George Brown sure looked like a pol — and not one of those new-age, blown-dry, news-anchor types. The Brown Look was classic old-style congressional baron — wreathed in cigar smoke, clothes rumpled, as if he’d just spent the night sipping bourbon and cutting deals with Sam Rayburn and Tip O’Neill.
But it was an act. Not that Brown, the longtime San Bernardino congressman who died last Thursday, couldn’t slap backs with the best of them, or work a deal at 2 a.m. with some troglodyte Southern souse. When George Brown — working alongside his great friend Phil Burton, leader of the congressional liberals in the ’60s and ’70s — agreed to support the cotton subsidies the souse was seeking, however, what he got in return wasn’t pork. It was the souse’s vote for civil rights legislation, or stricter environmental standards, or more federal funds for college scholarships.
The Brown Look was genuine — he truly enjoyed his cigars, and his resemblance to an unmade bed seemed beyond his power to alter — but it was also a cover. Beneath the mask of the ward heeler, George Brown was everything the normal American pol is not supposed to be: A pacifist. A social democrat. A fierce idealist. A maverick.
The defining moment in Brown’s congressional career came early on, in the spring of 1965, when he’d been a member for just over two years. This was still Congress before the reforms of the ’70s, where the leadership and the committee chairmen controlled everything, where a new member was perpetually adjured to go along in order to get along. That April, the first supplemental appropriation bill for the Vietnam War came up for a vote. Three hundred and sixty five members voted for it. One — second-termer George Brown — voted against.
The vote made Brown a marked man. Surely, the Republicans said, no one so far left of the American people, of his own constituents (Brown never represented anything better than a marginal district), could win re-election. Year after year, election after election, the GOP announced that Brown topped their national list of congressional Democratic targets. Year after year, Brown went on casting liberal votes that the Republicans predicted would end his career. (In 1996, he voted against welfare reform — something no political consultant in America would have recommended.) And year after year, Brown, against all prophecy, squeaked by. (In the mid-’80s, I worked as a campaign consultant on two of Brown’s biennial squeakers.) When he died last week, the GOP’s perennial target was the dean of the California delegation — and the oldest member of the House.
George Brown was the last political survivor — the last guy still in office, certainly — of that generation of post–World War II progressives who defined modern California liberalism. Brown’s own leftism had prewar roots: As president of the Student Housing Association at UCLA in the late ’30s, Brown roomed with a black student — by this single act, desegregating student housing in Westwood. He was then a member, he once told me, of the Young People’s Socialist League. He spent much of the war in a conscientious-objector camp, though he eventually served in the Army.
When the war ended, Brown returned to L.A., where he founded a municipal union — the Engineers and Architects Association — and took a leading role in the cooperative-housing movement. With Alan Cranston, he helped build the California Democratic Council (CDC) in the ’50s — the first major group within the national Democratic Party to support the newly militant civil rights movement. Elected to the state Assembly in the Democratic landslide of 1958, Brown authored the legislation legalizing public-sector unions in California, and voted for the state’s groundbreaking anti-discrimination laws in employment and housing. He also introduced the first bill in the nation to ban lead from gasoline.
With the reapportionment that followed the 1960 census, Los Angeles acquired a number of new congressional seats — and a new political face. In the election of 1962, L.A. gained its first African-American member, Augustus Hawkins; its first Latino member, Edward Roybal; and, in the Monterey Park district east of Roybal’s, its first CDC member — George Brown. Led by San Francisco’s Burton, who’d been elected one year earlier, the new liberals arrived in Washington with an almost laughably progressive agenda. They wanted national laws to match the anti-discrimination laws they’d enacted in Sacramento. They wanted to protect workers from on-the-job hazards; they wanted to set aside vast tracts of land for new federal parks; they wanted universal health coverage and federally guaranteed full employment.
Obviously, they didn’t get all that they wanted. But in history’s hindsight, it’s clear they got a lot. Freshman Brown landed on the Education and Labor Committee, where he supported such landmark Great Society measures as Medicare, federal college scholarships and loans (which hitherto had gone only to veterans), and civil rights laws. He led the fight to establish the Environmental Protection Agency.
In order to democratize America, though, it was necessary to democratize Congress. Since the chief obstacles to progressive legislation were often the Southern Democratic committee chairmen, Brown joined with Burton, Mo Udall, Richard Bolling and other Hill liberals in a dozen-year effort to dethrone the Southern autocracy. By the mid-’70s, they finally persuaded their colleagues to stop appointing committee chairs on the basis of seniority only. From then on, the chairs would be elected by the entire caucus. And with that, the congressional Democratic Party became, as it had never been before, a largely progressive force in American politics — if seldom as progressive as Brown and his cohorts would have liked.
Brown’s prematurely anti-war position made him a marked man on the left as well as the right. In 1970, Brown ran for the Senate seat held by Republican George Murphy, and his campaign became a magnet for both liberals and the anti-war left. Brown reached out to a new generation of activists — so much so that his East L.A. district office became a headquarters for the Chicano Moratorium, the massive anti-war and civil rights demonstration of 1970.
Brown lost the Senate primary to John Tunney — then ran for Tunney’s old House seat out in the San Bernardino–Riverside area in 1972. No less a Republican than President Richard Nixon, then campaigning for re-election, was determined to stop him. (Brown had worked on the 1946 campaign of liberal Democratic Congressman Jerry Voorhis, whom the young Nixon had unseated that year in a campaign still studied for its contribution to the arts of redbaiting, smearing and lying.) According to former longtime Brown aide Tim Lynch (now the deputy city controller of L.A.), Brown was the only Democratic congressional candidate Nixon troubled himself to attack personally in ’72. And yet, though his district was considered far more conservative than he, Brown prevailed.
As he prevailed every two years for the next 26 years — winning with 51 percent, with 50.5 percent, with 50.1 percent. For George, 54 percent was a landslide. Fifty-five percent was a laugher. No other member of Congress in modern political history won more close races than Brown. No other member of Congress cast more “unsafe” votes — and lived to tell the tale.
In the later years of his career, Brown became the leading congressional backer of funds for scientific research and space exploration. Trained as a physicist, eventually becoming the chair (and then, after the Democrats lost the House, the ranking minority member) of the Science Committee, Brown developed a grateful national following at Caltech, MIT, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the National Academy of Sciences.
This came in handy in the early ’80s, when Brown led the congressional opposition to Ronald Reagan’s scheme for a megabucks star-wars project that would have sent missile defenses up into space. Brown rallied his colleagues in the scientific community to convince his colleagues in Congress that the technology wasn’t up to the task. He may not have converted members of Congress to pacifism, but he at least made them understand the relevant physics.
Sometimes, a politician’s legacy is the prevention of something dreadful. It is not an overstatement to say that one of George Brown’s monuments is the nonmilitarization of space.
So, did the cigars do George in? Physically, they sure didn’t help. Politically — well, I saw those cigars in action at meetings, receptions, lunches. Somebody would come up to him and say something stunningly stupid; George would just puff and nod. An undecided voter would meet the Notorious Liberal Congressman, who would smile, wave his stogy — the very archetype of avuncularity.
A pacifist? A critic of capitalism? That crafty old guy with the cigar? G’wan.