Father-son rivalry played out in the governor's office, Brown letters show

Published: Monday, May. 31, 2010 - 12:00 am | Page 1A
Last Modified: Tuesday, Jul. 12, 2011 - 8:54 pm

Princess Diana once told an international television audience that her home situation was "a bit crowded."

"Well," she said, "there were three of us in this marriage."

Across the ocean, in a different family dynasty, the same could be said about 1970s-era life inside the California Governor's Office in the early Jerry Brown years.

As Brown seeks a third term as California governor, the files from his past administrations reveal a complex and somewhat crowded existence among the young governor, his legendary late father and his ambitious chief of staff.

Brown's bigger-than-life dad, Edmund G. "Pat" Brown Sr. – who had preceded his son as governor from 1959 to 1967 – became a large presence when his son assumed the top job in 1975, according to records acquired by the University of Southern California.

The senior Brown fired off numerous letters, many of them sent to Chief of Staff Gray Davis, who went on to become governor himself in 1999.

The letters – tucked into a neatly organized box of 1975-76 records kept by Davis – offer advice, résumés and requests from old friends, and urge his son to meet with acquaintances. Some letters are supportive of his son's work, others are critical.

Many border on demanding, particularly those sent directly to Davis.

In a series of 1975 letters, Brown Sr. insists that Davis – a graduate of Stanford University and Columbia University Law School – locate a painting donated to the state by Dr. Armand Hammer in 1972. The Los Angeles industrialist had complained to the elder Brown that former Gov. Ronald Reagan had never acknowledged the gift.

"This is a very valuable picture and Doctor Hammer feels he has been treated in a cavalier fashion by the State of California," Brown Sr. wrote to Davis on Sept. 17, 1975, misspelling his first name as "Grey."

The file includes 46 letters from the former governor to Davis between Feb. 6, 1975, and Dec. 2, 1976, and six to his son, the governor. All are typed on the letterhead of his Beverly Hills law firm.

The topics Brown Sr. pitches are wildly diverse: a "foremost" ear doctor wanting to meet with the new governor on a bill; a professor with the "highest reputation" who wants a panel disbanded; a man with "great ideas" to share on unemployment; an "intelligent, objective" public servant in Los Angeles who is retiring and wants to consult; a "very able man" with a "real sound idea" on abandoned homes; an "outstanding student" of an old friend, about to lose an overseas opportunity because of state budget cuts.

The letters are a fraction of the voluminous collection of Jerry Brown records stored in a warehouse near the USC campus. The collection, which fills more than 2,000 boxes, chronicles the highs and lows and day-to-day-minutiae of Brown's eight years in office.

Brown agreed to donate his gubernatorial files to USC in 1985 and recently granted access to The Bee.

Brown did not return a phone call left with his campaign Friday to discuss the letters.

But Davis told The Bee last week that he never found his frequent contact with Brown Sr. intrusive – in fact he welcomed it. Davis said he had known the elder Brown before he ever met his son, and liked him immensely.

"He was a wonderful, wise, gregarious man," said Davis, who now practices law in Los Angeles and supports Jerry Brown's campaign for governor. Now the state's attorney general, the younger Brown is the presumed Democratic nominee.

"Any former governor who calls or writes with ideas – you pay attention," he said. "They were governor. They sat in the chair and made decisions, and their insights are worth your time and attention."

Pat Brown died in 1996 at age 90. Davis, Jerry Brown's chief of staff from 1975 to 1981, lost the governor's office in a 2003 recall.

The differing styles of the two Brown men have long been a topic of discussion in Capitol and media circles. The elder Brown has been described as a burly, outgoing, old-school politician remembered most for building up California – its public universities, its freeways, its water systems.

His son, nicknamed "Gov. Moonbeam" by Chicago columnist Mike Royko, entered office as a more unconventional thinker and philosopher who talked, not of glorious, endless growth, but of "limits."

By some accounts, he had a distant and competitive relationship with his father, while his younger sister, Kathleen – who lost a bid for governor in 1994 – was once declared by her dad to be "the real politician in the family."

The elder Brown's letters sometimes seemed to express frustration with his son.

In November 1975, he wrote directly to Jerry and accused him of snubbing two old friends and confidants. One man was "hurt that he has been completely ignored," he wrote, while the other has "never been invited to any lunches, dinners, breakfast or rap sessions."

"(They) were with you from the very beginning and were instrumental in getting your campaign off to a good start at a very early date," Brown Sr. continues. "It may not be important politically, but very important from a personal and friendship basis."

In another critical letter – this time to Davis – the elder Brown was openly perturbed by a Los Angles community college newspaper story for which he was interviewed about his son's policies on higher education.

"I had a Hell of a time trying to interpret Jerry's views without ever talking to him," Brown Sr. wrote on May 18, 1976. "Please see that he gets a copy of this paper."

But Brown Sr. also was supportive of his son.

In a Feb. 6, 1975, letter beginning "Dear Jerry," he reassures him that he is "doing a great job and the Eastern papers are giving your stimulating ideas much approval."

The vast collection of papers at USC reveals numerous instances in which Gov. Jerry Brown resided in his father's long shadow – sometimes humorously so.

In March 1978, the 84-year-old former maitre d' at Victor Hugo's Restaurant in Los Angeles wrote Brown to thank him for helping seniors – and to identify himself as the "one that use (sic) to put you on the highchair and take good care of you."

Stephen D. Spyrell told Brown that, as a boy, he had liked cream of tomato soup and was "so fond of the crisp croutons that I had to go for more." At a reception once in honor of Edmund G. Brown Sr., the maitre d' said, he told the senior Brown that his son would one day be governor.

Jerry Brown promptly responded to Spyrell: "I enjoyed reading your recent letter to me and recalling a time in the distant past."

Despite the regular drumbeat of nudges, demands and requests from the former governor, responses to some suggest Gray Davis was not afraid to say no – at least some of the time.

When the elder Brown insisted that Davis make an appointment with a financier who had been one of his own advisers, the chief of staff responded: "Dear Pat: … As you know, the Governor's schedule is very hectic at this point."

And when Brown Sr. suggested an "excellent" man in October 1975 for a California office in Japan, Davis replied:

"As far as I know, Jerry has no plans to establish an office in Tokyo, but I would be pleased to keep your letter on file in the event he changes his mind."

Last week, Davis said Brown Sr. "never tried to guilt-trip or pressure you" if his ideas were rejected.

"It was easier to talk to him than anyone else because he'd been there," Davis said. "He knew exactly what goes on in the governor's office – the pressure, the demands."

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Read more articles by Marjie Lundstrom



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