John Jacobs; Columnist, Award-Winning Author

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From a Times Staff Writer

John Jacobs, a respected political columnist for the Sacramento Bee and award-winning author, died of cancer early Wednesday at his Davis home. He was 49.

For the last seven years, Jacobs had been political editor of the Bee and other McClatchy newspapers, writing a thrice-weekly column on California and national politics. Before working at the Bee, the veteran journalist spent 15 years as a political reporter at the San Francisco Examiner and one year as a Washington Post intern.

He wrote a highly praised 1996 biography of the late Phillip Burton, the influential California congressman and assemblyman who ran San Francisco’s political machine for decades and left a legacy of landmark legislation affecting welfare, workers’ issues and the environment.


Jacobs was also coauthor with Tim Reiterman of “Raven: The Untold Story of the Rev. Jim Jones and His Peoples Temple,” published in 1982. That book earned the Thomas Thompson PEN Award for nonfiction in 1983.

In a Jan. 9 column that Jacobs called the toughest of his career, he told readers about his illness, noting that a melanoma surgically removed from his thigh six years earlier had returned and that “the cancer is serious.”

“I plan to fight this with every tool I can muster,” he wrote, “and that includes the goodwill and prayers of friends and readers.”

He was deluged by the latter: More than 400 readers sent e-mails and messages conveying their hopes for his recovery.

Colleagues and sources praised Jacobs as tough, scholarly and fair, with a deep understanding of public policy and the complexities that animate political life.

“He was a real player in Sacramento, across the state and the nation,” former Gov. Pete Wilson told the Sacramento Bee. “We weren’t ideological soul mates, but . . . he was an honest liberal. . . . He defended his turf, and I respected that.”


For “A Rage for Justice: The Passion and Politics of Phillip Burton,” published by the University of California Press, Jacobs plowed through 45 cartons of the late congressman’s papers and conducted about 400 interviews.

Times reviewer Ted Simon wrote that Jacobs’ prodigious research produced a work that was as instructive as it was entertaining: “[Readers] will learn more about real politics than they will acquire from a lifetime of following the news.” The book won the D.B. Hardeman Award for 1995 from the Lyndon Baines Johnson Foundation.

Jacobs was sent to Guyana by the Examiner to cover the aftermath of the murders and suicides of more than 900 followers of Peoples Temple leader Jim Jones. The reporter arrived in Jonestown shortly after the 1978 airstrip shootout in which Jones’ gunmen killed Rep. Leo Ryan and injured Jacobs’ Examiner colleague, Reiterman. Jacobs would spend the next several years helping Reiterman research and write “Raven,” praised in the New York Times as “powerfully written and well-researched”.

Reiterman, now an editor and reporter for the Los Angeles Times, said Jacobs persuaded Jones’ son, Stephan, to talk to the authors for the book. “That was really important,” Reiterman said. “You couldn’t get any closer to the family of Jim Jones than his only living natural son. He gave many hours and days to John and me. That was solely because of John’s ability to connect with people.”

Jacobs is survived by his wife, Carol Brydolf, a former Oakland Tribune reporter and now an editor for California Schools magazine, and two children, Max and Marguerite.