New Release Oral History: Jerry Brown: A Life in California Politics

New Release Oral History: Jerry Brown: A Life in California Politics

By Martin Meeker, Charles B. Faulhaber Director, Oral History Center, The Bancroft Library

There are very few individuals who are what might be called a “shoe-in” for an Oral History Center life history interview. Governor Jerry Brown is one who easily qualifies. Brown’s career as an elected official began in Southern California in 1969 when he was elected to the Los Angeles Community College Board of Trustees and then continued for nearly the next fifty years through a succession of high offices. He was elected: in 1970 to serve as California Secretary of State; in 1974 and again in 1978 as California Governor; in 1998 and 2002 as Mayor of Oakland; in 2006 as California Attorney General; and, finally, in 2010 and 2014 as Governor of California, for a third and record fourth term. In the midst of, and in between these offices, he ran three times for President of the United States (1976, 1980, and 1992), he once was the Democratic Party nominee for the U.S. Senate in California (1982), was elected chair of the California Democratic Party (1989), and ran his own nonprofit, populist, quasi-political organization We the People out of a communal living space he custom-built in Oakland, California in the 1990s. For the historians at UC Berkeley’s Oral History Center, the question was not, “Should this interview be done?” but rather, “How might it be done at all?”

Pat and Jerry Brown photo
Pat Brown and Jerry Brown in the 1970s

Edmund Gerald “Jerry” Brown Jr. was born April 7, 1938, in San Francisco, California. At the time of his birth, his father, Edmund Brown Sr., whom everyone knew as ‘Pat,’ already was deeply involved in the law and politics of San Francisco. He had a thriving law practice and had run for San Francisco District Attorney, with assistance from local players including William Newsom Sr., grandfather to the state’s current governor. After initial failures, Brown Sr. was elected district attorney (1943), then California Attorney General (in 1950 and 1954), and finally Governor of California in 1958 and 1962; he attempted to win a third term, but lost to Ronald Reagan in the watershed 1966 state election.

Pat Brown married Bernice Layne in 1930. Smart and educated at UC Berkeley, Bernice Layne Brown gave up an anticipated career in teaching for the roles of wife, mother, and homemaker, and was a forceful presence in the family and in the life of her only son, Jerry. Jerry Brown described his youth as a world apart from that of adults, not concerned with big issues or the problems of the day. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, he developed a yearning for something more meaningful in his life as he grew into a young adult. He was educated at Catholic parochial schools and after high school choose to attend Santa Clara College (now University), a Jesuit school, before abandoning that route in favor of a life in the Catholic priesthood. He lived for three years at the Sacred Heart Jesuit Novitiate seminary before then wanting a deeper engagement with the world around him, which led him to UC Berkeley in 1960. He graduated from Berkeley in 1961 and immediately was accepted to Yale Law School, which he completed in 1964. Jerry Brown clerked for California State Supreme Court Justice Mathew Tobriner while he studied for the California Bar Exam, at the time living in the California governor’s mansion near the end of his father’s second term. Approaching the age of thirty, Jerry Brown moved to Los Angeles, where he joined the Tuttle & Taylor law firm and would soon make the initial steps beginning his career in politics.

The Oral History Project

Working as an interviewer with the Oral History Center (OHC) since 2004, I was long aware that Jerry Brown had not yet sat for an oral history and that it would eventually need to be done — I might say that it was one of the interviews I personally wanted to work on and see to fruition. Then, in 2018, with the end of Jerry Brown’s fourth term as governor in sight, the OHC began the planning process, yet still without the necessary financial resources in place to make it happen. Because the University of California does not underwrite the Center’s oral history projects, we worked to secure funding for this interview, which clearly was going to be longer than most. In this context came a call from Scott Shafer, the senior politics editor with San Francisco’s KQED. Shafer inquired if OHC had begun “the governor’s” oral history. Shafer and I arranged to speak, during which he shared his hope of producing a multi-episode podcast series documenting Brown’s political life. I was intrigued with the notion of partnering with KQED and, especially, with a political reporter whose work I greatly admired. I recognized that adding additional people and institutions to the mix might complicate the process and potentially change the outcomes, but Shafer and I decided that a partnership might be mutually advantageous from several angles, so we drafted a working plan.

First off, we assembled a project team, the core members of which would be myself, Scott Shafer, KQED politics reporter Guy Marzorati, and OHC political historian Todd Holmes. Additional KQED staff, most notably Queena Kim, would participate by managing the recording of the interviews; OHC staff, most centrally Jill Schlessinger and David Dunham with the capable assistance of Berkeley undergraduate JD Mireles managed the production of the final transcript and the preservation of the recordings. The project team agreed to schedule all meetings and interview sessions at the convenience of the governor with the mutual agreement of all interviewers. OHC pledged to manage the paperwork, transcription, editing, reviewing, and finalization of the complete interview transcript. OHC, as a research unit within The Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley, would also preserve, archive, and provide public access to the transcript and audio recordings. It is worth noting that OHC typically video records its oral histories, but in a planning meeting with the governor in January 2018, he made it clear that this was to be an audio-only “oral” history. Because KQED needed broadcast-quality recordings for their podcast series, KQED assumed responsibility for that portion of the work.

The project team recognized that a great deal of preparation and background research were going to be essential for a successful oral history. OHC oral historians and KQED staff agreed to collaborate to develop an overview interview outline at the commencement of the project and then, as the project unfolded, interview outlines in advance of each interview session. This exchange helped the interviewers establish not only a shared agenda, but also a unique method in which two, three, and sometimes even four people were asking questions of the governor. Still, we recognized from early on that collaboration was key. While one interviewer might take the lead in one portion of the interview or another, overall the research and interviewing responsibilities were shared.

With a general plan in place, the final piece required was the formal agreement of the governor to participate in what we anticipated would be multiple recording sessions resulting in roughly a forty hour interview. In fall 2018, Shafer and Marzorati worked closely with Evan Westrup, then press secretary to the governor, to present our plan. With Brown’s tentative consent to participate, Shafer, Marzorati, Holmes and I met the governor in the historic mansion on what was one of his final days in office. The governor’s schedule was packed with nonstop exit interviews but he took the time to meet with us, during which we discovered that, while interested, he was not yet quite sold on the idea. He asked several tough questions about the process, our agenda, and the anticipated outcomes. He was keenly aware that his father had done a life history interview with OHC (then the Regional Oral History Office) which was released in 1982 — and he later told us that the existence of that oral history was key in his decision to participate in one himself. In the months leading up to the end of his term, Brown proved reluctant to discuss his “legacy,” but he ultimately agreed to do the oral history.

This oral history is appropriately the first interview of the newly relaunched California State Government Oral History Program. At the same time the Brown interview was in the planning stages, we were working with the Center for California Studies at Sacramento State, the California State Archives, and the California State Librarian to get the state legislature to renew funding for this program. The program first was established in 1985 with a vote of the state legislature. The law said, “The Secretary of State shall conduct under the administration of the State Archives a regular governmental history documentation program to provide through the use of oral history a continuing documentation of state policy development as reflected in California’s legislative and executive history.” The program was initiated in 1986 and in the ensuing decades scores of elected officials, appointees, and key government staff were interviewed. The program continued until 2003, when funding was pulled due to the state financial crisis that year and was not immediately restored when the state budget returned to balance. For the fiscal year 2018–2019 state budget, Alex Padilla, California Secretary of State, secured funds to relaunch the program administered by the State Archives. The reinvestment in the California State Government Oral History Program was essential in getting this interview completed and now available as a benefit to the public.

The formal interview sessions began on February 4, 2019, at the Mountain House III, Jerry Brown’s historic ranch in Colusa County, California, which is where all interview sessions would be recorded. A total of twenty interview sessions were conducted between February and October 2, 2019, when the final session was completed. Sessions ran between, roughly, ninety minutes and three hours; on some days two sessions were recorded, one in the morning and the other in the afternoon. Typically, the project team convened at the Mountain House on Monday mornings, interviewed throughout the day, and then spent the night in the nearby town of Williams; we would then record another one or two sessions on Tuesday before returning home that afternoon.

The original plans for the interview called for each main interviewer to focus on distinct chapters in the long biography. While this did take place to a certain degree, a variety of factors led to a more improvisational structure. Todd Holmes was set to play the lead role for OHC, while Shafer was to be the lead interviewer on the KQED team. However, in June 2019, Holmes was forced to attend to an ongoing family medical emergency, so his role, unfortunately, became more limited in subsequent sessions; while Holmes contributed significantly to the research and questioning in the first several sessions, and continued to make important contributions to background research, he was unable to attend a number of interview sessions in which he was to play a lead role. When Holmes had to step away, fortunately Shafer was able and willing to fill in any gaps. My planned role as interviewer for this project was to focus on certain specific issues such as Brown’s engagement with new ideas and unconventional thinkers, his fiscal policies and approaches to taxation, his years relatively out of the spotlight between 1983 and 1998, and then his terms as Mayor of Oakland and California Attorney General. Shafer thus became the lead interviewer for this project, asking the majority of questions, pushing the governor on issues from election strategy to his relationship with singer Linda Rondstadt. Shafer brought his in-depth and on-the-ground knowledge of California politics, particularly of the players, the issues, and the trends to this project. Although working largely behind the scenes, the role of Guy Marzorati deserves attention: alongside myself and Holmes, Marzorati contributed greatly to the extensive research dossiers and interview outlines that guided this project. He also conducted numerous background interviews with Brown associates which both informed our questions as well as contributed to the KQED podcast series (we anticipate including these interviews in the OHC collection at a later date). Readers of the transcript will also see occasional contributions from Marzorati as well as Queena Kim and Evan Westrup. I also want to acknowledge the good fortune of having Miriam Pawel’s then-just published group biography of the Brown family, The Browns of California (2018), as a key resource.

The KQED team uploaded digital audio files for each interview session and those were shared with OHC. OHC then oversaw the transcription of each interview session. Draft transcripts were edited by myself and Todd Holmes. When editing the transcript, we kept the governor’s words unchanged in most every instance, making only minor edits to fix errors or improve clarity if our task was clear. We did edit the transcripts in two more substantive ways: first, the governor would sometimes appear to finish a response at which point a question would be asked, but then he resumed his original answer; this created a number of unnecessary disjunctures in the transcript which were easily resolved with the removal of the out-of-place questions (which were subsequently asked, usually verbatim). The second substantive edits came with removing “off the record” content or other extraneous conversation: the KQED audio engineer would begin the recordings prior to the official beginning of the interview and thus captured some material that was not intended for public release, so this was cut; similarly, the interview was sometimes interrupted by external sounds (phones ringing, dogs barking, guests arriving), so these were deleted from the final transcript as well.

Edited transcripts then were provided to the governor for review and to approve. Evan Westrup took the lead on ensuring the timely and thorough review of these transcripts. The governor made very few edits throughout the roughly 800 pages of transcripts. OHC staff then prepared a final transcript, which entailed entering Brown’s edits, preparing a discursive table of contents, and assembling the additional material included in this document. Former Governor Gray Davis, who served as Brown’s chief of staff between 1975 and 1981, generously contributed a thoughtful and thorough Foreword to this oral history. Shortly after the release of this transcript, it will be cataloged and archived by The Bancroft Library. It is available on the website of the Oral History Center and the University of California Berkeley’s online library catalog. We anticipate by late spring 2020, the complete audio recordings of the interview (edited to conform to the lightly edited transcript) will be available for users to listen to on the OHC website. Moreover, the recordings will be synchronized with the transcript to enable users to search full text content in this time-based media. All of the oral history materials (recordings and transcripts) will be deposited with the California State Archives and available to users through their website as well.

Considerations of the Interview

A question often heard by oral historians is: what is the difference between journalism and oral history? It is not the easiest question, but there are a few points upon which there is some agreement. Oral history interviews are, by definition, recorded, preserved, and made accessible, in some fashion and at some date, to the public — to researchers who may wish to quote from the interviews and from other researchers who want to confirm the use and context of those quotes. Many oral historians provide the interviewee, or the “narrator,” the opportunity to review the interview (recording and/or transcript) prior to its deposit in an archive or release to the public. This arrangement allows for candor in an often long-format interview because the narrator knows she or he will be able to edit, seal, or otherwise prevent material from public release. This is not standard operating procedure for journalists. Although simplifying the matter, journalists let those whom they are interviewing know if the conversation is “on the record” or “off the record;” rarely are interviewees given the opportunity to review and change quotes made “on the record.” This posed a challenge to the project team at the onset, but an easy compromise was made early on: the governor would in fact be given the opportunity to review and correct the final transcript, but everything on the recording that was deemed “on the record” would stay “on the record” and thus would be available for KQED to use in their podcast production. This created the potential for tricky moments down the road if the governor made substantial edits or embargoed portions of his interview. Fortunately, Brown is experienced, to say the least, with media engagement and understood that everything recorded was the on record. While he chose his words carefully, electing to discuss some issues obliquely or not at all, he remained engaged, thoughtful, and largely candid throughout the long interview process.

One additional way in which oral history methodology and radio journalism ran up against each other is the issue of silence. Oral historians are taught time and again to allow potentially awkward silence to happen in an interview. We are told: don’t immediately jump to a new question after the narrator finishes their response. As a void, silence likes to be filled and it is often productive to allow the narrator to fill that silence. Something new, unique, or thoughtful might be added. I’ve used this technique many times and it does tend to produce results. Silence for radio journalists, however, is the enemy: questions are asked quickly to keep the audience engaged and the interviewee talking and, perhaps, a little off balance. Moreover, this oral history featured two and often three interviewers. As a result, Jerry Brown’s oral history was in some ways more like a lengthy but still rapid-fire radio interview than the kind of collaborative and slowly-paced interviews oral historians typically create. So this interview, this transcript is very much a hybrid document that resides at the boundaries of radio journalism and oral history.

As much as the circumstances of this project proved unique for oral history, the narrator himself was far out of the ordinary as well. We are fortunate to have a nearly forty-hour interview providing ample evidence of the uniqueness of this subject, but I’ll venture a few observations here. Jerry Brown, I found, to be a man with a largely unwavering set of core values and principles who sometimes appears to choose contradictory ways in which to express those drives. I am not the first to observe his belief in the value of frugality and in the virtue of austerity. And sure enough, these twin strands are woven throughout this story, from entering the seminary, to refusing the usual trappings of office when he became governor (such as limousines), to even rejecting (and vetoing) his own party’s budget when he considered it profligate. Brown recognizes at a profound level that we live in a world with limits and therefore it is virtuous to learn to live with those limits, making the most of the precious resources, opportunities, and time that we have. There is a very neat intersection then between his Catholicism and his interest in and real engagement with Zen Buddhism, which came to a real meeting point in Japan in the 1980s when he met with Father Lassalle, Jesuit, and Yamada Roshi, a Zen Buddhist leader. At the same time, points that might be considered contradictions appear in his narrative. For example, Brown himself has expressed great distrust of major social institutions. I think the long-running distrust between Brown and the faculty and administration of the University of California system comes down to the former’s skepticism about the value and fear of the doctrinaire aspects of formal education (along with his suspicion that university professors fail to appreciate the value of austerity). Why then would a man so critical of large social institutions spend his life seeking to lead them? Brown offers answers to this critical question throughout the oral history. Perhaps most important among these is that Brown seems truly comfortable inhabiting these apparent contradictions.

I have conducted hundreds of oral histories, but engaging with Jerry Brown was a new experience for me. Partly this was due to the fact that there were often three interviewers in the room; partly it was Jerry Brown himself. As a lifelong politician, Brown has ample reason to be suspicious of journalists and, based on his wrangling with professors, he feels largely ambivalent about academics as well. So while Brown already knew Scott Shafer and he knew of the Oral History Center through his father’s interview, the interviewing team was still regarded as “the journalists and the academics.” As will be evident when reading the interview, Brown sees journalists as reducers and simplifiers while academics are mired in their concepts and jargon; neither group has a great track record of explaining the world — especially the world of politics as it really is. For example, in session eleven, I made the observation to the governor, “You certainly had a domestic policy through line in your first two terms of governor.” He responds quickly and dismissively, “Wait, let me just back up to your through line—that’s another one of your metaphors.” Yet, then proceeds to offer a very thoughtful answer of the question. This type of interplay marked the entire interview process: sometimes it was productive and interesting, while at other times it became a little trying. But I think all recognized that this was the way in which Brown has always thought and engaged with others, friend and foe alike: not satisfied with pablum or fuzzy thinking, vigorous discussion and pointed debate were necessary to push any project forward. That spirit certainly reigned in this oral history interview.

Contributions of this Oral History

Jerry Brown
Jerry Brown

The purpose of oral history interviews is to create, preserve, and make accessible first-person accounts of lived history. Although Oral History Center staff regularly offer interpretations and analyses of their interviews, the prime goal in this center is to create documents (recordings and transcripts) that are not beholden to a single historian’s research objectives but rather attempt to seek information and ideas on a wide range of topics relevant to their narrator’s interests and expertise. To the extent that this is possible, we like to project and consider things that future generations might be interested in, and then ask our narrators to respond. So, any consideration of the contributions of a single oral history will be limited knowing its likely contributions today.

Speculation of future uses of this oral history aside, there are at least three main areas of study of the life of Jerry Brown, and politics much more broadly, that might be impacted by the contents of this interview from today’s vantage point: the historical trajectory of key social and political issues; the influence of creative and unique ideas upon Brown and his agenda; and what might be called the philosophy of realpolitik — of how politics really works, at least according to Brown. In this oral history, we questioned Jerry Brown about many of the key social and political issues of today and of decades past. We explored a variety of issues in the context of his first two terms as governor (1975–1983) and then how those issues disappeared, reappeared, or morphed during his second two terms (2007–2019). A short list of these issues includes: taxation, criminal justice, education, the environment, and immigration. One example of a particularly revealing exchange comes with Brown’s own narrative of the People’s Initiative to Limit Property Taxes, better known as Prop 13 (1978). In his telling, he rebuffs critics from within his own party who disliked his embrace of the reform after it was enthusiastically passed by voters, saying, “I never could quite follow that [criticism]. It’s the law. Now, no one seriously said you should subvert the law — what does that mean?” He further details what he did to prevent the passage of the law but then also the actions he took so that when the law was implemented something other than disaster would strike. Secondly, we asked Brown about a variety of esoteric thinkers he has engaged with and how those individuals and their ideas influenced his work of governing, a topic little explored by historians to date. Stewart Brand, Ivan Illich, Gregory Bateson, Sim Van der Ryn, and others appear in this transcript as Brown relishes in their ideas and even explains how they were made (or were attempted to be made) into programs and policy. Finally, and I think most importantly, this oral history, taken as a whole, represents a kind of philosophy of politics and governance. This philosophy manifests in the many pithy phrases he utters (“If nobody’s complaining, then there’s no issue, no one does anything”) as well as the longer and often substantive disquisitions on the central themes and pivotal moments of his half century in public service (such as the decision to run for president in 1976 and 1980 and what he learned from those defeats).

This oral history now joins OHC’s already major collection of interviews in California political history. In addition to the aforementioned life history with Governor Pat Brown (and the much larger “Goodwin Knight and Edmund G. Brown Gubernatorial Eras in California” project), OHC has conducted oral histories with California Governor and US Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren, State Assembly Speaker Willie Brown, Secretary of State March Fong Eu, as well as major projects on the Ronald Reagan Gubernatorial Era and Women in California Politics. As previously mentioned, the Jerry Brown oral history is the first interview of the newly relaunched California State Government Oral History Program sponsored by the California Secretary of State, State Archives. See more resources on the Jerry Brown oral history.