Jesse Unruh – a name that doesn’t ring many bells these days, even in California, unless you’re a Political Science Major, go to USC and attend the Jesse Unruh Institute of Politics or spend any time in Sacramento and do any business at the Jesse Unruh State Office building, and then the name might ring a few bells.
But in California in the 1960s, Jesse Unruh was one of the most influential movers and shakers in State Politics and a major figure in the California Democratic Party. Serving as Speaker of The California State Assembly from 1961-1969, California State Treasurer from 1975 until his death in 1987. He was also California Campaign Manager for John F. Kennedy in the 1960 election as well as managing the California campaign for Robert F. Kennedy in 1968. He was Chairman of the California Delegation to the Democratic Convention in 1968.
And in the midst of all that, a lot of clashes with everyone from Governor Edmund G. Brown to Governor Ronald Reagan, and elected as the State’s treasurer in 1975, turning what was long-considered an insignificant position into a powerhouse of influence in the spending of billions of dollars of California’s Public investments and pension funds on a national scale.
In November of 1966, when this interview for Meet The Press took place, California Democrats were licking their wounds over the loss of the state to newcomer Ronald Reagan. And as is customary with an election post-mortem, asking the proverbial “what went wrong’ was the basis for this appearance.
Unruh did have a considerable number of setbacks – having made unsuccessful runs for California State Assembly in 1950 and 1952 – finally winning election in 1956. An unsuccessful run for Governor against incumbent Reagan in 1970 and an unsuccessful run for Mayor of Los Angeles in 1973.
Unruh was one of those larger-than-life, flamboyant figures almost synonymous with California State Politics in the 1950s and 60s. During his tenure, he was responsible for a number of important pieces of legislation in the area of Mental Health, Civil Rights, Education and Consumer rights.
Jesse Unruh died in August of 1987 after succumbing to Prostate Cancer, which he was diagnosed with in 1983.
As a reminder of California’s colorful political past, here is that Meet The Press episode with Jesse Unruh, as it was first broadcast on November 19, 1966.