Anyone passing a certain Sacramento corner one night in the early 1960s would have stumbled on a startling sight: the Speaker of the California Assembly--one of the most powerful men in the state--struggling to bend a street sign as a group of lawmakers cheered him on.
The incident is recounted in a frequently funny, sometimes bawdy book about a colorful and significant period in California history--Jesse M. Unruh's heyday as leader of the Legislature's lower house.
Before he died last August, Unruh served more than 12 years as state treasurer, turning a rather obscure office into a powerful post.
But he is probably best remembered by many people as the "Big Daddy" of the California Legislature, whose seven years and three months as Speaker were marked by the passage of historic civil rights and consumer legislation, the creation of a full-time, amply staffed Legislature, and battles with Democratic Gov. Edmund G. (Pat) Brown Sr. and Republican lawmakers.
Unruh Critic Became Key Ally
Former state Senate leader Jim Mills, an Unruh lieutenant for most of Unruh's reign in the Assembly, tries to capture some of the era in a new 206-page book called "A Disorderly House: The Brown-Unruh Years in Sacramento."
The book covers the period from 1961, when Mills took office as a freshman assemblyman and Unruh was elected Speaker, to 1966, when Mills left the Assembly to take a state Senate seat.
It traces Mills' shift from an anti-Unruh backbencher to a member of the Speaker's inner circle.
Before he went to Sacramento, Mills was active in the California Democratic Council, a liberal, grass-roots organization whose members regarded Unruh as a corrupt, power-grabbing politician, according to "Disorderly House."
But the Unruh who emerges from the pages of Mills' book is not the "dapper 300-pound ogre" that Mills encountered on his first day as a legislator. This Unruh is a usually rational, brilliant political leader who falls victim to a suspicious, back-stabbing governor, mischievous Republicans, a sensation-seeking press and, on one fateful night, a combination of liquor, diet pills and his temper.
"Jesse Unruh was easily the ablest lawmaker in the history of California," Mills said in a statement introducing the book. "His failure to achieve his own personal ambitions exemplifies the truth, expressed 150 years ago by John Stuart Mill, that the American political system is designed to advance mediocrity."
Mills says he wrote "A Disorderly House" to give readers "a better notion of what flesh-and-blood politicians are really like," and the book offers--through Mills' eyes--some behind-the-scenes glimpses of Unruh and other California politicians, including:
- Ronald Reagan: "A hip-shooting personification of the Western hero, he glittered with charisma like the sugarplum fairy and he moved about with the same airy grace."
- Brown: "In the public eye he became established as a fluttery and feather-brained hoot owl, who was the leader of the Democratic Party in California in name only. . . . All during those years he did everything he could think of to show the world that he was more than just its titular head. Most particularly he was disposed to put down anyone who was mentioned by the press as a potential rival for party leadership."
- Unruh: "His public image did not suggest that complexity of his character, and in that, of course he was like all other public figures. He was much more of a political philosopher than anyone else in either house of the Legislature."
- Pierre Salinger: ". . . Dark, fat and mean-looking, with narrow eyes. Every time he opened his mouth to speak, he curled his upper lip into a sneer the likes of which I had only seen on the visages of gangsters in low-budget moving pictures."
Mills admits that " 'Disorderly House' takes a one-sided view of the Brown-Unruh feud--"I wrote it from our point of view," he told reporters--and Pat Brown is clearly one of the book's villains.
In "Disorderly House," Brown initiates the feuding with Unruh, harasses Unruh followers, tries to generate a scandal to force an Unruh-backed candidate out of a U.S. Senate race, violates a promise not to run for a third term and then blows the election.
"I don't expect that he will like it much," Mills said.
Brown did not. "It's a very poor book," he said in an interview. "It's badly written and . . . it's just full of hearsay and things he knew nothing about."
Brown denied going back on a pledge not to run for a third term or trying to stir up a scandal to drive then Atty. Gen. Stanley Mosk out of the Senate race.
'Magnificent' as Speaker
The former governor said he wanted Unruh to become Speaker and helped pave the way for Unruh's election to the Assembly's top post by appointing his predecessor to the state Court of Appeals. In "Disorderly House," Brown opposes the selection of Unruh as Ways and Means chairman and Speaker.
"The fact is that he (Unruh) and I got along very well," Brown said. "He did a magnificent job campaigning for me. He did a magnificent job as Speaker."
He contended that friction developed between the two only at the end of Brown's second term. "I would watch him on television (and) I was really hurt by the things that Jess would say," Brown said.
Another villain is the press, which Mills accuses of failing to see through Brown and constantly picturing Unruh as a "power-mad bully boy of the Capitol cloakrooms."
Different View of Unruh
The book is by no means the definitive work on the Brown-Unruh era. For a former Unruh insider, Mills does not reveal all that much about how Unruh operated during business hours.
But "Disorderly House" does provide a different view of Unruh than the one usually shown by the news media, and it offers behind-the-scenes details on some of the major political stories of the 1960s, particularly the famous 1963 "lockup," when Unruh and the Democrats kept the Assembly in session all night to try to break a Republican blockade of a supplemental budget bill.
That all-night session was a classic political blunder, one brought on by the Speaker's temper and use of a potentially deadly combination of booze and diet pills, and it cost Unruh higher offices than the treasurer's post, Mills concludes.