Pat Brown - A reverence for life

by Kathleen O. Beitiks
Staff Writer

In the days following his death last month at the age of 90, former Gov. Edmund G. "Pat" Brown was eulogized as "a legacy," "a trailblazer," "a peerless politician" and "tough as nails."

But those who were close to him throughout his public and private life remember Brown as a lover of life and a man of compassion who continued to be haunted by the 1960 gas chamber execution of convicted kidnapper Caryl Chessman.

Of all the issues that came before him, the Chessman execution deeply affected Brown, said one of his oldest friends, U.S. Circuit Court Judge Cecil Poole.

A staunch Roman Catholic and opponent of the death penalty, Brown agonized over the situation and it weighed heavily on his conscience, said Poole, who was with Brown in his office when the execution took place.

At the moment the pellets were dropped into the acid bath, said Poole, "Brown got up, walked out of the office and I never saw him again that day. It was the most awful minute the governor had."

Karl Fleming was a correspondent for Newsweek when he met Brown during the 1966 governor's race and has remained friends with the family ever since.

Fleming had many opportunities to talk with Brown after he left the governor's office, often having lunch with him. During those lunches, said Fleming, he found it "touching" that Brown always brought up his actions as governor. "Even at the end of his life he agonized whether he'd done the right thing in sending people to the gas chamber. He had a real reverence for life."

Ironically, the day of his funeral in San Francisco, the U.S Court of Appeals upheld a lower court ruling that outlawed California's use of lethal gas to execute criminals, calling it cruel and unusual punishment, prohibited by the U.S. Constitution.

Brown argued forcefully against the death penalty, but in the end he said he was bound to uphold the law. "My oath of office takes precedence over all else in my public life and actions . . ."

There were 37 executions during Brown's tenure, and he commuted the death sentences of 23 condemned convicts.

A long legal career

Brown's career in the legal field began in 1927, when he was admitted to the State Bar, part of the first crop of lawyers to become members after it was established by statute in July of that year.

He never received an undergraduate degree, but took extension classes through the University of California and graduated from the San Francisco College of Law.

He worked for a blind attorney in San Francisco, Milton Schmitt, and took over Schmitt's practice when he died. Although he established a law practice with his brothers Harold and Frank, he always leaned more toward politics.

That love of politics was passed on to his children. His only son, Jerry, served two terms as governor in the 1970s, and one of his three daughters, Kathleen, served one term as state treasurer and was the unsuccessful Democratic nominee for governor in 1994.

Poole remembers first meeting the late governor in 1947 after Brown was elected district attorney of San Francisco.

Poole, a young, black attorney, came to Brown's attention after successfully handling an especially complex case. Brown offered him a job with the DA's office.

Brown assured him that if he were trying a case which involved racial issues, they would take "special precautions" for him.

"I grew to have a great deal of respect and loyalty to him," said Poole.

Poole went on to Sacramento with Brown as a legal adviser in 1950 when Brown was elected attorney general and stayed with him until he was appointed U.S. attorney for northern California by President Kennedy.

They remained friends, touching base frequently. "At all times, I've said the best thing to happen to me was when I became close to him and in a position of trust."

Fleming, now a communications consultant and "recovering journalist," remained friends with Brown and his family through the years and enjoyed swapping political war stories with the former governor.

Could laugh at himself

"Brown had a real ability to laugh at himself," said Fleming, adding that that quality is sorely missing in today's politicians. He was known as a great storyteller, said Fleming, and nothing pleased him more than to relate tales of his own mishaps.

"I have covered hundreds and hundreds of politicians," said Fleming, "and he is one of the few politicians I have deeply loved and revered."

His admiration for Brown stemmed from "his humanity, essential innocence and decency, en-thusiasm, vitality, love of life, optimism and a real sense of not being in politics for power, but to try to make things better."

Brown's tenure as governor, 1959-1967, paralleled an era of rapid growth and development in the state.

More than 1,000 miles of freeways were built, 11 public universities were opened and the state began work on the California Water Project, a $3 billion, 475-mile-long network of reservoirs, aqueducts and pumping plants.

Education was an important issue for Brown and when he was elected governor in 1958, he made it a priority. That pride for the world-class system of higher education, developed during his time as governor, led to his donation of $1 million to the University of California in 1985.

Brown was a major force behind the enactment of state laws outlawing racial discrimination in jobs and housing. He created a consumer protection agency and backed legislation creating Medi-Cal, a state health care program.

A San Francisco native

Born in San Francisco on April 21, 1905, he was the eldest of Ida Schuckman Brown and Edmund Joseph Brown's four children.

It was at Lowell High School that Brown was given the nickname "Pat." He used his oratorical skills to encourage people to buy Liberty Bonds during World War I and at the end of his passionate speeches he would quote patriot Patrick Henry's line, "Give me liberty, or give me death!"

In 1930, he married Bernice Layne, daughter of Police Captain Arthur Layne. At the time, Brown's father ran a legal card room in San Francisco and his wife's father was in charge of the vice squad. Brown said he would come home from work and wonder if his father-in-law had arrested his father during the day.

He started his political life as a Republican, unsuccessfully running for a seat in the Assembly, but in 1934 became a Democrat, persuaded by the actions of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the plight of the public during the Depression. In 1939 he ran for San Francisco district attorney and lost, but in 1943 he won the post and held it for eight years.

When he was inaugurated in 1944, he said, "The office of district attorney inevitably deals with human nature at its worst . . . with crime, vice and humanity going wrong . . . May I point out, however, that the office should not and must not become an agency of grim, blind, implacable justice. The prosecutor must not become the persecutor."

In 1950, he was elected attorney general of California and then was re-elected four years later. In that first race, he was the only Democrat to win statewide office that year, but Republican Gov. Earl Warren was confident he could work with him and they became good friends, as well as fishing partners. Warren later became chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.

During his tenure as attorney general, Brown closed down gambling and prostitution establishments, cracked down on favoritism in granting liquor licenses and argued successfully that California should get revenues from offshore drilling.