“The Browns of California,” a new book about the state’s dominant political family, falls short by omitting facts that don’t square with the family’s images.
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Jerry Brown’s longest-ever, two-stage governorship is coming to a close and a book that examines his extensive legacy, and that of his father, the late Gov. Pat Brown, in detail and context would be a valuable addition to the political literature of California.
Journalist Miriam Pawel’s soon-to-appear, 419-page “The Browns of California” purports to be such a book. It isn’t.
Pawel, a former Los Angeles Times editor, wrote a deservedly acclaimed book about Cesar Chavez and his United Farm Workers Union that looked deeply beneath their superficial images.
Unfortunately, in writing about the Browns, Pawel was unwilling or unable to get past their images – Pat the back-slapping Irish-American politician, Jerry the cerebral, moralizing former seminarian.
Presented chronologically, her account of the Brown family, including a brief description of Kathleen Brown’s four years as state treasurer and failed candidacy for governor, omits almost anything that doesn’t square with those images.
One of many examples: Pawel devotes exactly one paragraph to Pat Brown’s efforts, after losing his bid for a third term in 1966, to help the murderous military dictatorship that had seized control of Indonesia and its oil industry gain credibility in American banking and political circles. In return, the state-owned Indonesian oil firm, Pertamina, gave Brown a franchise for importing oil into California.
Later – 114 pages later, to be precise – Pawel reports tersely, “Pat sold his interest in the Indonesian oil firm at a large profit and took pleasure in spending money on his family.”
She left out that Pertamina defaulted on the $12 billion in bank loans that the elder Brown had helped arrange and to settle accounts, he spearheaded a drive during Jerry Brown’s first governorship to increase the firm’s revenues by selling Indonesian natural gas to California.
The younger Brown backed his father’s campaign for a liquefied natural gas port near Santa Barbara and pushed approval through the Legislature, only to see the project fall apart due to environmental concerns and deregulation of the domestic natural gas market during the Reagan administration that increased supply.
That’s the sort of detail that would have added much-needed depth to Pawel’s book, but also could have tarnished the benevolent family images she was reinforcing.
Another example: Pawel repeatedly blames Proposition 13, California’s iconic property tax limit, for the state’s chronic fiscal problems after its 1978 passage. She excludes, however, the salient fact that Jerry Brown, who was running for re-election that year and had opposed Proposition 13, not only declared himself a “born-again tax cutter” after its passage but jammed through the Legislature a sharp reduction in state income taxes to bolster his new image.
It helped Brown win a second term but was fiscal malpractice.
In conjunction with the state’s post-Proposition 13 “bailout” of schools and local governments, the income tax cut created an operational deficit that quickly exhausted reserves and set the stage for decades of fiscal problems.
Still another: Pawel writes approvingly of Jerry Brown 2.0’s overhaul of school finance to improve academic achievement of poor and “English-learner” students, but ignores criticism of its spotty implementation and lack of measurable results.
Pawel’s many errors of omission might be explained, in part, by her not having covered any of the Browns directly as a journalist. She largely relied, instead, on research that, the book’s bibliography reveals, didn’t include critical accounts.
Whatever the reasons, while “The Browns of California” may be an okay read for its on-the-record chronology, it falls very short of the serious, nuanced analysis the subjects deserve.