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Big Daddy: Jesse Unruh and the Art of Power Politics Hardcover – November 13, 2007

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Editorial Reviews


“Filled with the kind of insights that only a seasoned observer of the ways of Sacramento could provide.”
(San Francisco Chronicle 2007-11-11)

“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 2008-12-01)

"Sheds light on California's less-than-sedate politics after World War II . . . a telling perspective on the present state of our political affairs."
(Peter Schrag Los Angeles Times Book Review 2007-11-18)

“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 2007-11-09)

"A veteran political reporter provides much detail and insight into both his [Unruh’s] alcohol-saturated, woman-chasing personal life and political career."
(Dan Walters Sacramento Bee 2007-11-20)

From the Inside Flap

"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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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 278 pages
  • Publisher: University of California Press; 1 edition (November 13, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0520219678
  • ISBN-13: 978-0520219670
  • Product Dimensions: 1.2 x 6.2 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (8 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #723,640 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By Robin Anne Smith on January 7, 2008
Format: Hardcover
At last! A political biography that's also a page-turner! Bill Boyarsky's "Big Daddy, Jesse Unruh and the Art of Power Politics" is a great political biography that has everything; sex, war and larger than life personalities. Follow Jess Unruh from his roots in Depression era Texas though the turbulent sixties and seventies to the prosperous 1980s. Unruh revolutionized civil rights legislation and was instrumental in making California the great & prosperous state it is today.

Bill Boyarsky has written an incredibly colorful book about the hard-drinking California politics of the 20th century, when politicians weren't expected to live like clergymen. Boyarsky brings this era to life with oral history from the principal players throughout Unruh's life. This book is great reading, and a fascinating inside look into the personalities that once ran California.

Fully referenced and indexed, with lots of photographs, this book will be a welcome addition to any library and should become required reading for any student of California history or political science.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By LEON L CZIKOWSKY on December 30, 2008
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This is a biography of Jesse Unruh, California's legendary House Speaker who for years influenced national politics while towering over California politics. In the words of the author, Unruh was "the most influential pragmatist who dominated American politics in the past World War II era." The author sees Unruh as a leader during a time when government operated more effectively, compared to today, and when strong political leaders were able to achieve significant goals. Unruh is credited, as a state legislator, for directing efforts that significantly reformed and improved school financing and giving shareholders rights in the companies in which they owned stock. Unruh was an important partner in public policy efforts that helped transform California through growth in highways, schools, and infrastructure that attracted millions to settle and make California our nation's most populated state. He guided enactment of policies that improved the mental retardation and mental illness systems (including ending the nation's largest program of sterilization of the mentally ill), modernized child welfare systems, and vastly advanced civil rights laws.

Unruh loved power, enjoyed playing power games, and was good at achieving power. The author admires Unruh in that while Unruh seemed obsessed with obtaining and using political power, Unruh did so because he truly wanted to help people. He was not a politician who sought influence for the sake of power. He did so with strategies to help others.

Unruh's political finagling was a main factor in the successful movement to make the California legislature into a full time job. He thought this was necessary to reduce the reliance on lobbyists and state administrators as the source of information and influence.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Peter Richardson on May 7, 2008
Format: Hardcover
A man of huge appetites--for power, food, drink, and women--Unruh shaped a political culture that was rough around the edges but got a lot of work done for the people of California. As an AP and LA Times reporter, Boyarsky covered Unruh in Sacramento and brings a valuable, first-person perspective to this story. He resisted the temptation to produce a tome; this nifty little book (265 pages) can be read in a few sittings. As a significant political figure in a fascinating era, Unruh could support a longer work, but I like Boyarsky's decision to keep it relatively brief and moving quickly.

Boyarsky's portrait jibes well with a growing list of books on California politicians of that period. These include John Jacobs's bio of Phil Burton, Lou Cannon on Ronald Reagan, James Richardson on Willie Brown, and Ethan Rarick on Pat Brown. "Big Daddy" is a solid contribution to an impressive collective portrait of mid-century California politics.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Grace Cameron on January 7, 2008
Format: Hardcover
I found the book extremely interesting as I either knew or knew of most of the people mentioned. I wish there had been more about the numerous bills Jess sponsored and/or was instrumental in their passage. Also more about his ability to get along well with the Republicans and with Ronald Reagan when he was governor of California....and perhaps less about his "womanizing".
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