Ex-governor opens records of 1975-83 tenure as he seeks the office again

05/30/2010 12:00 AM

07/12/2011 8:55 PM

One cardboard box is labeled, simply, "Crazies."

Another dusty box holds "Confidential and Significant Material," while two other cartons are filled with "Proposition 13 briefing material" and "Medfly files." Yet another box is devoted to "Love Letters."

For history hunters, the boxes are as tantalizing as fresh geocache. They also are the one thing Edmund G. Brown Jr. has in this governor's race that none of his rivals can claim: a mighty paper trail.

However the gubernatorial candidates want to spin experience – what it means, who has it and who doesn't – the Jerry Brown special collection at the University of Southern California is a window onto how one of this year's contenders actually did the job.

More than 2,000 boxes of material from Brown's two terms as California governor, 1975 to 1983, are stored in a building just east of the Los Angeles campus.

Donated by Brown to the private university in 1985, the records touch on a unique span of California's history: Brown's handling – some say mishandling – of the Mediterranean fruit fly crisis. His fling with singer Linda Ronstadt. His pummeling over Proposition 13. The gifts he promptly gave away – most of them, anyway. And his frugal lifestyle.

Inside file boxes, the Brown years are recorded on state letterhead, Western Union telegrams and in-house memos – and, in one case, on a white paper luncheon doily.

The documents hearken back to a different era in California politics – before e-mail, before BlackBerrys, before thumb drives and DVDs took over daily management of governmental paperwork and internal communications.

Brown was a 36-year-old bachelor when he was elected governor in 1974, the year "Happy Days" debuted on TV, Patty Hearst was kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army and another famous Californian, President Richard Nixon, resigned in disgrace.

Brown completed his second term in 1983, still unmarried, leaving office the year Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys died in a drowning accident, the space shuttle Challenger made its first flight and women's shoulder pads were the size of airliner pillows.

Brown is now 72 and married for five years.

Much as times have changed, the Brown historical records show that California voters were cranky about many of the same issues then that they are today: taxes, state worker pay, unemployment, school funding, government spending, crime and prisons.

The records also flesh out a portrait of Jerry Brown – the man and the politician – who succeeded Ronald Reagan and, before that, his own father as governor.

While critics have derided Brown for being fanciful and oh-so-la-la California, the governor's thinking in some areas was ahead of its time, the documents suggest.

In an August 1982 letter, Brown expressed deep concern about "the rising costs of health care." He explored alternative energy sources, amassing substantial research.

Three decades before the financial meltdown on Wall Street, with its revelations of unbridled greed, Brown was attuned to the consumptive nature of the nation and growing demands of its people. In the 1970s, he spoke of an "era of limits" and cautioned that an "era of scarcity of resources" was looming.

The records stirred some controversy this year, as Brown's agreement with USC allowed them to remain sealed for 50 years, available for viewing only with his permission.

Brown granted The Bee and some others individual access to the files. "The governor has always been very generous in giving people access," said Dace Taube, the history collection librarian.

But an ongoing university inventory project limited the examination to a fraction of the collection.

The boxes brim with insights and recaps of the day-to-day crises and minutiae of the eight-year Democratic administration. Hereis a sampling of those stories.

Editor's Choice Videos

 

Join the Discussion

The Sacramento Bee is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Terms of Service