Editor’s note: Gray Davis, the 37th Governor of the State of California, served as chief of staff to Jerry Brown during his first two terms as governor (1975-1981). We asked Gov. Davis to write a foreword to our lengthy oral history with Brown, which we are pleased to share with you below. Click here to see Davis’s essay in the context of Brown’s oral history. See more resources on the Jerry Brown oral history.
Governor Edmund G. (“Jerry”) Brown was the longest serving governor in California history, and one of the most consequential. First elected in 1974, he championed a major solar initiative (first-ever tax incentive for rooftop solar), and signed legislation prohibiting any new nuclear power plants in California until the federal government certified a safe way to dispose of nuclear waste. To this day, the Federal Government has yet to do so and no further nuclear plants have been approved.
Governor Brown also negotiated and signed the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act of 1975, a first of its kind in California and the Nation. Even today, it remains the only law that creates and protects the rights of farmworkers to unionize and collectively bargain. None of the other 49 states has been able to pass similar protections for some of the most vulnerable workers in our country.
In March of 1976, Jerry announced his run for the presidency and won primaries in California, Maryland and Nevada, and accumulated the second highest number of votes going into the convention (2,449,374). His late entry into the 1976 democratic presidential primary precluded him from catching Jimmy Carter, who accumulated the requisite amount of delegates to secure the nomination and become president.
Jerry Brown left office in 1983 and did not return to the governorship until 2011, 28 years later, making him California’s youngest, oldest and longest-serving governor. His third and fourth terms featured a remarkable turnaround in the state’s financial standing. He inherited a $27 billion deficit but left office with a $29 billion surplus ($14.5 budget surplus and a $14.5 billion “rainy-day fund”).
In an effort to restore the State’s fiscal stability, Jerry sponsored and campaigned for the passage of Proposition 30, a voter-approved tax increase that raised $6 billion. Tying his fiscal and environmental stewardship together, in 2012 Jerry signed into law the first in the nation government run cap-and-trade program, creating in excess of $9.3 billion to fund emission reductions and programs that protect the environment and promote public health.
He left the Governor’s office and public life in early 2019, enjoying a higher approval rating than any governor since Ronald Reagan.
To understand Jerry’s expansive worldview and insatiable curiosity, it is helpful to take stock of where he has been and what he has done. The son of a Governor, he lived in the Historic Governor’s Mansion, attended parochial high school, studied at Santa Clara University, joined the Sacred Heart Jesuit Novitiate seminary, received his Bachelor’s Degree from UC Berkeley and his law degree from Yale. In addition, Jerry has practiced private law at Tuttle and Taylor, was elected to the Los Angeles Community College Board of Trustees, California Secretary of State, California Attorney General and four times as Governor of California. He has run the State Democratic Party, served as Mayor of Oakland and ran three times for president. He’s traveled the world, studied Buddhism, and worked with Mother Teresa at her Home for the Dying in India.
When I was running for governor, people asked me what does it take to be a successful governor? My answer (in jest) was “rain in the north and a strong economy.” Obviously, the governor cannot affect the weather. As for the economy, state tax incentives can only affect the economy on the margins. In the main, economic expansions and recessions are a result of the business cycle and function largely outside the Governor’s control.
But that is not how the public sees it. They give great credit to a governor when the economy is improving, but hold him fully accountable when the economy is in recession. Every governor from Ronald Reagan has experienced a slowdown or recession of some type. Reagan, Jerry Brown in his first two terms, Deukmejian, Wilson, myself and Schwarzenegger have experienced the ups and downs of the economy.
But when Jerry Brown was inaugurated for the third time in 2011, the economy turned positive and remained positive for his entire eight years.
That was a great relief to the public whom had experienced an unemployment rate of 10%, the loss of thousands of homes to foreclosures and financial downgrades, as conditions deteriorated in California.
This economic rebound was a critical factor in rescuing California from nearly a decade of deficits; however, it took more than good luck to turn California around. Jerry Brown brought the fiscal discipline necessary to turn the corner. He had reached out to almost every legislator as soon as he was elected for the third time, explaining that the path of more borrowing and larger deficits was not sustainable.
Despite hundreds of hours of collaboration with the legislature, their initial budget was a disappointment to him and was clearly not in balance. After much deliberation he decided to do something that has never happened in California: he didn’t just veto parts of the budget as most governors in the past had done, he vetoed the entire budget!
Sacramento was in shock!
After a number of heated meetings, he and the legislature produced a second budget with numerous reductions that was in balance, and put California back on the path back to solvency. As a result of that budget and previous cuts, some 30,000 teachers had been laid off, many classes had been canceled as well as almost all after school programs in California. In his 2012 budget, the governor and legislature restored some, but not all, of the cuts made during the previous three years.
That same year, the Governor gambled that he could persuade voters to pass Prop 30, which generated $6 billion additional dollars that paid for these new teachers and professors and restored many of the classes that had been eliminated in previous years. In fact, the voters believed Jerry Brown when he said California could not cut anymore. They believed him when he said that most of the taxes would fall on the wealthy and that Prop 30 would put California back on the path to greatness.
The voters passed Prop 30 and gave California a fresh start.
A governor without Governor Brown’s discipline and well-known frugality might not have convinced California voters to increase taxes by $6 billion. Without Jerry Brown’s leadership, cooperation of the legislature and the strong economy he inherited, California might still be waist deep in deficits rather than the 5th largest economy in the world. Jerry Brown exited the stage in January 2019. By the time he left, California had new problems, including homelessness and poverty; but he and the legislature solved the problems they inherited by righting California’s finances and helping rebuild its economy.
Frugality and Good Fortune:
Before Governor Brown was inaugurated in 1975, he told me he did not want to be driven in a limousine, but preferred instead a car normally assigned to a legislator or cabinet officer. When I conveyed that message to the director of general services, he told me they had 1974 Plymouths available in three colors: gold, white and blue. I opted for blue, envisioning dark blue or royal blue.
After the Governor delivered a 7-minute inaugural address, we started walking across Capitol Park for our trip to San Francisco. There was only one car waiting for us – and it was not the dark blue Plymouth I anticipated but a powder blue Plymouth! No California governor has ever been a driven around in a powder blue Plymouth. I was beyond embarrassed!
“Is that my car?” Governor Brown asked. “I’m afraid it is,” I replied.
But to the Governor’s great good fortune, the public warmed up to the idea of a powder blue Plymouth; they began to take pride that their Governor had chosen a less expensive and less imposing looking car as his official vehicle. By the end of Jerry’s second term, the blue Plymouth became almost as recognizable as the Governor.
Another example of the governor’s frugality occurred about three months into his administration. We were just finishing our morning meeting, when I mentioned to the governor that I had asked General Services to come over and not replace, but repair a 10-inch hole in the rug adjacent to his desk. “Why would you do that?” he asked. “Because it’s unseemly to have a hole in the governor’s rug.” The Governor answered: “That hole will save the state at least $500 million, because legislators cannot come down and pound on my desk demanding lots of money for their pet programs while looking at a hole in my rug!”
That told me not only was the governor genuinely frugal, but that he also understood the power of his frugality to fight off excessive demands in the budget. It gave him the moral authority to ask for big cuts when the state was $27 billion in debt at the start of his third term, and the courage to veto the entire budget when they did not make those cuts.
Jerry Brown was the best and possibly the only leader who could overcome the challenges that California faced in 2011 and lead the state back to the 5th largest economy in the world.
When he walked out of his office for the last time in January 2019, only the United States, China, Japan and Germany had larger economies than California.
By Governor Gray Davis (Ret.), 37th Governor of California
From the OHC Director:
The staff of the Oral History Center wishes everyone a happy and productive 2020!
After a long winter’s rest for the Berkeley band of oral historians, this year has jumped off to a running — and even wild — start.
For one, we have begun the unveiling of our lengthy life history interview with four-term California Governor Jerry Brown. Done in partnership with KQED Public Media, this oral history also serves as the first interview conducted for the relaunched California State Government Oral History Project, a project of the Secretary of State. Read more about the interview background and context — or the interview itself. Here’s the page that serves as clearing house for all information about and coverage of this important oral history
We are in the final phases of preparing a number of new interviews for release in the coming weeks and months, including new releases for our projects with: the Sierra Club, the East Bay Regional Park District, the Presidio Trust, San Francisco Opera, the founders of Chicano/a Studies, and the Getty Trust African American Artist project.
Along with our usual oral history work, we are preparing for our annual Introductory Workshop (Leap Day! February 29th) and Advanced Summer Institute (August 10–14). Applications for the Introductory Workshop and Advanced Institute are both now open.
Come back in February for a more substantive column from your’s truly. Until then, back to that reservoir of unread emails!
Martin Meeker, Oral History Center Director
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?”
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
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.
From the Director…
The Oral History Center Top 10 of 2019
With Thanksgiving falling late on the calendar this year, all of the sudden things are feeling very rushed in the lead up to 2020. Despite that feeling, your friends here at the Oral History Center set aside a few moments to reflect on some of the more memorable episodes of 2019. This year we again conducted about 500 hours of interviews and did a whole lot more too, such as produced two seasons of our podcast series, The Berkeley Remix, taught scores of eager students about oral history, and traveled the nation to record our interviews. The countdown that follows, then, is just a snapshot of those times that made us laugh, let us weep, and forced us to sit back in awe of the impactful research we do and the wonderful stories we are honored to record.
- OHC historian Shanna Farrell started an oral history book club. Her first selection was Patrick Radden Keefe’s remarkable new book, Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland (if you want to know more, check out the not-so-oral history transcript of our conversation).
- The work of the Center was featured wide and far through a variety of media, providing an ever-larger opportunity for folks to engage with the work that we do. OHC oral histories were featured on podcasts such as East Bay Yesterday, California Report Magazine, and The Dropout (about Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes); and news of our work was featured in California Magazine and regularly on Berkeley News and even a few times on the homepage of the Berkeley website, thanks to the efforts of our newest employee, Communications Manager Jill Schlessinger.
- A 2019 highlight for OHC historian Roger Eardley-Pryor was his interview with H. Anthony “Tony” Ruckel, former President of the Sierra Club. Ruckel helped pioneer the then-nascent field of environmental law. Roger recalled, “During his interview, Tony explained how, in 1969, as a ‘green’ 29-year-old lawyer, he brought the precedent-setting Parker v. United States case under the Wilderness Act of 1964 to protect land near Vail, Colorado that eventually became Eagle’s Nest Wilderness. To prepare for his interview, I read Tony’s book on environmental law, Voices for the Earth (2014), while backpacking through the Emigrant Wilderness in the high Sierra Nevada, just north of Yosemite National Park. What better place to read about Tony’s efforts to preserve wilderness than a designated wilderness area!”
- On occasion, we have the opportunity to host a special event celebrating the completion of an oral history. In August, we fệted Anne Halsted, the community advocate who has spent tireless decades serving many nonprofit organizations and government agencies striving to improve communities in the Bay Area. After the formal presentation, those attending were treated to spontaneous memories and tributes; perhaps the one that got the most applause was when someone proclaimed that Halsted should have been our first female President! This event also marked the official kick-off of our new oral history project on Women in Politics — check back in 2020 for more news on this.
- East Bay Yesterday host Liam O’Donoghue was the keynote speaker at the 2019 Summer Institute and provided the group assembled with a complex view into the history of our region that clearly demonstrated the power of oral history to bring the past alive.
- Shanna Farrell reflected on 2019 and concluded a highlight for her was traveling to New York to interview the celebrated abstract sculptor Mel Edwards. Farrell wrote, “His work is so powerful and he’s so intelligent that meeting him in person was a really gratifying experience. Participating in the Getty Trust oral history project, even in a small way, has been one of the best oral history projects on which I’ve worked.”
- HBO released to wide-acclaim its popular miniseries Chernobyl, based on the collection of oral histories Voices of Chernobyl. The author of this book, Svetlana Alexievich, won 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature in part for this work. (This book will be the first OHC book club selection of 2020 — why not read along with us?)
- When asked about 2019, OHC historian Paul Burnett was momentarily stumped, but then replied, “In an annual roundup, it’s a bit unusual to write about something that began in the fall of 2017, but my work with UC Berkeley engineering scientist George Leitmann qualifies. At twenty-three hours, his oral history is a very deep dive into one person’s life story. More than that, George and I spent many hours poring over photo albums, looking at artifacts, and planning the final look of the interview volume. His oral history is extraordinary, not only because it showcases an extraordinary person, which he is; but also because of the extraordinary history he witnessed.”
- Producing our own podcasts were definitely a highlight. We released two seasons this year — 6 full-length episodes! The first was called Let There Be Light: 150 Years of UC Berkeley. This featured three episodes edited and narrated by three OHC historians (Paul Burnett, Amanda Tewes, and Shanna Farrell); the podcasts provided three snapshots of Cal’s history at 150 years. The second season was Hidden Heroes, which drew upon the interviews of the East Bay Regional Park District Oral History Project. Produced by Shanna Farrell and Francesca Fenzi, these three episodes built upon the stories told in the interviews, illustrating, we think, the transformative power of oral history and the important role of parklands in our lives.
- And, drumroll, the Number One on this list comes from yours truly. We’ve made no secret of the fact that in 2019 we partnered with local public radio station KQED and the California State Archives to conduct Governor Jerry Brown’s oral history. The interview is done and we’re currently editing the transcript for release in January (finger’s crossed!). I joined KQED’s Scott Shafer and our own OHC historian Todd Holmes in asking the questions, and, as you’ll see when it is released, there were highlight points-a-many in the result exchanges. But one special moment I’ll recall for a good long time was when the dialog changed from historian-and-governor to gardener-and-gardener. During one lunch break in the blazing heat of summer at the governor’s ranch, Brown admitted to me that he was concerned about the progress of his tomatoes: were those blotches a disease? Why was there no fruit yet? I was happy to provide a quick consultation and when I returned a few weeks later, I was relieved to see a healthy bush ripe with cherry tomatoes!
I hope that everyone in the reach of this newsletter had the good fortune of experiencing their own top 10 moments of 2019 and wish more such positive memories and proud accomplishments for 2020. It is imperative that I recognize the OHC Top 10 could not have happened without the support of so many people: the OHC staff is second-to-none and are a pleasure to work with; our student employees continue working quietly but so professionally and productively behind the scenes; and, without question, our narrators’ gift of their time and their memories is the beating heart of our work, and always will be. Our generous partners and individual sponsors make this work possible, and we are deeply grateful for the support that they provide. We hope that you, too, will remember the Oral History Center as you make your year-end gifts — and we make it easy for you to do so here. We’ve got some great things planned for 2020, so please continue on this journey will us in the months and years to come.
Charles B. Faulhaber Director
Oral History Center
by Martin Meeker, Charles B. Faulhaber Director of the Oral History Center
The title of this particular oral history reveals not only something about its content, it provides some hint about the circumstances of the interview itself. In this transcript, you’ll see the usual Oral History Center (OHC) template of question followed by answer and so forth, but befitting the setting of the interview — San Francisco’s historic Sam’s Grill — this exchange was more a wide-ranging conversation. It turns out that George Miller, our featured narrator here, doesn’t much like the spotlight. Although he has many accomplishes to boast, he would prefer to talk ideas and give space to those things that he finds important, interesting, confounding, and amusing.
You will learn in this interview that George Miller first came to know the Oral History Center in the course of serving as a volunteer archivist, processing collections in our home, The Bancroft Library. Surrounding himself with many other very interesting and accomplished individuals, Miller asked the then OHC director if we might like to do an oral history with Thomas Graff, a man who was deeply active in environmental politics and a leader of the Environmental Defense Fund. It was agreed that Graff was a very worthy subject and Miller generously sponsored the interview. Over the following decade, Miller nominated — and underwrote — many more oral histories, thus helping OHC maintain its operations while also contributing to expansion of the oral history collection at Berkeley. As of 2019, the list includes: Jake Warner, Rick Laubscher, Will Travis, Joe Bodovitz, Anne Halsted, Michael Teitz, Jim Chappell, John Briscoe (in 2020), and, last but not least, a forty-hour interview with Warren Hinckle. As the interviewer for the Bodovitz and Travis interviews, I first met Miller around 2014. I recall an informal tipple at the Faculty Club cocktail lounge when I think I finally pieced it together: 1. He was not George Miller, the congressman; 2. Despite his rather informal façade, he is a very serious thinker; and 3. That plaque above a urinal in the men’s restroom at the club? It honored none other than George Miller, our partner in these interviews.
After engaging with Miller over the years, I suggested that he should sit for an oral history interview himself. This suggestion, and the many that followed, were rebuffed with silence. As time went on, however, I began better to grasp the necessity of conducting his oral history, despite the refusal of the potential narrator, Miller himself. So, I pressured a bit more and enlisted the support of a few allies. He finally agreed to entertain the idea, and after a few lunches at Sam’s to hash over the idea, he ultimately consented. He reasoned, to paraphrase, it might be better to do something and regret it, than not do it at all. Still, Miller made it clear that he didn’t want a conventional interview that would run point-by-point through his life. He also wanted to do these sessions at Sam’s. Neither scope nor setting would be conventional, but that was fine with me. As you read the interview, you might see that my typical interviewing structure tended to impose itself on the proceedings, but the setting and, certainly, the narrator shook things up a bit. What you have here, then, in just a bit over five hours, is an opinionated, informed, humane, rollicking, and oftentimes deeply humorous running commentary on a wide-ranging set of specific events and big themes. We get a glimpse into the history of investing and the psychology of the market; we learn of Miller’s commitment to the environment and his iconoclastic effort to restore Yosemite’s Hetch Hetchy Valley (by tearing down a massive dam); we gain insight into Bay Area urbanism and the challenges faced by those trying to improve it; and we are treated to a unique philanthropic vision for the University of California, Berkeley, and beyond. But even more than these topics, this interview invites you to pull up a stool at the bar and hear the musings and be regaled with well told stories by someone who really has seen it all.
From the Director:
Preserving Veteran Experiences for Future Generations
It was the 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month that the armistice ending World War I took effect. In the ensuing years this was celebrated, first, as Armistice Day, and, now, as Veteran’s Day. On this day we commemorate and remember those men and women who have served in the armed forces. Although the Oral History Center has no “veteran’s oral history project” per se, we proudly have documented the lives and service of hundreds of military men and women in multiple projects throughout our collection, and in observance of this year’s holiday, we’d like to highlight some of those for you here.
When the Oral History Center was established sixty-five years ago, World War I already was nearly forty years in the past. I was not able to locate any oral histories in our collection with those who served in the US military at that time, but the life and times of The Great War does appear in our interviews, and from some pretty interesting angles too. Our 1987 interview with Charles Blaisdell, Jr. offers a view into immediate prewar Germany, around the time of the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, as well as his observations of World War I from outposts in India and China. A memoir from 1976 provides another unique perspective on World War I, this time from a young man living in pre-Soviet Russia, Ivan Stenbock-Fermor.
The collection becomes much more substantial in its coverage of World War II, both of those who served in the military and who assisted with the homefront effort. Of the latter group, any serious researcher must contend with the Rosie the Riveter / World War II Home Front oral history project. This project, completed only in the last few years, is OHC’s largest project to date, resulting in hundreds of individual interviews. Along with scores of interviews with those who worked in wartime industries, this project also features a handful of interviews with women who served in the military, such as army recruiter Mary Cohen, who later went on to place veterans in jobs; or served in some auxiliary role, such as Anita Christiansen and Mary Highfill, both of whom volunteered with the USO; or Grahame Crichton Coffey, who joined the Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES) in 1943 and continued her service for the duration of the war.
In dozens of additional interviews, men detail their service in the war and bravery in many of the great battles. Walter Newman, for example, provides a harrowing, awe-inspiring account of the Invasion of Normandy in June 1944; around the town of Saint Lo, Newman was shot through the lung and gravely injured, spending many months hospitalized (see the video below). He recuperated fully and went on to work for the welfare of veterans throughout his life and was even honored with the French Legion of Honor medal in 2009. Our recent oral history with UC Berkeley Mechanical Engineering Professor George Leitmann also offers a riveting first-person account of the Battle of Colmar and the liberation of Europe. The fact that both Newman and Leitmann were young Jews fighting the Nazis adds an extra dimension to these dramatic tales.
The story of American veterans did not end with World War II, and the OHC collection includes scores of oral histories with those who have served in Korea, Vietnam, and the Gulf War, among other conflicts. Our project documenting the history of the Oakland Army Base includes interviews covering all of these conflicts, but has a special focus on the Korean War and Vietnam War eras, the time at which the base was the largest military port operation in the world. Gordon Coleman, an Oakland native and graduate of UC Berkeley, served in Korea in the immediate wake of the ceasefire. George Bolton, who was interviewed for this project, was raised in Oakland and was drafted into the army in 1963 where he served for two years, including some time in these early years of the Vietnam War. Grant Davis served in the Air Force during the Vietnam War, and then went on to have a civilian career at the Oakland Army Base. All three men speak about their military careers from the perspective of African Americans who experienced integration, and racism, while in the service.
These interviews are just one way — perhaps only one small way — in which the Oral History Center, and by extension UC Berkeley, chooses to honor our veterans and remember their service to our country. Further, we are aware that those whom we had the chance to interview were those who survived the battles, the wars, and the hardships; they returned home, but many others did not. Because they are the ones who lived to tell those stories, we take seriously our role in preserving them for you and future generations to hear.
Charles B. Faulhaber Director
Oral History Center, The Bancroft Library
An oral history of the Zombie War!?
No, UC Berkeley’s Oral History Center isn’t about to undertake an oral history project on humanity’s battles with zombies. But this was the subtitle to the 2006 novel by Max Brooks, World War Z, that was later made into a big-budget movie starring Brad Pitt as, what else, a former UN employee-turned-zombie eradicator. Having experienced both versions, I can say without qualification that the book was far superior to the movie, in part because the book attempted to take the oral history dimension a bit more seriously—while not skimping on fun or sensation. “Oral history” in this case was the novel’s conceit: first person accounts collected in the wake of the war (spoiler alert: the zombies lose), edited and spliced together in an attempt to create a narrative of the madness. But, really, is this “oral history”?
In recent years, “oral history” has moved from academic jargon to pop culture ubiquity. While there have been moments in the past when oral history-like projects have broken through (think Alex Haley’s Roots), only now are we seeing, for example, “An Oral History of the Time Wayne Gretzky Appeared on SNL,” an article which appeared last month in Forbes (of all places!). Surely my colleagues and I are thrilled that oral history appears to be having a moment. Less often do I get that crinkled look on someone’s face when I tell them, “I’m an oral historian.” They’re not as likely to ask, “Does that have something to do with… dentistry?” But. We are not entirely comfortable with what this increase of recognition means. People link “oral history” to any number of cultural products, maybe especially StoryCorps, which is regularly featured on NPR. Like World War Z, however, even StoryCorps is quite different from the way in which professional, university-based oral historians do our work.
Within the oral history community there is on-going conversation about just what elements comprise “best practices.” Yet, there is some baseline agreement as evidenced by the Best Practices document approved by the members of the Oral History Association in 2018. At the Oral History Center, our definition of “oral history” begins with a set of core practices and procedures. These practices set our work apart from anthropologists, most journalists, and, yes, fictional chroniclers of the zombie wars.
Oral history at Berkeley begins with creating a project and determining its size and scope, which might result in fifty interviews or just one. We select the narrators, or interviewees, and ask them to sign a letter of informed consent. This letter details their rights and responsibilities, including the fact that they can withdraw from a project at any point prior to its completion. The interviews are conducted, typically in two-hour sessions, and are recorded on video, unless the narrator wants audio-only. All interviews are transcribed then lightly edited by our staff before being given to narrators for review and approval. We finalize the transcripts, deposit them in The Bancroft Library, and usually make them available to world-at-large through our website. So, for us, “oral history” is defined by three key elements: thorough research and planning; narrator consent at the beginning and approval at the conclusion of the project; and broad accessibility to the finished and approved transcript (and, increasingly, to the original recording as well). Once these bona-fide oral histories have been completed and offered up for use, hungry minds around the world are given the opportunity to create their own interpretive oral history projects on any number of subjects from the banal to the profound, from the tiny to the grandiose—but let’s all hope not on any zombie war past, present, or future.
In this issue of our monthly newsletter, we ponder the question of “what is” and “what is not” oral history. As you’ll notice, we are not doctrinaire, but we do take this question very seriously and think that it is a useful starting point for any conversation about what it is that we do.
Martin Meeker, Charles B. Faulhaber Director of the Oral History Center
The Oral History Center is pleased to release our life history interview with Jesse Choper. Jesse Choper is the Earl Warren Professor of Public Law (Emeritus) at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law, where he also served as dean from 1982 to 1992.
Choper was born in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, in 1935 to immigrant parents from Lithuania. He was educated at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, and alongside his studies served on the law review and lectured at the Wharton School. Following his graduation in 1960, he served as law clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren. He has authored numerous influential books and articles on constitutional law, including the role of the Supreme Court, the religion clauses of the Constitution, the eleventh amendment, as well as casebooks on constitutional and corporate law. This autobiographical oral history covers the full sweep of his life and work as a legal scholar, educator, and administrator. In this interview, Dean Choper talks about his upbringing and evolving relationship to Judaism; his education and teaching experience and philosophy; his clerkship for Chief Justice Warren; the numerous complex issues he faced as faculty and dean of the law school; the issues behind his books and articles on constitutional law, including freedom of religion, the establishment clause, contraception and abortion, individual rights, federalism, and separation of powers; reflections on changes over the past several decades to the Supreme Court, tenure, and approaches to constitutional law; and his role on the California Horse Racing Board.
“How can one best teach oral history?” This is the question that OHC staff asks every year in anticipation of our annual Advance Oral History Institute, held the week of August 5th this year. Oral history is many things — a research methodology, a mode of inquiry, a field of study, a way of engaging with people — so how does one approach communicating a viable path toward the completion of successful interviews?
A few generations of practitioners, theorists, and teachers have approached this challenge in any number of ways. Some recommend book study to first learn the issues and questions — the overall discourse of oral history — as the best way to achieve sure-footing; others insist that competence in oral history, being primarily about human exchange, is most easily achieved through practice, learning as you go; and some contend that oral history is nothing more than historical research, so pursue it as one would archival study. The correct answer is probably all of the above, or some dynamic mixture thereof.
In 2014, after hosting probably ten Institutes, new and veteran OHC staff gathered, led by then-new Institute Director Shanna Farrell, to refashion the program and attempt to come up with an optimal way to ‘teach’ oral history over the 5-day program. Farrell came up with the notion of matching the flow of the week to the life-cycle of the interview: Monday focuses on oral history foundations — concepts, theories, and ethics; Tuesday details approaches to project planning and conceptualization; Wednesday naturally examines the complexities of the interview itself; Thursday we delve into strategies for analysis and interpretation of those interviews; and Friday we bring it together by considering various oral history outputs, such as transcripts, podcasts, and books. Along the way, participants engage with the theoretical and methodological literature of oral history; they have the opportunity to witness a ‘live interview’ and then practice interviews of their own; and in small workshop groups they are invited to consider how oral history research might augment and, potentially, transform their own research projects.
Over the past year or so, in our newsletter we have featured profiles of several Institute ‘graduates’ — individuals who have achieved great things through their own hard work, work that we like to think the Institute has informed and maybe even improved. The plan for this year is to live-tweet parts of the Institute, so please follow us on twitter if you don’t already. And while our 2019 Institute is sold-out, it is not too early to plan for 2020 (dates coming soon!).
Martin Meeker, Charles B. Faulhaber Director
New Oral History Release: Peter Hanff on Books, Bibliography, and The Bancroft Library
Rarely do we get to interview one of our own at The Bancroft Library. But if anyone fits within the “must interview” category, it is Peter Hanff. Hanff, who has been with the Bancroft Library for close to fifty years, is currently Deputy Director of The Bancroft Library. Hanff was born in Florida in 1944 and then moved with his family to Southern California in 1956. He attended the University of California Santa Barbara as an undergraduate and then the University of California Los Angeles where he earned his MLS. After an internship at the Library of Congress and a year and a half as assistant to the coordinator of information systems there, he was selected as a rare-book fellow at Indiana University’s Lilly Library. Hanff then accepted a position as reference librarian at The Bancroft Library in 1970. Hanff worked in various positions and on a variety of projects over the years, including as Interim Director and later Acting Director of The Bancroft Library. Hanff also is a noted scholar of the author Frank Baum and his series of Oz books. In this oral history, Peter Hanff discusses: his education background and early interest in young adult literature and book collecting; the transformation of library and archival work from the 1960s to the present; the administration, personnel, and collections of The Bancroft Library; and his contributions to the documentation of the works of Frank Baum and other authors.