Jacobs brings back Phil Burton, legislative genius

November 23, 1997
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@ dcn.davis.ca.us

John Jacobs' 1995 book, "A Rage for Justice: The Passion and Politics of Philip Burton," has recently been released in paperback and if you missed it the first time around, this is the time to meet a fascinating politician written by a man who knows politics.

Jacobs, political editor of McClatchy Newspapers, is a columnist for the Sacramento Bee whose work appears three times a week. He and his family moved up to Davis in 1993 when he decided to leave San Francisco and take a job in the state capital.

Jacobs grew up in San Francisco and went to college at Cal, graduating in 1972 with a degree in American studies. He studied American history at State University of New York at Stony Brook for a year before coming home to San Francisco.

"I worked in a law firm for a couple of years and then got accepted at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and went there for two years," he said.

He then took advantage of a summer internship at the Washington Post that turned into nearly a yearlong job working as a reporter.

"It was very heady and very exciting, just a few years after Watergate," he said. "I was treated just like any other member of the national (reporting) staff and I spent most of that summer of 1977 covering exposes of the CIA."

Jacobs wrote about the CIA mind-control experiments of the 1940s and '50s wherein the agency gave unwitting subjects doses of LSD and searched for perfect knock-out drop.

He was able to use what had become an impressive clip portfolio of his bylined stories to get a job at the S.F. Examiner.

"This was really fun to come back and cover my hometown," he said. "Eight or nine months after I got there Jonestown happened." The Rev. Jim Jones, whose church had been based in San Francisco, led 900 of his followers first to the creation of a new community in Guyana, in the South American rain forest, and then to death by poison in a mass murder-suicide pact.

"I went down there and covered the event for three or four weeks for the Examiner," he said.

It took Jacobs and reporter Tim Reiterman four years to write a book about Jonestown and the People's Temple called "Raven: The Untold Story of the Rev. Jim Jones and his People" (1982, Dutton). It is now out of print but is available through the library.

Jacobs' second book, "A Rage for Justice" (1995, University of California Press), has just been released in paperback and it is a superb political biography.

>From conception to publication, it took seven years to complete "A Rage for Justice." That wasn't full-time work, but it took a toll. Four-hundred interviews, archival research, lots of reading.

Philip Burton was a tremendously important, very influential congressman from San Francisco, Jacobs says, but few people today remember who he was. Burton served in the state Assembly from 1956 to 1964 and then in Congress from '64 to his death in 1983 at age 56.

Burton was simply "one of the most important legislators in the entire postwar era of American politics," says his biographer. He was on the left, which made him very unusual. He was important in such areas as welfare reform, black lung compensation for coal miners, reapportionment and wildlife and parks conservation.

"And very few people today remember his name," said Jacobs. "He did not cultivate the press and did not seek publicity. He did not want to alert his adversaries to his successes. He didn't need to because he had a safe district in San Francisco, he drew it himself."

Jacobs said he was drawn to the Burton story because he recognized the legislator as a political genius. "He passed enormously complicated pieces of legislation and I thought if I could explain how I could say something about American politics," said Jacobs. Willie Brown got his start at the feet of Phil Burton. Other Burton proteges included Bill Lockyear, George Miller and Henry Waxman. The right-wing version of Burton, Jacobs suggests, is Newt Gingrich.

Jacobs worked at the Examiner for almost 15 years covering national, state and local politics and moved to Davis when he was offered the job at the Bee.

"If you're interested in state politics, Sacramento is the place to be," he says.

And next year the state of California will elect a new governor. Dan Lungren will likely be the Republican nominee. Who will the Democrats run against him?

"Dianne Feinstein is the 800-pound gorilla here," said Jacobs. "She has not decided whether she will run and everyone's just waiting for her. She is one of the most popular politicians in California."

But as he looks ahead, the next presidential race doesn't look too exciting. If the pundits are right, it will be Al Gore vs. Gov. George W. Bush of Texas three years from now. Yawn.

"We're not living in very interesting political times," concedes Jacobs. We need another Phil Burton.

[Author Menu] [Date Menu] [Genre Menu] [Printed Matter Home]
The Davis Virtual Market