The Journal of San Diego History
SAN DIEGO HISTORICAL SOCIETY QUARTERLY
Fall 1988, Volume 34, Number 4
Thomas L. Scharf, Editor
Raymond Starr, Book Review Editor
A Disorderly House: The Brown – Unruh Years in Sacramento.
By James R. Mills. Berkeley: Heyday Books, 1987. Index. 213 Pages. $17.95.
Reviewed by Jackson K. Putnam, Professor of History, California State University, Fullerton, author of Modern California Politics (1984) and Old Age Politics in California (1970).
This book is a “good read” for anyone interested in an insider’s view of California politics during the 1960s. Written by James R. Mills, one of San Diego’s most prominent legislators – a former Chairman of the Assembly Rules Committee and President Pro Tempore of the state senate – it is a worshipful encomium on behalf of Jesse Unruh and no-holds-barred attack on former Governor Edmund G. “Pat” Brown. It makes little pretense of objectivity and it abounds in breezy wisecracks which are often more irritating than amusing, but it is nevertheless a revealing memoir on an important era.
It is also an exercise in self vindication. Mills obviously feels constrained to explain why after being elected to the Assembly in 1960 on a California Democratic Council-backed, pro-Brown, anti-Unruh ticket, he quickly joined the Unruh forces and broke with Governor Brown. Mills suggests that it was the other way around – that Brown broke with him by making alliances with other San Diegans such as state senator Hugo Fisher and Congressman Lionel Van Deerlin to minimize Mills’ political influence in his home district. Although plausible in part, this explanation seems distorted, because, as the book makes clear, Mills fell completely under Unruh’s spell and became an enthusiastic functionary in the Unruh clique, and as Brown became estranged from Unruh he naturally became estranged from Mills as well.
The book provides some excellent data on the sources and course of that estrangement, but here too the distortions are quite discernible. The governor is mainly cast as a combination of incompetence and crookedness while the speaker is invariably wise, witty, and statesmanlike. The book is often convincing on the latter point, however, and it is a fascinating account of Unruh’s foibles and achievements. Just the stories of his struggle for the speakerships and the famous legislative “lockup” of 1963 make the book worth reading, to say nothing of its account of Unruh’s Falstaffian triumphs in various Sacramento restaurants, bars, and bedrooms.
The book is also frustrating for what it does not say. It is brief, episodic, and in many ways highly superficial. Although Mills, because of his position, is an “inside dopester” par excellence, he tells us little of the rich legislative record of these years. He insists that the speaker was more responsible than the governor for this record, but be tells so little about it that his assertion is unconvincing. He ends the story for all practical purposes with the 1966 election, so we learn nothing of the author’s important years in the state senate. Perhaps this is appropriate given the book’s subtitle, but there is a tragic irony here as well.
Since the book was written as a tribute to Jesse Unruh, Mills tells us in his epilogue that he hoped the former speaker would read and appreciate it. Unruh died, however, as the book was going to press, and it became an unintended threnody for a dead political chieftain. Ironically, the other principal character in the book, Pat Brown, read it and was deeply offended. Invited to attend a political luncheon earlier this year in which Mills was the guest speaker, Brown declined with the following statement: “Please tell Jim Mills he was very mean to a good governor.” Many readers of this book are likely to agree with that assessment.