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Indiespensable

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Review-a-Day
The Atlantic Monthly
Tuesday, May 10th, 2005


 

California Rising

by Ethan Rarick

A review by Benjamin Schwarz

Governors Earl Warren and Pat Brown were the great political figures of California's ebullient era -- from the late 1940s to the mid-1960s -- when the state consolidated its position as an economic colossus and emerged as the nation's dominant social and cultural trendsetter. More than the soberly effective Warren, the expansive, glad-handing Brown, who held office from 1959 to 1967, personified the sense of limitless possibility that animated the California boom. Around the start of Brown's second term California surpassed New York as the country's most populous state. That event not only shifted the nation's political balance; it also seemed to augur an ever-expanding tax base. Brown's governorship would be defined by exhilarating if headlong growth and free spending: during his tenure the state's population increased by a third, and its budget tripled. He instituted or expanded a host of ambitious social programs. He presided over the burgeoning of the state's higher-education system, already the envy of the world, adding four new colleges and three new universities. He built a thousand miles of freeways. He pushed through the largest state public-works project in American history: the 500-mile network of reservoirs, pumping stations, canals, pipes, and aqueducts that carry almost two billion gallons of water daily from northern California to the south. This sometimes excruciatingly detailed chronicle of Brown's political history admiringly describes the infrastructure and programs, but omits analysis of their ultimate costs (of which Brown's son, Jerry, California's governor in a period of diminished expectations and heightened environmental awareness, would be acutely aware). But Rarick is strong on the intrigues and political battles that shaped Brown's career. Brown ran against three of the most powerful politicians of his time: to become governor he trounced William F. Knowland, the leader of the Senate Republicans (and thereby quashed Knowland's presidential ambitions); he defeated Richard Nixon in 1962 (a humiliation that prompted Nixon's remark to reporters "You won't have Nixon to kick around anymore"); and he was driven out by Ronald Reagan's overwhelming victory in 1966 (which signaled the end of California's era of opulent euphoria and launched the conservative counter-revolution nationwide). Brown's social and political formula -- essentially, spend a lot and good things will happen -- now seems somewhat crude and unimaginative. But it's uplifting (if not exactly inspiring) in a state where slashed budgets and dysfunctional public institutions now characterize public life. What is inspiring, though, is the spirit of the time and place in which Brown humanely governed. California's glorious run, the product of economic and social forces beyond Sacramento's control, promised and delivered a better life for ordinary people than they could have enjoyed in any other place at any other time in history. Politically Brown embodied the vivacity and sweetness of that brief good life -- "the swimming pools and backyard barbecues, the school yards teeming with healthy children, the suburban tracts and freeways, the whole Ozzie and Harriet splendor of it all" (to quote Kevin Starr's evocation). For this reader, Rarick's unintentionally nostalgic account confirms what longtime residents of this most forward-looking state in the Union know in their bones: the Golden State's best days are behind it.


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