Jerry Brown’s Letters: Inside a Former Governor’s Mail

With Brown expected to win California's biggest democratic prize Tuesday, Joe Mathews gets a look at his personal mail from his first run as governor, and finds little has changed in the last 30 years.

Russel A. Daniels / AP Photo; Rich Pedroncelli / AP Photo

With Jerry Brown expected to win California's biggest democratic prize Tuesday, Joe Mathews gets a look at his personal mail from his first run as governor, and finds little has changed in the last 30 years. But there are a few surprises: an early passion for alternative energy, a peek at how Brown responded to aspiring musicians when he was dating Linda Ronstadt, and the one personal gift he accepted—a package from the Dalai Lama.

LOS ANGELES—If you really can tell a lot about a man by reading his mail, then the Jerry Brown who served as governor of California 30 years ago is very much like the Jerry Brown running for governor today:

Political. Thrifty. Intellectually curious about new ideas and technologies. Cool and cautious even when people are demanding quick action. And more than a little enigmatic.

I recently began reading the personal mail that Brown, the presumptive Democratic nominee for governor this year, received and sent during his first governorship, which extended from 1975 to 1983.

Brown didn’t respond to the notes that sought merely his celebrity. But he seems to have read—and referred to aides—all sorts of policy suggestions.

The letters are preserved in a library at the University of Southern California, and technically they are closed under a bad California law that gives former governors the ability to limit access to their papers for 50 years or until death, whichever comes later. But with Brown running for governor, I made an official request for access last summer (and also made a public stink). A few months ago, Brown instructed USC’s archivists to let me see whatever I wanted.

Of the hundreds of boxes, I’ve been through about 20. I decided to start with the letters from the middle of his tenure—1977-79, the Days of Disco.

The experience of reading these missives is trippy.

And telling.

The Brown who has frustrated California Democrats this year by being slow to hire a campaign team and get out on the stump (he had his first campaign event only just this week) took his time way back when. Pressed for answers or meetings from the people writing to him—from public officials to other citizens—he took months, or longer, to reply.

And just as today’s Brown is a cautious sort who refuses to commit to specific policies, the Brown who emerges from these letters is similarly reticent.

Brown’s replies to even the longest and most emotional missives are brief. Three paragraphs is a long letter for Brown. He usually doesn’t get particularly personal, though there are flashes. He had a warm correspondence with Hubert Humphrey’s wife, Muriel, both before and after her husband’s death. Most of his personal notes are condolence letters.

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“I wish to express my sympathy for the loss of your brother,” he wrote to Robert Milk, brother of the slain San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk on Nov. 28, 1978.

But much of Brown’s correspondence seems rushed and impersonal. In 1978, the San Diego widow of a plane crash victim wrote back to complain that he hadn’t bothered to sign his letter of condolence: “The enclosed letter would have been most appreciated had it been signed. I felt, upon receiving it, that it was just another ‘form’ letter. Also I wonder about the qualifications of your staff. To me, at this terrible time, this oversight is unforgivable and inexcusable.”

Given the demands of the office and the jarring cultural shifts and political change and sheer madness of the 1970s, all of which is very apparent in the letters he was receiving, Brown’s unwillingness to give up too much of himself, even in personal letters, made sense.

“My persona is Dr. Diana Divine, Talking Dinosaur—an intergalactic lady scientist exploring Earth,” wrote the head of a San Francisco nonprofit devoted to providing books for kids in a June 1978 letter that is actually one of the more earthbound letters in the collection. The woman was describing her methods for communicating with youth and suggesting that the state of California model its educational approach on hers. “If you care to receive the Talking Dinosaur Reports in person or by mail, the children and I should be delighted,” she wrote, adding by way of assuring the governor she wasn’t crazy: “Ask [a mutual friend] who is a Vassar classmate for character reference should one be required.”

The Brown correspondence comes in genres. Boxes and boxes are filled with the expected requests for meetings or donations to jog-a-thons and read-a-thons from Redding to Reseda. Hundreds wrote to ask him to pardon Patty Hearst. Others ask for help. A 14-year-old orphan in the Philippines, with what appears to have been the assistance of a school principal, wrote to ask Brown to become his foster father.

Then there are the expressions of love for the slim governor with a good head of hair. “Try not to sleep with this photo under your pillow!” wrote a comely blond admirer from the Coachella Valley. Once Brown was romantically linked to Linda Ronstadt, he was inundated with packages from would-be musicians who begged him to pass along their tapes to his girlfriend. (He responded to each with contact information for her manager).

Brown’s well-known religious background—he was a one-time Catholic seminarian who had dabbled in Buddhism—inspired all sorts of spiritualists to get in touch. A couple from Southern California’s High Desert wrote in December 1978 requesting an appointment: “Our thrust is the Rosary. Our theme is Fatima. Our core is Mary. Our feelings are that we have received ‘certain insights’ that are worthy of such a practical notion as to present them to the Governor of the State of California.” They didn’t get an audience. A woman from Los Angeles did better by asking him to intervene in a dispute at an institution called the University of Metaphysics in Hollywood; handwritten notes suggest a field deputy was dispatched to check things out.

Brown didn’t respond to the notes that sought merely his celebrity. But he seems to have read—and referred to aides—all sorts of policy suggestions. Among these was a proposal, advanced in a letter from U.S. Sen. Bob Dole and sent the day after the passage of Prop 13 in 1978, that Brown join him in working to call a new federal constitutional convention with the goal of amending the document to require a balanced budget. Brown agreed, speaking publicly in favor of a balanced budget amendment.

In the correspondence, Brown seems to have seized on a couple of ideas that were ahead of their time. He was intrigued by what is now, three decades late, a hot trend, growing your own food; after purchasing land in Nevada County and musing about the possibility of creating some kind of alternative farm there, he received thousands of suggestions on farming, many of which his office acknowledged.

But Brown’s greatest passion, at least judging by the mail I’ve read so far, was for alternative energy, with a particular emphasis on solar. Nearly every letter on alternative energy drew a substantive reply from him or his aides. (He even exchanged letters with people he chatted up about solar energy at a Doobie Brothers concert.)

Brown also was thinking about politics; he put considerable energy into his dealing with national journalists and experts. After the publication of a novel, The Main Chance, by Jules Witcover of The Washington Star in 1979, Brown wrote him to say: “I admire you for expanding your horizons.” As the country’s economic difficulties deepened in the late ’70s, he cast a wide net, writing to economists around the world to seek their best wisdom. One typical and technical exchange with a British economist focuses on “the problems posed for the U.K. by the unitary tax issue.”

Thousands of people, from donors to regular citizens, urged him to run for president, as he did in 1976 and in 1980, though there were a few pleas that he wait.

“Since 1840,” wrote one Southern Californian, “seven presidents have died in office. Each was elected 20 years after his predecessor. This is not just coincidence, but reality. It is Tecumseh’s Curse, and if the pattern continues the winner of the next Presidential election will die in office. I pray that you do not run in 1980, nor Senator Kennedy for that matter. You both represent our future.”

Brown more than lives up to his reputation for eschewing material goods in the correspondence. He rigidly enforced a policy of not accepting gifts, returning everything from a treasured rosary from an elderly lady to a duffel bag from music impresario Irving Azoff to a gift certificate for See’s Candies from an elementary school class—all with explanatory notes. Some of those who sent him gifts wrote back saying they were offended that Brown wouldn’t accept what they sent.

But Brown didn’t budge, except in one case.

A package from the Dalai Lama, including a book and other items, was acknowledged and accepted with a simple thank you note.

Joe Mathews is a journalist, an Irvine senior fellow at the New America Foundation, and a contributing writer at the Los Angeles Times. He previously served as Justice Department reporter for The Wall Street Journal and as a city desk reporter at the Baltimore Sun. He is the author of The People's Machine: Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Rise of Blockbuster Democracy.