time institution, complete with a professional staff of policy experts (and political operatives) at the lawmakers' disposal. During Unruh's term as speaker, two governors–Pat Brown and Ronald Reagan–each brought their own brand of revolutionary politics to Sacramento, as the state invested billions in a public university system, roads and waterways, and gave birth to the modern conservative movement.

Not surprisingly, Unruh clashed mightily with both.

When Bobby Kennedy was shot after his California Primary victory at the Ambassador Hotel, Unruh was there, in the kitchen. By most accounts, Unruh saved the life of Kennedy's assassin, Sirhan Sirhan, from the angry Kennedy supporters who subdued the gunman.

Unruh was a man of humble beginnings, growing up in poverty in Texas, moving West during the Dust Bowl migration, and building his powerbase at USC, funded by the GI Bill. He was a politician of tremendous skill, yet was almost undone by his determination to maintain a firm grip on political power, and his tremendous appetites. His legendary lockdown of the state Assembly in 1963 cemented the reputation of Big Daddy – a moniker Unruh despised – and all but ruined his dreams of becoming governor.

But later in his life, Unruh found political redemption as state treasurer, transforming that office much as he had the Legislature–from a largely ceremonial post to one of the most powerful financial jobs in the country.
Bill Boyarsky was a reporter for the Associated Press during some of Unruh's tenure in Sacramento. Boyarsky, a former editor at the Los Angeles Times, is the author of a new biography, "Big Daddy: Jesse Unruh and the Art of Power Politics." Capitol Weekly chatted with Boyarsky about his new book, Unruh the man, and the most important Assembly speaker in California history.

So, why did you pick Jesse Unruh?
I picked Unruh because I had known him. I covered him. I was a Capitol correspondent for the Associated Press in the '60s. He was the first famous person I ever covered in my life. It was my first job in Sacramento. My boss gave me the state Assembly to cover, which was overwhelming. He was the leader, and he was going to be the speaker, so I started covering him.

What really got me interested was the controversy over his will. When he was dying, there was a controversy between his kids and a girlfriend in Sacramento and his wife. It was a damn mess. My friends Doug and Sherry Jeffe told me all about it, and I wrote a story about it for the L.A. Times.

As he lay dying, this fight occurred, and I always thought it would make a great beginning for a book, but I never thought anyone would be interested until I read John Jacobs' great book on Phil Burton. And John led me to the UC Press.
As I started thinking about his life, I thought he represented every important phase of California postwar. He represented everything that shaped the state. He came West from Texas with the Southwesterners, the Dust Bowl people late in the '30s. He was in the service. He was a GI Bill guy, and the GI Bill generation was absolutely crucial in shaping the state in the postwar years.

Then as a legislator he shaped the Legislature to what it is now. He was just a very innovative man. But each period in his life, I felt I could write about the history of it, too.

I didn't want it to be a biography of this dead, old legislator who no one ever heard of.

But he represented so much of California, I could write a history of California through him, and that's what I tried to do.

It seems that on the policy front, Unruh's involvement in some of his most important legislation was almost accidental. Some of the things that ended up defining his career, like his fair-housing legislation.

I thought that was quite astounding. Especially when I started doing my research on the Civil Rights movement in Los Angeles, and saw all of the things that I wrote about–the painful, miserable way that whites tried to prevent blacks from moving west. It was right in his district. And he, and the guy who wrote the law, Marvin Holden, was really unaware of it. My growing up, whites in California at that time were unaware of anything. We really believed in this myth that we were better than the South, so I did understand it. But I thought it was quite astounding that he fell into this Civil Rights legislation without having been part of the Civil Rights movement.

Was that just because of the times, that he was swept up by these forces that were greater than himself?

I think it started out because there was an injustice. One of the forces that shaped Unruh so much was his own poverty. That was the most powerful force in his won life. And what got him out of poverty? Education. Holden tells him this story about his little girl who can't get into school, and Unruh says, let's do something about it, and sort of oblivious to the world around him, he started doing this bill.

You write at one point, "He was hobbled by his preoccupation with fights, big and small, and his need to win every contest. His priorities were wrong and his vision skewed. As a result, the smartest member of the Democratic team took himself out of the fight." There's a definite disappointment there about potential unrealized.

It's very much part of his story. It's potential unrealized. I could have been a contender. I was a contender. I could have been a champion. That goes all through where he has almost this self-destructive urge. Certainly, it was very true in the lockup with his drinking and self-destructive behavior. It was certainly true in all that maneuvering about the [Stanley] Mosk thing. And there were so many little fights.

When I was a reporter for the AP up there, they were having a lot of these [internecine Democratic] fights. I was never interested in them. I never could understand why they were fighting. It was a mystery to me. And as I went back and replayed all that, I felt exactly the same way .

It wasn't necessarily ideological

No, it wasn't. It was this petty power struggle. But there was a strong ideology component. What really separated them all was the attitude toward the Cold War. That was the great dividing line in the Democratic Party in the '40s and '50s and on into the '60s.

The ferocity of the open, interparty struggles seems foreign to today's Sacramento in some ways.

As I went back, I tried to pick out what separated these people. It was the Cold War. When they were around and younger, they'd say, oh, it's just a fight over office space. They didn't even understand why they were fighting. But it's bigger than Sacramento. It's the historic split in the party. It was Wallace v. Truman. Unruh was for Truman. It was John Kennedy against Adlai Stevenson. It was the Vietnam War in the early stages before the party unified against it.
And today, it was Bill Clinton against the mainstream in the Democratic left. Unruh was always the centrist in all this. That really explains the fury of the fight, and why people hated him.

Was there a personal evolution in Unruh? He was a big Kennedy supporter, and supported Robert Kennedy, even urging him to run against Lyndon Johnson.

ll, Unruh had always been very close to the Kennedys. He was the John Kennedy guy in California. But Unruh supported the war. The turning point came in 1967, the night of the Century Plaza riot [which is discussed in the book]. That was very important to him. When Unruh saw the nature of that crowd, these were middle-class people, older people, nicely dressed. Baby carriages and strollers. When he saw them, he realized this [anti-war movement] was a lot different than he thought.

We were talking earlier about politicians destroyed by their own flaws, and that immediately brings Bill Clinton to mind. Is Clinton an apt comparison? The two are obviously of different political eras, but there's a sense of a man who was a step ahead of his counterparts, who was ultimately derailed by his appetites.

Well, Clinton doesn't drink much. Both of them used their power to obtain sex. Both had a certain kind of sex appeal, though I don't understand Unruh's. He had uncontrollable appetites that brought him down.

What was Sacramento like when you were up here? How has it changed?

I don't think that it's different at all. Money ruled when I was up there. And lobbyists ruled. That's how it operated, and that's how it operates today. The rules are different. It's actually worse. The need for money is so much greater. But the round of fundraisers at the end of session was unheard of in Unruh's day. It's really much worse, just because of the vast sums of money required. A person doesn't get elected speaker without a fundraising operation.

Some of the most interesting parts of the book were the parts of Unruh's life that have been least discussed–his life as treasurer. It's almost as if this silver medal of a political prize is also, in some ways, his political salvation.

That was one of the most important parts of his career. When he saw the potential of the office, and he saw how the state could take control of all these investments. He started all these debt agencies that he controlled. Like everything he did, there was a good side and a bad side. That was sort of t theme of this book. On the good side, certainly, these public works couldn't have been built without those debt-financing vehicles.

But then there was the other side–the fundraising, the meanness, the nastiness, the way he treated people at times.

He didn't seem to care for the press much.

He hated the press. Didn't like us. It was fine with me when I was starting out. Treated everybody like an enemy. So, the big guys didn't get a break, so I could compete with them fine. I had periods where he wouldn't talk to me, and periods when he would. It was very up and down.

You talk about Unruh the idealist versus Unruh the pragmatist. Most people think of Unruh as primarily motivated by power, as a power politician. Do you think that's fair or accurate?

I think he was motivated by his desire to help people who were like him–who had gone through the same hard times he had. And that comes out through the whole book in various ways. All of the projects for state treasurer, many of them, were aimed at helping middle-class or poor people get housing at a time when the finance market had dried up. That kind of governed his life.

And with the mental-health stuff, it was Unruh at his best. There is no political advantage in helping the mentally ill. No campaign contributors are lining up to help the mentally ill. All you get for that is misery.

What was the toughest part about writing this book?

One of the things I struggled with was how to deal with the women. When I was a reporter there, we did not deal with private lives. I had all of this material. It was hard for me to interview these women at first. As a reporter, I'm still finding that difficult. But I learned how to do it.

I knew, also, I had to discuss the women. I had to have names of women. I did find there were three women who had been his lovers, one of whom he later married, and they talked to me a lot. But I couldn't figure out how to weave them into this story.

I was talking to a friend who's a chair of the political-science department at USC. I told her I had all this material, and I didn't want to just be salacious. I can't figure out how to do that. She said, "Why don't you write about it in the context of how women were treated in the '50s and '60s. And that did it."

One thing that seems like a big difference is a kind of bipartisan camaraderie that existed in Unruh's time that is somewhat lacking now.

Well, there are two huge differences from Unruh's time. One is term limits, which totally changed the Legislature. That's really changed everything. Second thing that's happened is the total politicization of the staff. Those two things have made a huge difference. Everybody has to go for the short term.

When I was doing my research I talked to Darrell Steinberg. He said when he was elected, people told him to pick out one thing and make your name on that. He picked out mental health. They said, look, you've got three terms, find one issue and make your mark.

That wasn't true then. You had time to grow and fool around, try different things.

The two things that Unruh created–the full-time Legislature and the staff–have eroded or changed since Unruh's time. Are those still the lasting legacies of Unruh?

The idea of a full-time staff, absolutely. The value of the full time staff, of people who are not running off to Dinuba to supervise a campaign, but who are really great experts in their field, is invaluable. I came from Sacramento where I had dealt with staff people on serious issues. Heavy stuff. And they were absolutely great sources. When I came down to Los Angeles, I went to cover City Hall. They don't have that. The quality of work is really noticeable.

Big Daddy: Jesse Unruh and the Art of Power Politics will be on bookstore shelves on November 13

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