In a time when the smart money has written off the state, an excellent and timely documentary, “California State of Mind—the Legacy of Pat Brown,” recalls the prosperous past and gives us a bit of hope for the problems confronting the late governor’s son, Jerry Brown.
I saw it last weekend at the Newport Beach Film Festival. For my wife Nancy and I, it was a welcome reunion with the Brown family and friends, including Kathleen, his daughter. The documentary was made by her daughters, writer director Sascha Rice and executive producer Hilary Armstrong. Rice and Julia Mintz are producers.
As the writer, Sascha Rice faced two challenges. One was that while her grandfather, Edmund G. Brown, was one of California’s greatest governors, he is a remote or even unknown figure to generations born after he served, from 1959 to 1967. Secondly, how could she, a family member, accurately show the real Pat Brown who was both an idealistic visionary and a cynical, cunning politician?
Rice doesn’t entirely capture the latter quality. Sometimes, the film is too nice, those being interviewed too admiring of Brown. Weren’t any of his detractors still alive? But Rice did solve the family problem by giving the film an interesting plot, her own effort to discover her grandfather who, to her, was the fun-filled, loving, undemanding grandpa. It was a pleasant side of the old governor but didn’t tell the grandkids much about their aging playmate. Rice returned to Pat Brown’s San Francisco roots, to his gambler father’s cigar store with an illegal card room in back and to his inability to attend college because dad was broke. She traced his rise through San Francisco’s rough politics, driven by ambition and political instinct. The film also tells of his courtship and lifelong romance with his wife, Bernice, who had his love letters under her pillow when she died. This was one of the most touching moments in the film.
Sascha visited the projects the visionary Pat built and loved—the state water system, the freeways and the public universities. There is also a glimpse of the cynical Pat, talking of the Northern California water he wanted to ship south. Those mountain counties, he scoffed, don’t need all that water, implying they were greedy. He wouldn’t have said that at a meeting in Redding or other northern cities and towns.
Sascha interviewed me for the film. I was the journalistic vet, an admirer of her grandfather but one who appreciated how he got things done. I explained the governor had to bargain and cajole to accomplish his aims, how every mile of the freeways and the water project, every university campus was built deal by deal with politicians who didn’t meet the impossibly high standards demanded by today’s ethicists.
It was a rich state then, far different than the one governed by his son Jerry. Today, we are short of money and the electorate is much more cynical. We’ll see if the Brown genes that took Pat from his father’s cigar store-gambling parlor to the governorship are still strong enough to steer Jerry through problems much more difficult than those faced by his dad.