There’s one interesting thing about former California governor Edmund G. “Pat” Brown that is not in the new documentary about his life, “California State of Mind: The Legacy of Pat Brown,” which opens the Santa Cruz Film Festival tonight.
How did someone named Edmund get to be called “Pat”?
“When he was a boy, he would sell war bonds on the street,” said Sascha Rice, the film’s director. “And he would end his little spiel with ‘Give me liberty or give me death,’ just like Patrick Henry, so he became ‘Pat’ after that.”
This is not just a researched factoid uncovered by Rice. It’s the stuff of family legend. Rice is, in fact, Pat Brown’s grandfather.
The new film instead opens with the two-term governor sitting before the panel on the 1950s quiz show “What’s My Line?” If the “Pat” story says something about Brown’s pugnacious political spirit, then the appearance on “What’s My Line?” gives testimony to Brown’s relative anonymity then and now, despite his powerful position and accomplishments.
Brown, a Democrat who served from 1959 to 1967, has consistently been overshadowed in the political realm not only by his big-name political opponents – he defeated Richard Nixon for the governor’s job in 1962, but lost to Ronald Reagan four years later – but also by his own son, current Gov. Jerry Brown.
Rice – niece of Jerry Brown; daughter of former state treasurer and gubernatorial Kathleen Brown – and her sister Hilary Armstrong began this project seven years ago. And they are both sensitive to potential criticisms that the film might be merely a hagiography of a beloved grandfather. Even though the film paints Brown heroically in some cases, it presents him otherwise in other cases.
Perhaps the most damaging story of Brown’s career had to do with Caryl Chessman, who spent 12 years on death row after a conviction on rape and kidnapping charges, which were then capital crimes. Brown, an opponent of the death penalty, nevertheless decided against granted clemency and Chessman was put to death. The film also touches on Brown’s refusal to meet with Cesar Chavez and thousands of striking farm workers at a rally in Sacramento, suggesting that he was going against his principles for the purposes of political expediency.
Still, most of the film deals with what Brown’s triumphs, namely the Master Plan for Education that built up the California college system into the envy of the world for its quality and affordability, and the California Water Project, the still-controversial public works project that transports water from the north of the state to the south via the famous aqueduct that bears his name.
The film interviews most of the surviving governors of the state, including Jerry Brown, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Pete Wilson and Gray Davis, as well as commentators such as Tom Brokaw, Tom Hayden, California historian Kevin Starr, Rep. Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Dianne Feinstein.
The picture that emerges is of a master builder. Brown presided over the state government at an unprecendented period of growth in California, when thousands of people were pouring into the state from other states and other countries. His higher-education and water projects were part of a larger effort to feverishly build infrastructure to await what he believed was a bright future.
“I think it would be a mistake to lionize Pat Brown,” said Rice. “The state was still very divided even then. Let’s not forget that the water project passed by one vote and its funding on the ballot passed by one percent. The electorate was divided, not so much on right/left like today, but on rural/urban and north/south.”
Both Rice and Armstrong remember their grandfather well – Brown died in 1996 at the age of 90. “I remember his big personality, his big booming voice,” said Rice. “In the process of making the film, I found myself really wishing he was around because there were so many questions I wanted to ask him.”
The film also shows the personal side of Brown and his relationship with his wife Bernice and how he was thrilled with any of his four children took up the “family business” of politics.
But mostly, the film portrays the last of the benevolent big-government dreamers, a governor who believed that government’s purpose was to help people.
“What I’m most interested in is his values,” said Armstrong. “He was always optimistic about the potential of California. He was driven; he didn’t go to college, but put himself through night school to get a law degree. We wanted to inspire people by showing what he did.”