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Big Daddy

Big Daddy: Jesse Unruh and the Art of Power Politics

Copyright Date: 2008
Edition: 1
Pages: 278
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  • Book Info
    Big Daddy
    Book Description:

    Revealing and frank, this highly engaging biography tells the story of an American original, California's Big Daddy, Jesse Unruh (1922-1987), a charismatic man whose power reached far beyond the offices he held. Unruh, who was born into Texas sharecropper poverty, became a larger-than-life figure and a principal architect and builder of modern California—first as an assemblyman, then as assembly speaker, and finally, as state treasurer. He was also a great character: a combination of intelligence, wit, idealism, cynicism, woman-chasing vulgarity, charm, drunken excess, and political skill all wrapped up in one big package. He dominated the California capitol and extended his influence to Washington and Wall Street. He was close to Lyndon Johnson and the Kennedys, but closest to Robert Kennedy, and was in the Ambassador Hotel kitchen when Kennedy was shot. Bill Boyarsky gives a close-up look at this extraordinary political leader, a man who believed that politics was the art of the possible, and his era.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-92334-8
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Prologue
    (pp. 1-5)

    In a time when Americans are being pummeled by ideologues of the Left and Right, much can be learned from the life of Jesse Marvin Unruh, a politician who believed that, as Bismarck said, politics is the art of the possible. As speaker of the California State Assembly and later state treasurer, Unruh was one of the most influential of the centrist pragmatists who dominated American politics in the post–World War II era, exemplified also by Harry S. Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and John F. Kennedy. Such political leaders set the national tone through the transition to a peacetime...

  5. ONE The Death of a Boss
    (pp. 6-17)

    The last days of Jesse Marvin Unruh were a fitting end to the life of a great American political boss: drinks, stories, and friends and family mourning, not only for the boss but for themselves. He was dying of prostate cancer, having refused to permit his prostate to be surgically removed. Unruh spoke to several people about this decision, including family and friends.¹

    A radical prostatectomy might have saved him but he dreaded that it would leave him impotent, taking him out of a game that was very important to him, the game of sex, played over and over again,...

  6. TWO The Road to California
    (pp. 18-29)

    Jesse Unruh was born in Newton, Kansas, about twenty miles north of Wichita, on September 30, 1922, but spent the formative years of his adolescence in Texas. His climb from poverty to economic security left him with a seething populism and a resentment of the rich. These were feelings shared by other members of the impoverished generation of immigrants from the Southwest who were known as Okies no matter where they originated. The stories of Unruh and the others—their troubles and how they persevered—help explain the political and social currents that shaped California during and after World War...

  7. THREE The GI Bill of Rights
    (pp. 30-42)

    Fleeing rural Texas and his brush with the law, Unruh enlisted in the Navy, after talking a naval doctor into overlooking his flat feet.¹ He was stationed at the base at Corpus Christi, Texas. There, he met Virginia Lemon. She was good-looking and athletic. “I was a tomboy,” she said. “I remember my mother coming out [and] finding me at the top of a tree, and she nearly had a fit.”

    Like Unruh, Virginia was an immigrant to California, having moved there with her family in 1929. “My dad got tired of farming,” she said. “My aunt and uncle were...

  8. FOUR Hat in the Ring
    (pp. 43-57)

    In May 1947, the Unruhs had one child, Bruce, a four-month-old infant, when they moved in with Virginia’s aunt, fifteen miles west of the USC campus. Financial necessity helped dictate their move. Virginia taught, and Unruh, still a USC student, worked nights at the Los Angeles railroad freight yard, tracking freight cars for the Pacific Car Demurrage Bureau, which collected fees for railroads from shippers who didn’t unload their cargo on time. “He was always on that fragile thin ice of economic survival,” Marvin Holen remembered.¹

    The move also gave Unruh a chance to run for the California State Assembly...

  9. FIVE The Education of a Rookie
    (pp. 58-73)

    The forces unleashed in California by World War II were coalescing as Unruh campaigned successfully for his state assembly seat in 1954. By now, the state’s industrial expansion, the energy of the veterans, and successive waves of immigration had made California a prototype for midcentury America.

    Unprecedented demands were being made on a state government that was just beginning to emerge from its rural past. The University of California, the state colleges, junior colleges, and kindergarten through the twelfth grade all would need more teachers, buildings, and books to accommodate the infant baby boomers, the generation born after the war....

  10. SIX Segregation and the Unruh Civil Rights Act
    (pp. 74-89)

    In the mid 1950s, Californians liked to brag that their state was different from the Deep South, free of Jim Crow segregation. But in truth a web of laws, judicial decisions, regulations, and customs in California had the effect of segregating whites, blacks, Latinos, Asian Americans, and, to a lesser extent, Jews.

    A good example of how racial segregation worked in that era can be found in the district Unruh represented in the assembly and the neighborhoods around it. The area was full of racial tension, even violence, after African Americans began to move from an overcrowded ghetto to neighborhoods...

  11. SEVEN Fair Housing and White Backlash
    (pp. 90-109)

    By 1963, events and technology were burning the matter of racial injustice deep into the American consciousness. The technology was television, and the events were a series of momentous developments in the civil rights movement.

    These developments transformed the nation’s politics into something far different from the local competition for votes in neighborhoods and maneuvering in the Capitol that Unruh had learned just a few years before. The powerful images of southern protesters and the violent resistance they encountered lifted the civil rights movement high on the media agenda. As the journalism scholar Edward Bliss Jr., who was part of...

  12. EIGHT Animal House
    (pp. 110-128)

    The night the Rumford fair-housing bill passed the legislature, Unruh had used all of his skills and knowledge to save it from defeat. His ability to wield his power on this and a variety of other issues made him, in the view of Herbert L. Phillips, the political editor of theSacramento Bee,the legislature’s “most effective and powerful member.”¹

    During this period, Unruh insisted that a portion of the state’s highway construction funds be used for urban mass transit. His legislation created a state arts commission.² The lobbyists, who had formerly reigned supreme, now curried favor with him. His...

  13. Photographs
    (pp. None)
  14. NINE Backstabbing Democrats
    (pp. 129-145)

    In 1964, racial tensions were increasing in places ranging from Unruh’s assembly district in the heart of Los Angeles to the San Francisco Bay Area. At the same time, other social issues were resonating throughout the state. At the University of California’s Berkeley campus, students were organizing to support civil rights and fight conservative causes. In Southern California suburbs, conservatives, long marginalized and ineffective, were organizing in living rooms and backyards.

    Despite these powerful forces at work in society, Unruh and other Democratic politicians occupied themselves with trivial party feuds, backbiting, and character assassination that brought their worst instincts to...

  15. TEN Dirty Dealings and High Idealism
    (pp. 146-162)

    Much of what happened in Jesse Unruh’s California State Assembly went unnoticed by the public. The press, disinclined to dig beneath the surface, was uninterested in the complexities of legislative life, and newspapers of that era refused to print stories about lawmakers’ drinking and carousing. The fraternity house atmosphere of the lockout—so telling a commentary on the 1960s legislature—never made it into the newspapers, nor did much of the serious work done in the Unruh legislature. As a result, the popular view of Unruh as a political leader, while based on reality, was little more than a political...

  16. ELEVEN A Full-Time Legislature
    (pp. 163-172)

    In politics, as in the rest of life, admirable deeds are often accomplished for motives that are not especially high-minded. In Jesse Unruh’s career, that was never clearer than in 1966 when, against all odds, he persuaded the voters of California to give legislators a pay raise and to make the parttime legislature full-time.

    The year is best remembered in California as that of Ronald Reagan. Casting himself as a citizen politician, Reagan captured the votes and hearts of many California voters with his compelling speaking style and a message that exploited the fears of a state battered by racial...

  17. TWELVE Unruh, Robert Kennedy, and the Anti-War Movement
    (pp. 173-190)

    The year 1968 was a difficult one for Unruh as it was for the nation. A huge change was taking place in American politics. The Democratic Party that year was dominated by “the fracturing of the relationship between conventional liberals and left-liberal to radical protest movements,” social scientist and historian Robert Cohen observes.¹ Democrats disagreed with one another on such basic issues as the Vietnam War, racial conflict, and student rebellions like the Free Speech Movement at the University of California’s Berkeley campus. The flight of blue-collar Democrats, which Unruh had foreseen during the 1963 and 1964 fight over the...

  18. THIRTEEN Unruh versus Reagan
    (pp. 191-206)

    The 1970 gubernatorial contest between Unruh and Ronald Reagan is little more than a footnote in the broad history of postwar California. The popular incumbent governor Reagan, on the path that eventually took him to the White House, defeated Unruh as expected and remained the central figure in California political life for the next four years. No story, in the view of journalists at the time.

    But, in fact, there was a significant story: Unruh waged a tenacious, if unsuccessful, fight for the broad center that the Democratic Party had lost to Reagan when he was first elected in 1966,...

  19. FOURTEEN The Man with the Money
    (pp. 207-220)

    The final years of Unruh’s life are, in many ways, the most interesting and revealing. In 1974, he was elected state treasurer, and during his twelveyear incumbency, he turned a weak office into a powerful one. Before Unruh took over, wrote Robert Fairbanks, a Capitol journalist, “the treasurer had about as much political clout as the director of a local mosquito abatement district.”¹

    Unruh changed all that. He quickly mastered the players and rules of Wall Street and became a national power in the financial markets. He was the principal arbiter of how California invested billions of dollars in pension...

  20. Epilogue
    (pp. 221-224)

    On Sunday, August 9, 1987, almost 1,000 people crowded into Santa Monica United Methodist Church for Jesse Unruh’s funeral. “As he walked with us, he fought for the least of us,” said California attorney general John Van de Kamp, who had been the first manager of Unruh’s campaign for governor. “He used his power and trust we gave him well. He understood the higher cause.” Willie Brown, the California State Assembly Speaker, and the only person to hold the job longer than Unruh, said “the rest of us who hold that title are caretakers.”¹ Willie Brown was no caretaker. He...

  21. NOTES
    (pp. 225-248)
  22. INDEX
    (pp. 249-265)
  23. Back Matter
    (pp. 266-266)