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Big Daddy

Jesse Unruh and the Art of Power Politics

Bill Boyarsky (Author)


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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.

1. The Death of a Boss
2. The Road to California
3. The GI Bill of Rights
4. Hat in the Ring
5. The Education of a Rookie
6. Segregation and the Unruh Civil Rights Act
7. Fair Housing and White Backlash
8. Animal House
9. Backstabbing Democrats
10. Dirty Dealings and High Idealism
11. A Full-Time Legislature
12. Unruh, Robert Kennedy, and the Anti-War Movement
13. Unruh versus Reagan
14. The Man with the Money

Bill Boyarsky is Lecturer at the Annenberg School for Communications, University of Southern California. In his 30 years with the Los Angeles Times, Boyarsky was a political writer, featured columnist, and city editor. He was a member of reporting teams that won three Pulitzer Prizes. He is the author of two biographies of Ronald Reagan. He is author of Los Angeles: City of Dreams; and with his wife, Nancy, he coauthored Backroom Politics.
“Filled with the kind of insights that only a seasoned observer of the ways of Sacramento could provide. . . . This is a more than welcome picture of a time when politics mattered.”—San Francisco Chronicle
“Political junkies recall Unruh as the bigger-than-life speaker of the California State Assembly between 1961 and 1969. But its the Unruh we don’t know whom the author brings into focus, and that is the joy of the book. . . . For those who revere the era of California politics, when personalities were bigger than political offices in a state where the future seemed brighter every day, this book is a ‘must read.’”—Larry N. Gerston California History
“‘Big Daddy’ is a major addition to the distinguished Californian political biographies—Ethan Rarick on Pat Brown, James Richardson on former Assembly Speaker and San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, Jacobs on Burton—published over the last dozen years by the University of California Press. And it's a fun read.”—Peter Schrag Los Angeles Times Book Review
“For insight into California’s government, history and politics, or simply an account of a fascinating personality, this is a book well worth reading.”—Richard M. Mosk Daily Journal
“A book that those interested in either the state or national history of the 1960’s will want to read.”—Beyondchron
“A fascinating biography.”—Inland Empire Magazine
“Boyarsky traces [Unruh’s story] . . . with the sure hand of a careful reporter who, at once, admires his subject’s skill, tenacity and commitment even while he recognizes the flaws in his behavior and methods.”—Philip J. Trounstine San Jose Mercury News
"Jesse Unruh was a remarkable phenomenon in American politics, a figure of tremendous energy and intelligence, with flaws to match. Although he never held public office beyond his home state, his institutional creativity as Speaker of the California Assembly and as State Treasurer had nationwide impact. Bill Boyarsky followed Unruh's career from the early days, and has produced a careful, fair-minded, and appreciative portrait without neglecting skeletons in the closet, buried bodies, and other colorful details of California politics that only a long-term, well-informed observer could provide."—Nelson Polsby, University of California, Berkeley

"Jesse Unruh was California's most flamboyant and influential legislator. He has a worthy biographer in Bill Boyarsky, one of the state's best-ever political reporters. Boyarsky has written a lively treasure of a book that is at once critical and sympathetic: he unflinchingly describes Unruh's larger-than-life flaws but gives him deserved credit as an effective populist who wrote civil rights and education laws that were well ahead of their time. Beyond biography, this fascinating book provides a revealing examination of a state capitol culture that has been swept aside by the modern era of term limits and lavish campaign spending. Boyarsky writes about a vanished time when people cared about politics, and politicians like Unruh also cared about the people."—Lou Cannon, author of Governor Reagan: His Rise to Power

"Big Daddy is the gripping real-life story of Jesse M. Unruh and the development of California following WWII. Boyarsky reveals how Unruh's multi-faceted character shaped his significant contributions. He was an institution builder who created a professional legislature and a passionate centrist who promoted civil rights, shareholder rights, and a responsible system of educational financing and accountability. This page turner pulls no punches in describing the complexities of the man and his times and their relevance for today's divisive politics."—Ann N. Crigler, chair of the Department of Political Science, University of Southern California

"If Bill Boyarsky had merely written about "Big Daddy" Unruh, one of the most powerful California politicians of the 20th Century, this would have been a valuable book. Jesse comes alive in all his bullying bulk and commitment to progressive public policy. But Boyarsky's work is much more than that. It is a close-up look at California's Capitol when it consistently worked, not always in a pretty way. Those politicians may have sinned, but they definitely succeeded in meeting the needs of a fast-growing state. This is an enjoyable read with many lessons."—George Skelton, L.A Times State Political Columnist

"Only a seasoned reporter such as Bill Boyarsky would have the insight and skill to chronicle the life and times of this flamboyant but enigmatic politician, this gruff giant, this wizard of the legislative process, this ardent advocate and fierce opponent, the late great Jesse Unruh."—Kevin Starr, Professor of History, University of Southern California

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