One might fairly think of Jerry Brown as the keystone that holds together the arc of California history that bridged the 20th and 21st centuries. From his first governorship beginning in 1975 through his last of four terms ending in 2019, Brown has been part of and/or witnessed California’s glorious moments, dark declines and various episodes of newsworthy events that could only be associated with the Golden State. 

Jim Newton, a biographer; former Los Angeles Times reporter, columnist and editor; and current UCLA lecturer and founder of UCLA’s Blueprint Magazine has written a history of California from the 1960s through the 2010s that is built around the life of Jerry Brown. The book is tilted, Man of Tomorrow, The Restless Life of Jerry Brown

Newton delves into Brown’s background and his many experiences to discover what fashioned Brown’s reasoning that lead to the decisions he made while serving California. 

Along the way Newton covers California culture, counter-culture and events of the era and includes pieces of California history even when Brown is not involved from Berkeley’s Free Speech movement to the Patty Hearst kidnapping evolving into her urban guerilla episode and even the fight between bat-wielding San Francisco Giant’s Juan Marichal and Los Angeles Dodgers catcher John Roseboro. 

I had the opportunity to ask Newton a few questions about the book and his responses are below. 

Q. Do you think Governor Brown would like to be in the governor’s chair today to take on the awesome challenges of the day:  The coronavirus health situation and the economic collapse and uncertainty, given that he constantly warned a fiscal day of reckoning was coming? Any sense of the tack he would take in steering the state in these perilous times?

A. I don’t like to speak for Brown, since he’s obviously more than able to do that himself, so let me say instead that I think Brown would be well-suited to the challenges of the day, though I generally think Newsom is, too. Brown’s work in climate change in particular prepares him well for a crisis of this nature, one that requires science to guide it and solidarity in the public response. Notably unlike President Trump, I think Brown would be quick to respond to warnings and uninhibited by the need to only present good news. I don’t know anyone better than Brown at sharing bad news or warnings. 

Q. Your book is more than a survey and opinion of Jerry Brown’s career; it also contains many snippets of California history during the period which have nothing directly to do with Brown such as the Manson murders and the Summer of Love in San Francisco? Why did you include these episodes of California history and how did it shape your overall work?

A. I meant for the book to be a history of California from 1960 to the present, built around a biography of Brown. In part, that grows out of my previous biography of Earl Warren, which gave me the chance to cover California’s history from 1900 to 1953 (Warren was born in 1898 and left California in 1953 to become Chief Justice of the United States). This book allowed me to bring that history into the present, and Brown is the dominant figure of that second half of the story, just as Warren was to the first half. 

Q. You make an observation that probably would surprise a lot of people, that Jerry Brown and Ronald Reagan have a number of similarities. What did you mean?

A. I meant for people to do a double-take at the idea of comparing Brown and Reagan, and I think it’s worth thinking about. They’re obviously very different in their politics, but Reagan was more pragmatic than ideological as governor (his support for gun restrictions, abortion rights and a major tax increase all speak to that), and Brown was, too. Moreover, Reagan and Brown both understood the role of media, especially television, in advancing politics. And Brown was — and is — famously frugal, often causing him to turn away from government for answers to pressing problems. Reagan and Brown have many differences, but those similarities are real. 

Q. You cite a friend of Jerry Brown who observed that Brown did not take on Proposition 13 after it passed because he did not want to tinker with middle class tax cuts. But you also frequently refer to Brown’s positions of fiscal constraint and limits on government. Don’t these attitudes support his acceptance of Proposition13?

A. Regarding Proposition 13, I think Brown was stung by the experience of the initiative passing. He did not think it would, and he was slow, like many California leaders, to recognize the deep well of popular support for it. That made him wary of dipping back into tax reform in his third and fourth terms. He is, as he often said, guided by the limits of what is possible. It’s also true that he believes in balancing budgets and restraining government. Not every human problem deserves a bill, he said more than once. I do also think that he recognizes that Proposition 13 created some difficulties for California, contributing to gyrations in its budget by pushing the state to rely more heavily on income and sales taxes, introducing some troublingly differential tax burdens in neighborhoods and redirecting authority from local governments to the state, a trend he generally fought against. In the end, he left Proposition 13 intact and avoided any direct confrontation with it — a decision I would attribute to a combination of pragmatism, appreciation and resignation. 

Q. Jerry Brown is a complex personality. In analyzing him over his career is it possible for you to succinctly explain how Jerry Brown became a successful leader in a diverse state?

A. Finally, it’s hard to sum up Jerry Brown succinctly (that’s why the book is 433 pages long), but I’d offer this: Jerry Brown grew up in California and with it. No person of our time has more closely captured this state’s intelligence, curiosity and effervescent possibility with greater intuition and insight than Brown. He was governor twice, 28 years apart, and he was exactly right for both times.