DO WHAT YOU ARE DOING — age quod agis — is a personal motto for California governor Jerry Brown. He learned it as a teenage Jesuit seminarian, printed it on banners in his 1976 campaign for governor, and emblazoned it on the crest of the charter high school he later founded in Oakland.

Intentionality and focus have served Brown well throughout a five-decade career in politics, and as he wraps up his fourth term in the Governor’s Mansion this January, it’s safe to assume that he has a handle on what he is doing. Does anybody else?

In The Browns of California, author and Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Miriam Pawel brings us closer to understanding the career of an enigmatic and influential political leader who has bewildered his opponents and allies alike. Her key is to provide the context. California — itself bountiful, complex, unpredictable – is the mystical force that shaped Jerry Brown, as well his ancestors.

In Pawel’s saga, four generations of the Brown family trace a singular path through the state’s distinctive culture and politics. Their intersections in turn become the keys to understanding the man who became California’s longest-serving governor.

From the earliest days of his career, even under the watch of his father, California governor Edmund G. “Pat” Brown, Jerry consistently defied conventional politics. He has been aptly branded as erratic and unpredictable, as well as brilliant and ambitious. In his 1976 presidential campaign, The New York Times Magazine proclaimed “Jerry Brown is different,” noting that he was “one of the most popular” politicians in the United States, despite being “not a particularly likeable young man.”

Hailed in national press as representative of a new breed of politician, he mounted three unsuccessful bids for the Democratic presidential nomination. Following an ugly 1992 primary loss to Bill Clinton, Brown was briefly exiled from electoral politics. He reemerged as a state Democratic Party boss, then as a social reformer in Oakland, then mayor, then California attorney general. In 2010, he returned to the Governor’s Mansion to reprise a first stint that lasted from 1975–’83, when he was the state’s youngest governor in over a century. When his fourth term ends in January 2019, he will leave office as the oldest governor in its history.

Through it all, Brown has relished his reputation as an indecipherable oddball. He collected favorite lines from his own speeches and partnered with beatniks at City Lights Books to publish them in a paperback volume titled Thoughts. People Magazine declared him “the far-out candidate who puzzles almost everyone.” A Chicago newspaper columnist infamously dubbed him Governor Moonbeam. “He has been elevated from Mr. Clean to Junior Enigma,” wrote an editor for the Sacramento Bee.

If he was a puzzle to commentators and voters, Brown presents a similar problem for any biographer. How do you capture an enigma?

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In vibrant detail, Pawel introduces us to the parts of California that mattered most to the Browns, revealing how the state forged its leading political dynasty. To bring this four-generation story together, Pawel consulted archives across the state and conducted extensive interviews with Governor Brown, his family members, and longtime associates. As a result, the Brown family story is enlivened with densely textured settings and carefully selected vignettes. Pawel takes readers not only to the halls of political power, but also to California scenes ranging from the Zen retreats of Big Sur to dusty Central Valley ranchland; from the mean streets of West Oakland to the carefree glamour of Malibu.

Following a Wally Cleaver childhood in a quiet San Francisco neighborhood, he enrolled in a Jesuit seminary, training to become a Catholic priest. There, he followed a prescribed daily routine of meditation and prayer, unchanged since the 18th century, which began with a 5:00 a.m. wake-up call, 20 minutes of silent meditation, and a two-hour mass.

Three years later, Jerry had discerned that the priesthood was not for him. Governor Pat Brown remarked on the conversation he had with his son: “[Jerry felt] his Catholicism was stronger than ever, but that what they had taught him had caused him to logically feel that the ‘rules of Obedience’ were not valid. That there were times when freedom of the conscience was more important.”

Jerry packed his devout Catholic faith off to the University of California at Berkeley, landing in a maelstrom of left-wing protest. It was an awkward fit for a young man with Jesuit sensibilities and familial ties to the Democratic Party’s establishment. Three years later, his father, the governor, presented his diploma. A major political donor ponied up the cash for Jerry’s Yale Law School fees; a Pat Brown appointee to the state Supreme Court handed Jerry a coveted clerkship.

In the stairwell of the California governor’s mansion, during his father’s tumultuous second term, Jerry Brown found a new spark. Pawel sets the scene: “While studying for the bar, a task he found tedious, Jerry would wander out onto the stair landing to eavesdrop on conversations downstairs. One day, he overheard his father engaged in a heated dispute with Assembly Speaker Jesse Unruh, a Democrat who had become an adversary rather than an ally.” Jerry Brown revealed in a 2011 speech at his law school class reunion that this was the moment his political career was born. Pawel recounts the story in greater detail, from an interview she conducted with Brown in 2017: “The conversation [with Unruh] was about power. Jerry found it riveting.”

Upon moving to Los Angeles, Jerry Brown encountered a massive ongoing social experiment in cultural diversity and unplanned growth: a microcosm of the state, unlike anything he saw growing up in a quiet San Francisco neighborhood. He settled in Laurel Canyon, where neighbors Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne, Jim Morrison, and Glenn Frey were inventing a new California sound. He stumbled upon the El Adobe Mexican restaurant, where he fell in love with Lucy Casado’s lentil soup — and with rock singer-songwriter Linda Ronstadt. This became the base of operations for campaigns for the offices of secretary of state and then governor. Where else but in California?

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Each Brown family member has their own distinctly Californian story to tell. The clan’s progenitor, August Schuckman, immigrated from Prussia and traversed the Oregon Trail in 1852 en route to settlement in Colusa County. From his dusty ranch north of Sacramento emerged a daughter, Ida, who relocated to San Francisco, marrying Ed Brown. Their son, Pat Brown, served as governor of California from 1959 to 1967. Among other notable achievements, he expanded the University of California system and built the state’s main waterway, a lifeline for farmers in the arid south.

In a sketch that might be stolen from the pages of Dashiell Hammett, Pat Brown’s early career was in petty crime — he staged the lookout for cops outside his father’s poker club. Pat Brown later determined the life of a family man would be better suited for his political aspirations. He converted to Catholicism on a silent retreat in the orchards rising above what is now Silicon Valley. The family took annual car trips to Yosemite. When workers complete construction of the Golden Gate Bridge, the Browns joined in the throng of 200,000 to walk across on opening day.

Middle class, educated, and white, the Brown family was insulated from most of the ugly moments in 20th-century California history. But not all. When President Roosevelt ordered the internment of all persons of Japanese ancestry, a client and former classmate of Pat Brown was rounded up and sent to prison in Wyoming. He wrote to Pat “this place is virtually a ‘concentration’ camp.” Pat sent a letter of recommendation that helped his friend land a job outside the internment camp, as a Japanese instructor training US spies.

Kathleen Brown (daughter of Pat and younger sister of Jerry) began a political career at 29, the youngest person ever elected to the Los Angeles school board. For a moment, she was the family’s political star. Pat Brown called her the “the real politician in the family” (a remark some read as a snub to his son — but when reached for comment, Jerry replied, “What makes you think I want to be known as a politician?”). She rose to the position of state treasurer in 1991 and became the state’s Democratic nominee for governor in 1994.

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This is not a comprehensive California history disguised as political biography. This is something new: a California panorama and an intimate family portrait captured in a single frame. What it reveals about the Browns more than proves the merits of the approach — although it might also leave some readers wondering why so much of California history is left out.

The Browns moved around a bit, but never touched many portions of the state. San Diego and San Jose are the state’s second and third largest cities, but they have never been home to the Browns. The family’s politics undoubtedly affected the millions of Californians living outside San Francisco, Oakland, and Los Angeles, but there is little evidence this impact was reciprocated.

The same goes for the impact of state politics outside of the Brown family. Pat Brown competed in gubernatorial elections against both Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s chaotic second term created the opportunity for Jerry Brown to sweep back in to office. A very different Browns of California could be written about Willie Brown Jr. (no relation) — who was speaker of the California Assembly for 15 years, and mayor of San Francisco for eight. These titans of California politics are only minor characters in Pawel’s telling of the Brown family saga.

One exception to that is Earl Warren, the Republican governor of California who rose to become chief justice of the US Supreme Court. Pat Brown entered statewide office as attorney general during Warren’s term as governor, and the two spawned a lifelong bipartisan friendship. Warren became something like an honorary member of the Brown clan, advising Pat (and by extension, his children) throughout his life. Pawel captures the tender relationship the two men maintained in letters and an annual hunting trip. She unearths a note Warren sent to Brown following his loss to Reagan in the governor’s race, quoting the chief justice at length:

You have given our state good, progressive government for eight years and that is all any man could have done […] Some day the people of California will comprehend just how silly and shallow was the campaign to unseat you, but until that time arrives, I hope you will content yourself with a sense of duty well performed.

In the 20th century, California grew to become the world’s fifth largest economy. The next decade is likely to be the first since the 1920s in which no Brown family member appears on a ballot. What will come of California after the Browns? How can the state ensure that future generations sustain this success?

It will surely require public servants who share the Brown family’s focus, duty, and faith in the “Party of California.” Perhaps they too would benefit from remembering old Jesuit motto. Age quod agis. Do what you are doing.

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Jake Wertz is a graduate student in the Department of Sociology at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. He is a native of San Francisco.