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Big Daddy {Jesse Unruh}

Spring 2008

Lawmaker, policymaker, political prophet, Jesse Unruh had huge strengths that propelled him to power — and huge weaknesses that kept him from making it to the top. Political reporter Bill Boyarsky, himself a California institution, reflects on the potent legacy of this the larger-than-life USC alumnus.

by Bill Boyarsky

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 ’48, 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. He built institutions – a professional legislature, a better system for financing schools and making them more accountable, and a shareholders’ rights movement that still influences Wall Street today. He was one of those rare elected officials whose power reached far beyond the offices he held.

He was also a great character, a combination of intelligence, political power, idealism, wit, anger and cynicism. His behavior encompassed woman-chasing vulgarity and charm, intellectual acuity and drunken excess, all wrapped up in one huge package.

His public persona was captured by his nickname, “Big Daddy,” after the domineering father in the Tennessee Williams play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. It added to the widespread impression that he was a ruthless political boss. He loathed the reputation, the nickname and being fat. People continued to call Unruh “Big Daddy” even after he lost almost 100 pounds. For the name had perfectly fitted his pre-diet five-foot-ten, 280-pound-plus body, which he draped in expensive suits tailored to disguise his huge physique. He had thick lips and a bulldog face, with jowls that hung around his shirt collar until a surgeon trimmed them.

Whatever his weight, he had an insatiable hunger for alcohol, food and women. When drunk, he was angry and belligerent. He left one woman for another or, more typically, saw more than one at the same time. But he was honest about this and, several of them recall, treated women with consideration and affection.

Unruh would have been destroyed in the 21st-century world of mass communications, with its 24-hour news channels, instant Internet communication, obsession with celebrity and contempt for privacy. In his day, Unruh was a celebrity, a big man in media-hot Los Angeles. His private life would have been rich fare for the scandal-hungry media machine. Unruh and his crew raced through bars and bedrooms unconcerned that their activities would ever be revealed, except perhaps as the subject of insider gossip. What happened in Sacramento stayed in Sacramento.

But the simpler nature of news coverage then and the demands of daily journalism prevented most reporters from capturing the intricacies of Unruh’s personality and political philosophy. In a way, this hurt him, because neither his talent for behind-the-scenes maneuvers nor the deals he struck for the benefit of the less fortunate were ever spelled out to the public. He felt that reporters were too superficial or stupid to understand what he was doing, and so he never bothered to explain.

In his years in power, from the late 1950s to his death in 1987, Unruh was a pragmatic visionary, focused on individuals like himself, who had struggled from poverty to the middle class. He retained a sense of what he had in common with middle-class and working-class Americans. He looked at such people weathering economic, social and cultural hardships and wondered what government could do to protect their financial and civil rights. He also worried about their right to a decent education that would help propel them upward, just as his own path up had been cleared by public schools and the GI Bill.

He did this in an era of California’s great projects, while the state was busy constructing a system to deliver water from the wet north to the semiarid south, building university campuses and freeways, replacing wartime portable classrooms in the public schools with well-designed buildings on large campuses. Unruh supported them all. But, having been raised in extreme poverty, his vision was focused more on the human condition than on concrete and bricks. Let others preside at groundbreakings and dedications. He cared most about what went on inside the classroom.

Concern for the little guy – and his own indignation over high interest on an appliance he’d purchased for his own young family – inspired him to secure passage of a state law protecting consumers who bought on the installment plan. His outrage when an African-American girl was denied admittance to a Los Angeles private school – along with his experiences in the Jim Crow South, the segregated Navy and his racially troubled legislative district – impelled him to write and secure passage of a civil rights bill that, strengthened over the years, remains the state’s strongest such law.

Knowing that a legislature intellectually and financially subservient to lobbyists and state bureaucrats could not prescribe for the new postwar California, Unruh persuaded the voters to approve a full-time legislature with a large staff of its own experts, a pattern adopted around the nation. Eventually, it became clear the new system was flawed, although not as badly as the old one. Full-time status and higher pay did not make the lazy more productive or the greedy more honest. But in their early years, Unruh’s innovations turned the assembly into a creative body that originated policies preparing California for the changes in economic and social conditions of the 1960s and 1970s.

Unruh reached into the streets of South Central Los Angeles and, for the first time, brought substantial numbers of African Americans into power in the California legislature and Democratic Party. “Jesse genuinely believed that South Central Los Angeles ought to elect black officials,” said Leon Ralph, an African American who represented one of the assembly districts Unruh created in a reapportionment that increased chances of minority representation.

“He genuinely believed that and put his money and power where he spoke.”

But it was not all high idealism. Unruh skillfully used money to assure he would become and remain boss. Where once businesses and their lobbyists gave directly to legislative candidates, Unruh figured out a system in which the money would come to him, and he would pass it on to candidates who supported him. It was a brilliant invention, a breakthrough, and the forerunner of the corrupt or corruptible methods of campaign contributions that came to dominate politics in the following decades.

He also had the gift of knowing instinctively what someone wanted, or needed. When John Quimby was a beginning assemblyman, he saw this side of Unruh, who was then speaker. He was in a hotel bar with Unruh. “I was just depressed,” Quimby said. “My wife and I were having a lot of money troubles. We were paid … $600 a month and my wife was a legal secretary making about that amount. We were strapped. We had five kids and all the expenses thereto…. Jess picked up on this somehow. He just intuitively picked up on it. The guy knew things about you on a personal basis. He said to me, ‘John, what’s happening?’ I said ‘Jess, same old stuff, the wife and the kids and money.’ He said, ‘I want to give you some help.’”

Unruh’s legislative salary was no more than Quimby’s, and he also had five children. But this was an era when cash was king in politics; little was in writing, and paper bags were as common as checkbooks for delivering contributions. Unruh, by then a master collector of campaign money, pulled out 15 one-hundred-dollar bills on the spot and gave them to Quimby.

“Cash money,” said Quimby. “I just can’t tell you what that meant. He said just: ‘Take this and use it for the best advantage.’ Never mentioned it again.… I am not saying he [just] gave people money. He gave people what they needed that he could come up with even if it was a hug or a kind word or a phone call.… I think that was his secret.”

These were political skills, some natural, some learned. But there was more to this gifted and complex political leader, and it was revealed in a personal history he shared with many of his fellow Californians.

Unruh was part of the huge migration from the Southwest to California in the 1930s and early 1940s, which infused the state with the same energy the immigrants had expended from dawn to dusk on their failing Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Missouri farms. Unruh was as poor as any of them.

Born in Newton, Kansas, about 20 miles north of Wichita, on September 30, 1922, he 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. So painful to him, so humiliating was his poverty that Unruh rarely spoke of those days in later years. His first wife, Virginia, knew: “They were the lowest of the low in the community,” is how she described Unruh’s family. Like Unruh, Virginia was an immigrant to California, having moved there with her family in 1929. Although she was the daughter of a family firmly anchored in the working class, Virginia had grown up in the big city and studied at Berkeley and USC. In contrast, he was an overweight, unmannered country boy, whose most sophisticated experience had been working on the plant floor at Douglas Aircraft in Santa Monica. They might never have met if it hadn’t been for the war.  Unruh was stationed at the naval base in Corpus Christi, Texas, where Virginia and her sister had gone to visit their brother, a cadet in the Naval Air Station.

“We got jobs at the naval base,” Virginia remembered. “I worked in the tubing department.” Unruh worked nearby in the metallurgy department. They dated with the hurried intensity of a wartime romance and were married in 1943. Six days later, Virginia was in the base hospital with influenza and Unruh was headed for the Aleutian Islands, where he spent two boring years. When the war ended, he joined Virginia in Los Angeles, where she had been hired as a physical education instructor at the University of Southern California.

When he was discharged, Unruh had no idea of what he wanted to do. Virginia insisted he attend USC. “I just told him if you are going to make anything out of yourself, you’ve got to have a vocation. I had to take him by the hand and get him enrolled.”

Enrolling at USC, Unruh became one of 7.8 million World War II veterans nationwide, almost half of the 16.3 million men and women who served in the armed forces, who availed themselves of the GI Bill of Rights.

Unruh majored in economics and journalism. At first, Virginia said, he wanted to be “a hotshot journalist, that’s what he was going to do.” But his real interest was campus politics. By chance, Unruh chose a perfect launching pad for his political career. The University of Southern California was part of the fabric of Los Angeles. It was and still is located in the heart of the city, between the banks, law offices and corporate headquarters of downtown and the industrial and working-class residential neighborhoods of south Los Angeles. From its earliest days, the university felt an obligation to serve and shape the city. Much of this was accomplished through the School of Citizenship and Public Administration, which became the training ground for city and county governments throughout Southern California, providing them with generations of public executives. In time a network of Trojans ran government in Southern California.

Unruh joined the liberal campus veterans’ organization Trovets, which had a membership of about 500. The group later became the cadre that launched his first campaigns for office.

The big issue for the veterans was housing. Despite the efforts of Mayor Fletcher Bowron, the real estate industry blocked municipal efforts to build low-cost housing.  To do so might have broken the rigid housing segregation that kept blacks in an increasingly crowded area in the southern part of the city.

The segregation infuriated Unruh. He and others made the issue part of the platform of their new political party, the Independent Students Association. The organization demanded that student government investigate the restrictive covenants that affected between 500 and 600 minority students at USC, a move that was echoed years later by Unruh’s Civil Rights Act.

California after World War II was a place of frenetic motion. Magazines like Look sent writers there to discover the secret of its energy, to ponder what it meant for the rest of the country. Elementary and high schools were built in the new suburbs extending far outward from San Francisco and Los Angeles. Fields and redwood forests gave way to new public university campuses. Their graduates provided the intelligence and imagination that turned the wartime aircraft industry into something much bigger, aerospace; and eventually something bigger even than that arose, the computer industry. Dams created huge reservoirs, storing water to be carried to farms and cities in aqueducts defying the limits nature had placed on development on Southern California’s semiarid coastal plain and in the great interior valley and desert, where agriculture had once been either limited or impossible. Distant rural areas were linked with cities by new freeways, which often destroyed old neighborhoods, encouraging sprawling growth but permitting fast transportation of crops and manufactured goods throughout the country and state, including the harbors that were the gateway to Asia.

As the vets crowded into universities and colleges, moved into mass-produced subdivisions and went to work, they demanded more schools for their children, better highways, new dams and water aqueducts, more parks and, with a sophistication born of education and maturity, a decent state system of care for the mentally ill and retarded. Tax collections from wartime plants and shipyards and their workers had filled a state treasury badly depleted by the Depression. California had the money to build and a population with the will to do it. Unruh took his place as a leader of the generation determined to see that government would assure an education for the young from kindergarten through college and provide security for the old.

It is striking how much of what is good about California – the parks, the universities, the highway system, much of the water importation and distribution system – dates from those days. California at the start of the 21st century is the California Unruh and the others of his generation had built half a century earlier. They were a generation of hope and optimism, men and women who had survived the Depression and the war and emerged into the bright dawn of seemingly endless possibilities.

In Unruh’s day, the state – and national – consensus embraced common goals. It was a broad consensus, reaching across party lines and led by two postwar governors – Republican Earl Warren and Democrat Edmund G. Brown Sr. – and by Unruh. Blacks and Latinos had to fight for a piece of the power, but even as they battled, there was agreement on where they were headed. When the relative unity collapsed in the political and social revolution of the mid-1960s, the broad center vanished amid attacks from the Right and the Left. The center of the Democratic Party was particularly hard hit, its heart and soul cut apart by the competing claims of different interest groups. Unruh saw the deleterious impact these attacks could have on a state and nation that had in the past basically been wedded to middle-of-the-road politics. He believed that the Democratic Party as an institution should continue along this moderate path.

Unruh accumulated power to help people. He flourished at a time when most people believed in government. Political leaders compromised and made deals as they steered a course between extremes. Unruh did this in a state that, then as now, mirrored the complex political, demographic, economic and cultural currents that ran through the United States.

Media analysts, political consultants and academics like to divide the nation into red for conservative Republican and blue for liberal Democratic, following the pattern of television election-night charts. The red-blue division is overly simplistic. Better than most, Unruh understood that the electorate could not be easily divided into clear-cut patterns. He knew that the majority of Californians preferred the broad road between the extremes. That remains true today.

There is a red California flourishing in the interior, reaching from the agricultural Imperial Valley, through the farms and residential subdivisions of the Central Valley, to the mountains and forests at the Oregon border. It tends to vote Republican.

There is a more populous blue California occupying the coast. But not all these coast-dwelling Californians are liberals, and neither is the state, despite its reputation as the “Left Coast.” Nor are those in the center of California all conservatives.

Given the strong probability that the majority of Republicans and Democrats are not extreme left-wingers or right-wingers, California remains as centrist as it was in Unruh’s day, as does the nation as a whole.

There have been enormous changes since Unruh’s death. Leaders without a common goal struggle to appease rival interests. For example, the new symbol of California is not a university but a prison, a monument to interest groups that have exploited the public’s fear of crime. Drive through rural California, and you are likely to see one, constructed by a new generation of governors and legislators afraid their constituents will vote them out of office whenever a murder or robbery is reported on the television news. Legislators, their terms now limited by the state’s constitution, merely pass through the Capitol on their way to other public offices or other careers.

How did we get from there to here? Where did California go wrong?

By looking at those bright days through the life and career of Jesse M. Unruh, we can chart the peaks and valleys.

The past can’t be recaptured. The experiences that shaped Unruh are history. Yet the promise of California, with its natural and human resources, remains, just as it did when Unruh was beginning his career.

Excerpted from Big Daddy: Jesse Unruh and the Art of Power Politics, by Bill Boyarsky (University of California Press, 2007 by the Regents of the University of California). Boyarsky, a reporter, columnist and editor with the Los Angeles Times for 30 years, is a lecturer at the USC Annenberg School for Communication. He met Unruh in 1961, as a junior Associated Press reporter.

If you have questions or comments on this article, please send them to magazines@usc.edu.


Jesse Unruh

Illustration by Kent Barton


Maverick: Defying top California Democrats, Unruh was an early supporter of Robert Kennedy’s presidential run and was with him moments before his assassination on June 5, 1968.

Photo by Julian Wasser/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images


Pragmatist: Despite their differences, Unruh and Governor Pat Brown appeared together at a press conference in October 1964 to urge support for a state park bond issue.

Photo Courtesy Los Angeles Herald Examiner collection, Los Angeles Public Library


Changing times: Unruh, talking to a California Highway Patrol lieutenant, holds a wet cloth to his nose after getting a whiff of tear gas on a 1969 visit to the riot-torn Berkeley campus.Changing times: Unruh, talking to a California Highway Patrol lieutenant, holds a wet cloth to his nose after getting a whiff of tear gas on a 1969 visit to the riot-torn Berkeley campus.

Photo Courtesy of AP/World Wide Photos


Two years earlier, he congratulates Ronald Reagan at his swearing-in ceremony as California governor. Unruh would later challenge Reagan for a second term (and lose).

Photo Courtesy of Bettman/Corbis