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Brown Out

As Jerry Brown prepares to exit the political stage, new book details a family dynasty poised to end

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On its face, California's Brown family political dynasty is the story of two men, but metaphorically it's really the story of three.

In the dialectical tale of the Browns, the thesis is Pat Brown, the buoyant old-school liberal who served as California's governor in a time of expansion and optimism. Antithesis would be Brown's brainy, aloof and austere son Jerry, who moved in to the governor's office at the insufferable age of 36 with rock star Linda Ronstadt by his side, in a time of cynicism and retrenchment.

Then, in 2010, came synthesis, with the unlikely election of an older but wiser Jerry Brown, still the intellectually restless ex-Jesuit seminarian who, at the same time, had internalized much of the practicality and human touch that shaped his father's career.

In a couple of months, Jerry Brown, at 80, will step aside as California's governor for the second time. As a narrative of political redemption, the Browns' story is satisfying because it's surprising. Back in 1983, when Jerry Brown's first stint as governor ended—brought low by Prop 13, the Mediterranean fruit fly and his presidential ambitions—he was soundly defeated in a race for the U.S. Senate by Pete Wilson.

It looked like California's relationship with the Browns was over. Today, at least to California Democrats, nothing seems more natural than Jerry Brown in Sacramento. Now, though, it's almost a certainty that the Brown era is coming to an end in California. Jerry is both the only son in the family and childless, so at least the family name has reached the end of the line. It's an ideal time for the story to be told in wide-angle grandeur. Journalist Miriam Pawel has risen to the occasion with her new book The Browns of California: The Family Dynasty That Transformed a State and Shaped a Nation (Bloomsbury).

The story of the Brown family parallels the U.S. history of California. The family's patriarch, German immigrant August Schuckman, arrived in California just a couple of years after statehood in the midst of the Gold Rush. "I wanted to write a book that was a history of California as much as it was a biography, something that I thought would explain some of the unique and significant things about California," Pawel says. "The family was a good vehicle to do that. I like to write history through people, and so this seemed to be a conjunction between an interesting and unusual family and an interesting and unusual state, and the impact and interplay that each one had on the other."

Pawel, a Los Angeles Times reporter, fills in the colors of the Brown family with plenty of compelling secondary characters, chief among them Pat Brown's freethinking mother and self-described "mountain woman," Ida Schuckman Brown, who died at 96 the same year her grandson Jerry was first elected governor.

But this is mostly the story of a father-and-son pair who provide an archetypal generational contrast, familiar to many who came of age in post-war America. Pat and Jerry Brown were largely simpatico in political values. But in political styles, they could not have been more different.

Pat Brown was an engaging, exuberant, extroverted Hubert Humphrey–style liberal whose love of California was visceral and immediate. For a man considered the patriarch of a California dynasty, Pawel believes that Pat Brown has often been forgotten, especially considering his profound influence on the growth of California.

"It's true that he's been somewhat overlooked," she says. "[F]or someone who had such a major impact on the built environment of California—the water, the roads, the universities and the schools—it's surprising there hasn't been more exploration of his impact on the state."

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