Big Daddy: Jesse Unruh and the Art of Power Politics

Big Daddy: Jesse Unruh and the Art of Power Politics

Big Daddy: Jesse Unruh and the Art of Power Politics

Big Daddy: Jesse Unruh and the Art of Power Politics


Revealing and frank, this highly engaging biography tells the story of an American original, California's Big Daddy, Jesse Unruh (1922-1987), a charismatic man whose power reached far beyond the offices he held. Unruh, who was born into Texas sharecropper poverty, became a larger-than-life figure and a principal architect and builder of modern California--first as an assemblyman, then as assembly speaker, and finally, as state treasurer. He was also a great character: a combination of intelligence, wit, idealism, cynicism, woman-chasing vulgarity, charm, drunken excess, and political skill all wrapped up in one big package. He dominated the California capitol and extended his influence to Washington and Wall Street. He was close to Lyndon Johnson and the Kennedys, but closest to Robert Kennedy, and was in the Ambassador Hotel kitchen when Kennedy was shot. Bill Boyarsky gives a close-up look at this extraordinary political leader, a man who believed that politics was the art of the possible, and his era.


In a time when Americans are being pummeled by ideologues of the Left and Right, much can be learned from the life of Jesse Marvin Unruh, a politician who believed that, as Bismarck said, politics is the art of the possible. As speaker of the California State Assembly and later state treasurer, Unruh was one of the most influential of the centrist pragmatists who dominated American politics in the post–World War ii era, exemplified also by Harry S. Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and John F. Kennedy. Such political leaders set the national tone through the transition to a peacetime economy, the Cold War, the civil rights movement, and the other momentous developments of the mid to late twentieth century. Their practical philosophy and accomplishments gave birth, moreover, to a later generation of pragmatists, most notably Bill Clinton.

I thought of Unruh’s place in American political history as I pondered a question that had nagged at me since I began this project: Would readers care about the life story of a long-dead California politician, remembered now only by family, surviving friends, and a few dedicated admirers?

The lessons of Unruh’s life and career are important—not just to Californians—because he represents an era when government worked more effectively perhaps than it does now. Along with Governors Earl Warren and Edmund G. “Pat” Brown Sr., Unruh was one of those responsible for California’s remarkable period of growth after World War ii. Warren and Brown built public works—schools, highways, and prisons; Unruh, however, built institutions—a professional legislature, a better system for financing schools and making them more accountable, and a shareholders’ rights movement that still influences Wall Street today.

He was also a great character, a combination of intelligence, political power, idealism, wit, anger, and cynicism. His behavior encompassed woman-chasing vulgarity and charm, intellectual acuity, and drunken ex-

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