Op-Ed: Jerry Brown’s second governorship unmasked the irreverent iconoclast’s inner traditionalist

California Gov. Jerry Brown.
(Los Angeles Times)

In keeping with tradition, the Sacramento legislative session opened in 1976 with the Governor’s Prayer Breakfast, which proved anything but traditional.

British anthropologist Gregory Bateson delivered the sermon, a parable about a Native American church and its peyote sacrament. A Sufi choir sang. Guests were served yogurt, pineapple and cheese.

“I suppose we have come here this morning in recognition of the fact that all that we do across the street at the Capitol is dependent upon things and forces and a spirit which none of us control but all of us must respect,” said the 37-year-old governor who had orchestrated the unusual program, Edmund G. Brown Jr.

Later that day, the Assembly passed a routine bill to change the state calendar. For more than a century, Sept. 9 had been a state holiday, in celebration of the date on which California joined the union. Lawmakers wanted to move Admission Day to the second Monday in September, to ensure a three-day weekend.


The governor who zealously upended conventions responded with indignation.

“For 125 years California has celebrated its admission into the Union on September 9th,” Brown wrote in his veto message. “To change now comes a bit late in our history and hardly seems in keeping with the Bicentennial spirit.”

Jerry Brown arrived in Sacramento in the mid-’70s determined to shake up the Capitol, disdainful of old-style political rituals. Yet Brown’s challenges to the status quo masked a deep respect for different traditions, the kind that shaped the history and character of California. That tension has been one of the constants that defines the decades-long political career of Jerry Brown, irreverent iconoclast and member of the Native Sons of the Golden West.

The spirit of the self-proclaimed troublemaker has remained constant across the decades — a radical traditionalist, with a sentimental attachment to the state.


Jerry absorbed a reverence for California at an early age from his father, Edmund G. “Pat” Brown, first elected to public office when his son was 5. Few could rival Pat in his exuberant embrace of the state, its people, its zeitgeist. As governor from 1959 to 1967, Pat loved to fly in the Grizzly, the state propeller plane, glued to the window with binoculars. He could not imagine a reason to live anywhere else, so great was his faith in California exceptionalism.

The phrase — “California exceptionalism” — was coined by historian and social activist Carey McWilliams, who traced the state’s special quality directly to its creation in the wake of the discovery of gold. “In California, the lights went on all at once, in a blaze, and they never have dimmed,” he wrote in his 1949 classic, “California, the Great Exception.”

That California celebrated a holiday called Admission Day, McWilliams wrote, reflected the unique circumstances under which the state joined the union in 1850, when the Gold Rush drove an urgent need for government. California leapt from frontier to statehood, a land of immigrants from around the world, with no existing social order; a place of opportunity and experimentation.

That was the spirit that imbued the first administration of Jerry Brown, as he set out to reshape the social order of Sacramento. He made unconventional appointments and spurned advice from the political establishment. He chose women to lead agencies that had always been run by men. He picked a regent for the UC system who believed the university was wasted on all but about 10% of the students. He hired a NASA astronaut as a top advisor and lobbied for a California satellite.


Yet Brown was a fourth-generation Californian educated by Jesuits, who had opened the first college in the state. He was a classics major at Cal who spent summers in Yosemite as a youngster and hiked Half Dome as an adult because his father had done so before him.

“I think that Jerry more than anyone looks to the past for guidance,” his wife, Anne Gust Brown, said as he was sworn in for his final term as governor in 2015. “For guidance and for principles.”

He has described his belief system as “optimism of the will, pessimism of the intellect.” The optimism is rooted in his faith in Californians’ ability to tackle what he calls not problems, but “conditions.” That has allowed him to deliver bad news with equanimity, whether he is expounding on the existential threat of climate change or billion-dollar budget shortfalls caused by the Great Recession.

“California will come back,” Brown said confidently in 2010, as he staged his own comeback amid a fiscal crisis that had led pundits to call the state ungovernable. “It’s the continuity, it’s the foresight, and it’s the embrace of the tremendous diversity and innovation that is California.”


By the time he returned to the governor’s office in 2011, many of his ideas that had seemed revolutionary the first time around were not just mainstream but essential: diversity in state agencies and the judiciary, solar power, wind farms.

Brown had changed too: Twice the age he had been the first time around, married, his attachment to tradition manifested in more visible ways. The governor who lived decades ago in an apartment with almost no furniture moved into the governor’s mansion. The leader who once spurned the social niceties of Sacramento invited legislators to dinner. The son who once kept his father at arm’s length hung photos of Pat Brown on his office walls.

But the spirit of the self-proclaimed troublemaker has persisted through the years — a radical traditionalist, with a sentimental attachment to the state.

Enter the Fray: First takes on the news of the minute from L.A. Times Opinion »


“These declinists, these dystopians, as I like to call them, who have this noir view of California — they’re all wet! They don’t know what the hell they’re talking about!” he said in an address at the Commonwealth Club in November 2010. “This is a vibrant, creative place, one of the most extraordinary pieces of real estate and collection of human beings in the whole world.”

To Jerry Brown’s dismay, Admission Day is no longer an official California holiday. Today, the 168th Admission Day will be marked in Sacramento with only a modest celebration: ice cream and cake on the Capitol steps, entertainment by an aptly named barbershop quartet, the Checkered Past. And one of Brown’s final proclamations.

“The observance of Admission Day was once prominent in the civic life of our state and nation,” he writes in the message he has issued each Sept. 9 since 2012. He quotes his 1976 veto message about the holiday and laments that his action then only forestalled the inevitable. Sept. 9 was ultimately eliminated as a state holiday in exchange for a movable “personal day” for state workers.

“Convenient to some,” Brown notes in his proclamation, “but in no way respectful of our storied founding.”


Miriam Pawel’s latest book is “The Browns of California: The Family that Transformed a State and Shaped a Nation.”

Follow the Opinion section on Twitter @latimesopinionand Facebook