The Education of Jesse Unruh

SINCE 1961 Jesse Unruh has been the speaker in the California Assembly. This year he lost that position when the Reagan's Republicans captured the Assembly and Unruh, a Democrat, had to be replaced. Now Unruh is running directly against Reagan for the Governorship of California.

Unruh is not an impressive person. He is large; he used to be even larger, when he weighed nearly 300 pounds and was called Big Daddy. He looks like a football player, but like a football player who can no longer run or block or tackle, a football player who after all these years can only serve the team by punting.

And the candidate for governor dresses like every other politician with an overdeveloped ambition: he has the dark conservative pinstriped suit with the blue shirt and the red striped tie.

Personally, he has none of the glowing appeal that helps create forceful political personalities; he does not exude the image of the dashing young prince come to lift the curtain of darkness and gloom. He talks with a lisp and his face is rough and lumpy.

But these qualities - which make Unruh look like any other politician running for any other office - are overbalanced by an important undercurrent in his intellectual life. It is an undercurrent which makes Unruh more than the sum total of his past and his appearance. It is the undercurrent of experience, the education of Jesse Unruh, which smoothes down the rough spots in Unruh's very tangible past.


Unruh told his own story well in an interview at the Kennedy Institute on Tuesday. He sat cross-legged and rather tired explaining Vietnam: explaining his education.

IT BEGAN, with John F. Kennedy, whom Unruh served as campaign manager in California in 1960. Unruh was "totally committed" to Kennedy: he admits it and is proud of it.

When Kennedy became President. Unruh trusted him almost without question. So in 1962 when Unruh had doubts about Kennedy's decision to resume nuclear testing, he did not try to question the President: he let it go, trusting Kennedy's judgment. This trust was mainly personal trust in Kennedy, but it joined well with Unruh's theoretical judgment. For Unruh "was a traditionalist in government"; he trusted Kennedy, and this personal acknowledged easily created a foundation for his "traditionalist" view that the President should be unquestionable.

This faith in the office of the Presidency survived into the initial years of the Johnson administration. As Vietnam became a bigger and bigger issue Unruh remembers, "I was never a hawk but I thought the President knew a little more than anyone else, so I trusted him." Essentially, the Kennedy mystique paved the way for an open trust of Johnson, an open trust for whatever man occupied the White House.

Unruh said, "I might have questioned a Republican sooner, but I so trusted the leadership of the party under Kennedy that it took me a long time to change my mind." Exactly when Unruh changed his mind about Vietnam is unclear, but on December 1. 1968. pressure was put on him to join the Johnson primary ticket. He steadfastly refused. He argued with Bobby Kennedy nine days later and positively urged him to run. By the convention in Chicago, Unruh's efforts to swing the California delegation to McCarthy and the dove plank were "predictable."

ALTHOUGH Unruh sees it as predictable that he could not support Humbhrey and those who would not change the course of the war, it is not as clear to an outsider. Many of the John Kennedy men were more devoted to the family name than the issue. This did not show up in the plank fight so much, but the Humphrey McCarthy nomination fight made the issue clear. McCarthy, though he represented the war issue clearly, was unacceptable for many Kennedy men because he would not return the Kennedy-government-in-exile.

What the convention decision does show is the education that Unruh had received from Vietnam. He, unlike a great many others, learned from the war that no institution could prevent a man from having poor judgment, or making a bad decision. He learned that nothing could be accepted without question, and he showed in opposing Humphrey that he could not accept someone who did not share that view.

Unruh says now. "I think the continuation of the war under these circumstances is immoral." But he added that this was not his position from the beginning. He, like so many others, had been firm and quick to follow the lead of the President. But he, like so few others, has learned much from his error.

It is not that Unruh has now been quick to admit the "tragic mistake of the United States." This act in itself would not be an education; it would be more like jumping on the bandwagon of political victory.

Instead, Unruh by his narrative and personal dialogue in the interview seemed to be admitting his own errors, not those of the nation. His explanation was not a political polemic: it was a politician's admission that he had suffered under illusions which had led him to a faulty decision. If education is in a kind of self analysis, then Unruh was indeed explaining his education over the last several years.

THIS education is what makes him more than just another Kennedy-associated political personality. For Unruh, by realizing and admitting his education, places himself apart from the self-assured arrogance of so many others of the Kennedy breed.

This education is also what Unruh carries into the California fight for the Governorship. It shows itself in some superficially distinctive ways: he "doesn't believe in the polls"; instead he disdains the defeatist pessimism of men like Tom Wicker and positively believes in his ability to challenge the incumbent.

But, it is more important in providing an undercurrent for Unruh's polities. If Unruh can upset the predictions and win the nomination and the election one feels that he will be different from the men who now run the country. He will be more willing to listen to dissent and he will have less respect for the sanctity of our institutions. This is the result of Unruh's education.