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THIRTY YEARS AGO A HARD-FOUGHT gubernatorial campaign heralded the third great political upheaval of our century
October 1996 | Volume 47, Issue 6
Brown should have won. He should have won because he was a popular two-term incumbent, the economy was booming, migrants were thronging the West, hailing his state as the promised land, and he had accomplished more than any of his predecessors. In previous races he had defeated two of the Republican party’s political titans, the Senate minority whip William Knowland and former Vice President Richard Nixon. That last victory had earned him the nickname “the Giant Killer.”
And Ronald Reagan, his likely opponent in the 1966 general election, was no Richard Nixon. A fervent rightwinger, a mediocre actor, and, most encouraging, a political novice, Reagan seemed easy prey for the Giant Killer. Surely, the governor thought, his constituents would never put someone with such scant experience and such shallow, extreme views in charge of the most populous state in the nation, would never reject a liberal, progressive philosophy for an antiquated conservatism more appropriate to the nineteenth century. The forces of history seemed once again to be on his side.
Pat Brown was a Catholic, a Californian, and a career politician. Above all, he was a liberal. But he hadn’t always been one. Born in San Francisco in 1905, a year before the great earthquake razed the city, Edmund G. Brown early developed an interest in politics. In the seventh grade he delivered a “give me liberty or give me death” speech on behalf of World War I Liberty bonds so rousing that classmates started calling him Pat, short for Patrick Henry. The name stuck.
In 1928 Brown ran for the state assembly as a Calvin Coolidge Republican. Soundly defeated, he returned to his fledgling law practice in San Francisco. A few years later, as the Great Depression settled on the nation, he began to question the wisdom of his laissez-faire philosophy. His high school chum Matthew Tobriner (a future state supreme court justice) told Brown to wake up: FDR’s victory was no ordinary political event but the beginning of a new political era. Tobriner gave Brown copies of The New Republic and quoted the columnist Walter Lippmann on the need for economic reform. In 1934, with farm prices at record lows and twenty million Americans out of work, Pat Brown became a Roosevelt New Dealer.
The switch was not unusual. Like many young men of his generation, Brown had come to believe that the ideas of Coolidge, Harding, and Hoover held little hope for the unemployed millions. Those ideas, Brown said years later, represented “an appeal for human selfishness. … I never regretted the change, not for a minute.”
He had little reason to. As a moderate Democrat he built a political résumé second to none: In 1943 he was elected San Francisco district attorney, seven years later he became the state attorney general and earned a reputation as a tough law-and-order man, and in 1958 he became governor of California—just the second Democrat to hold that post in the twentieth century.
But in California no one more incarnated the forces of liberalism than Pat Brown. He helped build the largest and most prestigious state university system in the country as well as the California water system, which each day brought two billion gallons of the precious liquid from the rainy north to the arid south. He won passage of fair-housing legislation, established a Fair Employment Practices Commission, reformed state labor laws, increased unemployment insurance, and expanded welfare benefits. He believed in the ability of government to improve the human condition—a central tenet of postwar liberalism —and he brought the state into unprecedented areas of California society.
“Think big,” Pat exhorted fellow Californians in his 1962 race against Richard Nixon. In the boom years of post-World War II America, many politicians thought big. But in vision and public works, none thought bigger than Pat Brown.