The Legacy of Gov. Culbert Levy Olson, Pioneer of California Progressivism (Audio & Transcript)
In this week’s episode of “Scheer Intelligence,” host and Truthdig Editor in Chief Robert Scheer meets with Debra Deanne Olson, granddaughter of former California Gov. Culbert Levy Olson. The two discuss his surprisingly progressive political career and personal life, such as his rejection of religion, in a time of widespread conservative values (Culbert served from 1939 to 1943).
“There’s no political people at his level that have openly said they were an atheist,” she tells Scheer. “In every area, he was such a futurist.”
They go on to discuss his open criticism of racism and sexism and advocacy for progressive labor issues, as well as his relationship with Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Debra further delves into her grandfather’s life in a new book she co-authored with Craig West Wilkinson, “The Honorable Culbert Levy Olson: California Governor 1939-1943, Humanitarian, Ex-Mormon, and Atheist.” Listen to the full interview in the player above and read the full transcript below, and find past episodes of “Scheer Intelligence” here.
–Posted by Emma Niles
Robert Scheer: Hi, this is Robert Scheer with another edition of Scheer Intelligence, our weekly chat with people who come out of what I call the crazy-quilt of American culture. And in that crazy-quilt of American culture, we produce really unique individuals. And I want to bring back to life one of those individuals who was a one-term governor of California, elected in the election of 1938, and served until through 1942. And his name was Culbert Levy Olson, and the book about him, which is the occasion for our talking here, is called The Honorable Culbert Levy Olson. Governor of California, they say, 1939 to ‘43. It’s written by Dr. Craig West Wilkinson, and Ms. Debra Deanne Olson, and Debra is here in the studio at USC. The interesting thing about Culbert Levy Olson is on the surface, he would seem to be an incredibly boring person by origin. He was raised in Utah, he was a Utah state senator, made his way to California. But actually, he comes down to us, when you really read about him and think about him, as one of the more provocative and interesting individuals in a very interesting and provocative state. I think I first really got an appreciation of former governor Olson from Jerry Brown during his first term, and Jerry Brown is a big California buff of history. And what was interesting is we had here in California something called the EPIC movement. And Upton Sinclair, a very famous author and so forth, and progressive, was the leader of that movement, and it was part of a general progressive movement throughout the country. He lost, Upton Sinclair lost his race for governor, but Debra’s grandfather Culbert Olson worked in that campaign. And you think about this guy, he wasn’t some radical out of the east side of New York or something; he was a guy raised as a Mormon in Utah, and was a state senator in Utah, but had all sorts of different ideas. He challenged his teachers about the existence of God, and the Mormon religion, and he sort of was a rather typical American rebel against the established order that he was grown into. And then, as with many of those people, he headed even further west to California and ended up being a successful member of the community. And as I say, got associated with the EPIC party, and was actually the first democrat to make it to the governor’s mansion in the 20th Century. And is really the precursor for a whole progressive movement that takes over California for the last 70 years, 65, 70 years. And so we have Culbert Levy Olson, someone our listeners have probably never heard of, to thank for that. So Debra Olson, granddaughter, thanks for reviving the memory of your grandfather. Did you ever actually know him?
Debra Deanne Olson: Yes, I did. He lived until I was 13, and I remember going to his home on Mariposa Avenue, which coincidentally is like eight minutes from where I live now. And he kept that home for 29 years, even though he went back and forth to Sacramento. And I remember sitting on his lap, and he’d chew tobacco and spit it into a gold spittoon. And I have memories of him and my father having great philosophical and political debates. And his sister, we used to call her Bobo, Bertha Olson, was this extravagant, interesting woman that was married to George Hanson, who was a diplomat in the United States. But I just, my memories of that age, she would smoke Tiparillos and have big furs on, and my mother’d be playing Clair de Lune on the piano. And you know, we would hang out there every Sunday, basically, my sister and I. It was fun.
RS: And your grandfather was really a dapper fellow. He had this flowing, white hair, very handsome–
DO: Yeah, like you, Robert. [Laughs]
RS: Oh, OK [Laughs], thank you, that’s very kind. But I don’t have his sort of, what’s the right word, not really mid-American quality. But this, I mean, as I say, this was the Mormon who then, when he’s elected governor–and he was very clear about his secular humanist views, his atheism. And actually, when he was sworn in as governor, he refused to put his hand on the Bible.
DO: I know.
RS: And he had–I mean, think about this. This is not some–very few people have dared to say they’re an atheist out loud and still get to be governor of a–
DO: Actually, actually there’s no political people at his level that have openly said they were an atheist.
RS: Yeah. And he was a very active atheist, he was very active in the secular society and so forth. And then, almost as a joke, he then did it a second time with his hand on the Bible, but with his other hand he crossed his fingers. And he had a great sense of humor; he made the cover of Life magazine with a big cigar in his mouth. He was a character, really. And yet, he won in this state. And he, we should remember, really started the progressive tradition in many ways. You could summarize it better than I can, but let me just throw out some high points. He, you know, we were a state that was deeply racist in many ways; we’d had the, you know, exclusion of Chinese after exploiting them; we’d had the genocide against Native Americans. And people think it’s only the Deep South, but you couldn’t have interracial marriage in California until after your grandfather was governor. And he was the first person to appoint a Mexican-American and a Black lawyer to the high level in the state court system, as well as a woman.
DO: Yes, Annette Adams.
RS: And one of the people who went on to be a major progressive [judge], Stanley Mosk in California, actually worked for your grandfather. So one could genuinely say that the progressive tradition really was launched in California, that’s now given us Jerry Brown and others, but, and even the man who defeated your father after the oil companies attacked him–he didn’t want to have drilling in Santa Barbara. And he favored all sorts of things that seem incredibly enlightened by today’s standard; he was an environmentalist, he believed in a living wage, he believed in supplementing Social Security–I mean, there’s a whole list of ideas that he tried to get through a basically republican legislature. And he was chewed up by the lobbyists, by the opposition, but he fought the good fight. And so–
DO: Yes, one of my favorite quotes of his is, “Yes, I’m an atheist, but if you want to know where hell is, try and be the governor of California.”
RS: Yeah. And the people who made his life hell were Standard Oil and others, the same people who now are fighting to keep destroying the global climate and what have you. And it’s interesting, and he didn’t give quarter on anything. What is the main lesson to be, that you’ve discovered from this book, this rediscovery of your grandfather?
DO: Well, I’ll tell you, so the way this happened is I was talking to Christine Klein [sp?], who’s the senior analyst up at the Sacramento State Library. And she said, do you have any archives or photographs on your grandfather? We know less about your grandfather than any other governor in history. I said, I have boxes of things in my garage. So when I started opening it up and looking at the photographs and the personal letters and his speeches, and his inaugural address which he hand wrote, and you know, did himself–which is long, but it’s one of the most brilliant inaugural speeches I’ve ever read–I thought, oh my God! I’m so proud of him. And I didn’t even know these things. So I FedExed the whole collection up to her, and she, and they digitized it and put it on the governor website, which was amazing. And then she said, would you like to come up and do a PowerPoint presentation in Sacramento? And I said, sure! Of course, I had no idea how to do it, but that made me spend six months sweating bullets and really learn this stuff. And so I went up there, the Sacramento Bee covered it, it was on television on Channel 3 News. And I became very proud of him, because in every area he was such a futurist. I mean, at the expo, the international expo up in San Francisco–and FDR didn’t come, but Eleanor Roosevelt did, and Al Smith was here with his wife, I’m not sure why–it’s very interesting historically. But the first time we really opened the floodgates for international relations. And he was standing there in this gorgeous top hat and tuxedo, and he gave a very impassioned speech called “Race Relations Day.” And he basically said, anyone who is a racist of any kind, and judges anyone on their creed, their color, everything, is worse than a murderer or a tax evader. I mean, could you imagine saying all that back then? It was way ahead of the times.
RS: He had been a state senator in Utah, then he came to California. And he obviously came to California ‘cause he thought it was more enlightened and progressive and open than Utah, and a lot of adventurous people came. And I personally am a great California chauvinist; I think it’s the only place–well, I shouldn’t say that. It’s certainly, you know, people have dismissed California as, you know, granola with nuts and fruits and everything–I think it’s been the great place to think new thoughts and be bold. The book is called The Honorable Culbert Levy Olson. It’s a book worth reading if you want to be inspired about the possibility of progressive politics in this country, and if you want to really have an understanding of why California has been open to this. Because even when he got defeated by the oil companies, the guy who replaces him, Earl Warren, the republican, turns out to be a pretty good republican, ultimately. When he–
DO: Well, I don’t know, there’s–
RS: –when he gets to the Supreme Court, he certainly–
DO: –there are some interesting stories about him.
RS: Right, but by national standards nowadays, a pretty enlightened republican. But the interesting–we’ve had our share of very conservative, and so forth. But people forget, this guy, this Mormon, or ex-Mormon from Utah, comes out here and he makes an alliance with labor, with minorities. He’s the first one that I know of who understood the power and certainly the potential, enormous power of the Latino community.
DO: Yes, he actually, he brought them in and created the first Mexican bloc. And he invited a top Latino leader to his inauguration, which was unheard of. I mean, when I see Dolores Huerta, she goes, “Oh my God, Olson’s in the house!” She said, when she speaks at universities and everything, she talks about his contribution to opening that up.
RS: Yeah, and he understood the great diversity of California. And we might as well bring up the one negative spot in his tenure as governor. And it’s not his. And it involves someone that I actually have admired ever since I was a kid in the Bronx, and he was my president: FDR. FDR was a great man, a great man; my family, I grew up in the Depression myself, and FDR saved our lives in many ways with his New Deal, which your grandfather tried to implement in California. That was his great achievement, he was a great champion of people who had suffered in the Depression, and ordinary working people, and so forth. But one of the big stains on FDR’s legacy was that he participated in the rounding up and imprisonment of, you know, the basic Japanese-American population, including students at our schools and hard-working farmers and so forth. And your grandfather initially opposed that.
DO: He opposed it big-time. And when I got into my research, I actually connected with the Hyde Museum in New York, and they sent me 180 telegrams and correspondence between the two of them; they were actually friends, and that was fabulous to see.
RS: Between the two, FDR and your–yeah.
DO: FDR and my grandfather. And he wrote him a letter and said, you know, these are good American kids, and also seniors and farmers; we should let them be. But you know, then FDR did what he did, and he did that federal mandate, and then General DeWitt said, you have to do this, so.
RS: And it’s an interesting parallel with the, what Donald Trump, President Trump is doing about Muslims. Taking a whole population, which has actually a long history in the country of loyalty and being good citizens, hard-working, paying their taxes. The reason it bothered me in reading your book, and not because it’s a–you know, it was a national policy. Something very similar to pressure on California right now with immigration policy–
DO: Oh God, it’s awful.
RS: –and your grandfather resisted. But at the end of the day, the Japanese-American community was imprisoned in concentration camps, and we shouldn’t forget that, any more than the earlier history that the Native American population was subject to genocide; that’s before your grandfather’s time. But when I read that in your book, and I was reminded of the internment of the Japanese–and we’ve had recent anniversaries and programs around it–the reason I feel personally about it is because half of my family was Jewish, and we had a very clear position on the war. But half of my family were German-Americans. And I for the life of me, even when I first started hearing about this as a young person, and then going through high school and college and learning about the internment camps, I could not for a second accept any of the rationalizations. Because clearly, there was more support for Hitler among the German-American population, by no means anything more than a small minority–I’m not disputing that–but closer ties, they were more recent immigrants. And the Japanese-Americans really were quite separate from Japan as compared to the German population.
DO: That’s true, but again, sitting in my grandfather’s living room with my father, I heard stories. As we know, so few people even know that the submarines came on the coast in Santa Barbara, and they actually hit a few things. And then my dad said everybody was terrified, because everyone along the coast in California up through Oregon had to turn off their lights at night. Everybody was scared to death.
RS: [omission for station break] The reason I wanted to do this interview and discussion is we need progressive figures that have come out of America, you know. And that it’s not a foreign import, it’s not something alien–
DO: No, and we have to rebrand it. We’re calling it progressive humanism, and we have to, we have to remember it; you know, again, we have a whole chapter about him and Bernie Sanders’s similarities. You know, the centrist democrats are–you know, anyway, let’s not go down that road. [Laughs]
RS: No, we can go that way, because being progressive is as American as apple pie, and we should remember that, you know. They didn’t all have land and slaves and everything; you had Tom Paine, who was quite the opposite, and came to this country to make revolution and be free and so forth.
DO: Yes. And a lot of the forefathers were deists; they weren’t Christian. A lot of people don’t even know that.
RS: OK. So here we have, in the great figure of former California Governor, later California Governor Culbert Levy Olson, someone who on his own, without any foreign subversion or anybody tricking him, breaks with the Mormon church, right? I gather his parents, as immigrants, were swept up into the Mormon church; his father was a violinist–
DO: His father was a violinist and a cabinet-maker in Denmark. And he was walking down the street in Copenhagen, and he saw people talking in a group. And the Mormons, like they’re doing now in Syria, but they went over there and they said, come to America and we’ll give you all this land; you just have to be baptized. And he went home to his parents, and they said, hell no, you’re not going! And then he snuck out at night and he was on the ship, and his parents came to the dock, and then cried and he cried. He went back and saw them later. But he came to America on the Jessie Munn ship, they ended up in New Orleans, then he played the violin to make a living. Then when he got to Utah, he was playing the violin for the Mormon leader, and in walks my grandmother, my great-grandmother Delilah King Olson. She was from the Kings of the Kingdom–there’s a book written, The Kings of the Kingdom. She was from the King family, and all these guys were walking around her and wanted to date her and get her attention, and here was this little scrawny guy playing his violin. And her parents didn’t want her to marry him. But she fell in love with him, and she married him, and they had nine kids. He wasn’t really religious, grandpa’s dad, but Delilah was part of the Catholic Church. Although she became one of the first suffragettes in Utah, and the first woman to be appointed a political position in Fillmore.
RS: And she was formidable in many ways. And yet she was, to be fair to the Mormon culture, she was a product of the established–right? Going back to Joseph Smith, I guess.
DO: Yes. But I just have to tell you, my partner in this book, who I love a lot–we’ve become really good friends, ‘cause we wrote this book together–
RS: That’s Dr. Craig West Wilkinson.
DO: Yes. He’s a doctor and scientist, and a recovering Mormon. And he started studying my grandfather. And when we started getting into this book, in this book, it’s 450 pages of a lot of different dimensions, OK? It’s all about California history; it’s about telling the truth about the Mormon religion, which they’ve got some dark days in there, because this whole thing about the golden plates and everything, it’s just, it’s as much of a fantasy as Jesus sitting up in the sky. But there’s going to be controversy around it. You know, you might want to interview him sometime, he’s very intelligent.
RS: What do you mean, it’s a fantasy? I thought it was revealed truth that Jesus is–OK.
RS: Ah, we’ve got to be open and tolerant of different points of view.
RS: But getting back to the Mormon Church, again, I like cutting through our stereotypes of people. And so here is your grandfather, who is only there because his father has been baptized by Mormon missionaries and came to the United States, meets one of the–
RS: –princesses, royalty of the Mormon Church. Produces this man, Culbert Levy Olson. And Culbert Levy Olson as a young student starts to challenge the teachings of the church and affirms doubt, right? Affirms doubt–
DO: Well, he goes back–actually, he starts doing, he did the first telegraph. And then he was back, what’s now George Washington University, but he went back there and went to law school. And he met Robert Ingersoll, who was the famous atheist philosopher. And he fell in love with the whole atheist philosophy.
RS: Lot of people came to this country for free thinking, and everybody forgets the great secular movements challenging the dominant churches. But then he goes back to Utah, and he runs for office and wins, right? He’s a state senator, right?
RS: He clearly has the backing of part of the Mormon Church, right, or you don’t get elected, I don’t think.
DO: Right. But then after that, he realized he couldn’t really advance there.
RS: Yeah. So then he goes to California, but he still, he gets elected in California, right? Despite these wild views of his about secular life and challenging–which I just want to remind people was part of the temper of the times in this country. We have this very square view of American history. American history was made up of interesting characters, and I don’t mean “characters” to denigrate them. But even here in California, in Orange County, the most conservative county, you had the Flower Eaters of Placentia. You had the people who came from the Oneida community of upstate New York, the first elected official in conservative Orange County, which now is far less conservative, I think voted democratic this last time for the first time. But in Orange County, Santa Ana was laid out by Judge Towner, who again was a humanist and a radical. But then there were people who were Bible communists, and they believed in sharing the wealth because that’s what Scripture says. And we had all of these, you know, ranging to Aimee McPherson and so forth. We’ve had all of these great characters in this state, and your grandfather probably was the most interesting person of that kind to actually get elected to the highest office.
DO: Right. And they used to call him the people’s governor. In the book, we have 80 photographs, and one of them is all these guys marching down the street in Fresno with all these big signs that say “The People’s Governor.”
RS: Oh, and people loved him; movie stars loved him. He opened that exhibit you talked about. What, there were hundreds of thousands of people at this thing. He opened the gates and people came pouring through.
DO: Yes. I know, it was very dramatic. And then he did, with the Red Cross he did a fundraiser with Babe Ruth and Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, which is fun.
RS: Right, and Will Rogers loved him. And I mean, this guy was not some outsider. He was incredibly popular, and one thing that made him popular, coming out of the Depression, the Great Depression, he said Social Security, which is a great achievement, does not give enough money. It was a foreshadowing of the living wage idea. And he said you know, you got to have 30 extra bucks, and I forget the slogan, so you don’t only have oatmeal, you have ham and eggs, right?
DO: Right, ham and eggs.
RS: Ham and eggs.
DO: Ham and eggs. Feed everybody, every day–yeah, it was great.
RS: Yeah. But not just get gruel, you know. Not just–no! You’re going to get ham and eggs, and I’m going to be the difference between your getting it. And I just, I don’t think we’ve had a politician in that respect, that exciting. I mean, you know, I think Jerry Brown’s a good fellow, and I like him. But you know, if he were to do that–which he should do, right now. He should say, you can’t work in a restaurant in the minimum wage and have a decent life. I think the government should supplement your income to the degree that you can have a decent meal and you can have a decent life. And you know, we are getting that, trying to make community colleges free now and so forth. But you know, in some ways, the more we’ve changed the worse we’ve become. I mean, here was your grandfather, worried about the–we now talk about drilling everywhere–he’s the one that stopped the drilling in Santa Barbara for oil, right? That came back with Ronald Reagan and all that–
DO: All the oil wells up and down the coast, Huntington Beach–I mean, there were so many oil wells everywhere, it was crazy.
RS: And he fought that, and he fought the oil companies. So on every ground, on living wage, on racial diversity, on gender equality–
DO: Oh, speaking of separation of church and state, which is an interesting one, in the book I have a picture of my sister Diane Olson, his other granddaughter, and Robin Tyler; they were the first women to get married in the state of California. And there’s a picture of them on the steps of the Beverly Hills courthouse, you know, with their hands in the air, with Gloria Allred behind them, and Rosenthal. And you know, they opened–they won, they opened the gates for gay marriage in California.
RS: This is the great, the granddaughter of–
DO: Yeah, my sister.
RS: The Honorable Culbert Levy Olson. And we should remember, the state had its conservative institutions; I went to work for the LA Times for 29 years in one capacity or another, and the LA Times would chew a guy like this up alive, you know. And–right?
DO: Well, William Hearst did chew him up quite a bit. [Laughs]
RS: Yeah. What is the takeaway? The importance of this book is to remind us, as I said before, that we’re not just a nation of greedy robber barons, and pirates, and people rip off the people. We’ve had a really great, not just in California obviously, but–not primarily, but California’s certainly been a great place for that kind of progressive thinking. You had it, obviously, in Wisconsin, in Minnesota, you had it in New York; you had it a lot of places, even in Atlanta, obviously. But you know, why do you want people to read this book?
DO: Well, again, in my own process of understanding and respecting him, I am not an atheist; I am very spiritual, and I love honoring all the sacred religions on the planet. And I think it’s good for kids; I mean, there’s a million reasons, but I did an interview with Freedom From Religion a couple weeks ago, and you know, they got Ron Reagan to do this commercial–I don’t know if you’ve seen it on CNN or MSNBC, they paid him quite a bit of money. But he says “I am an atheist and I’m proud.” The atheist word somehow has a negative bent to it. Here was a man that was an atheist, he was a secularist, he became the president of United Secularists and wrote an unbelievable speech for them. And yet he was a good man and he cared about the people, and he wasn’t greedy and he didn’t sell out. We have a big problem today–
RS: Not “and yet.” Maybe because of that! After all, he’s not promising pie in the sky. He said: I gotta do it here. I have to make heaven here, I have to work for heaven here. That was his message.
DO: And you know, when I had lunch with Supreme Court Justice Stanley Mosk, he said to me–and he’s also quoted in an oral dissertation–he said: I honestly think your grandfather was the most honest man I ever met. A lot of people lie about all these philosophies ‘cause they want the Christian vote, or this vote or that vote, you know what I’m saying? So if we can evolve humankind where we can all have mutual respect, and do good work and help each other, I think that’s where we have to go.
RS: One of the things I loved about your book, and maybe this is a point on which to end, I do want to recommend that people get this–
DO: On Amazon or Barnes and Noble, yeah.
RS: The Honorable Culbert Levy Olson, governor of California, 1939 to ‘43. Humanitarian, ex-Mormon, atheist. And I interrupted you before, and I said maybe not despite being a secularist or an atheist he was a good man–maybe that contributes to being a good person. After all, that was the argument of secular humanists. And they’ve had a big influence, as you point out, going back to the Founders in terms of the deists and others. Which is, you know, that for many people religion has been a cop-out: Oh, I’ll get right with my minister or with God and then I’ll be rewarded in heaven even though I’ve ripped off people or done a lot of things, you know. And we even had–you know, I don’t want to smash the Catholic Church here, but who are these priests who can molest children? And you have these big Protestant churches or these megachurches, you know, get rich, get rich. And you know, we’ve had no lack of swindlers and hustlers and mean-spirited people claim to be pious.
DO: Well, I have to say, that’s the danger of organized religion. And now, as you can see with what’s happening with the powers that be, with the Republican Party and with our president, who you know–I’m not even going to go there. But it’s dangerous, and that’s why, like Norman Lear and People for the American Way, I love people like this ‘cause we’re fighting those things that are not based on integrity and ethics and love.
RS: Right. And the great thing about your grandfather, I think–I keep stressing this, ‘cause again, this show is about the crazy-quilt of American culture. And this guy is a product of American culture in the best sense of it. And that’s why people loved him; that’s why he got elected despite incredible opposition and so forth, is that he convinced people coming out of this terrible Depression, of the Great Depression, that he cared about him, you know? And you know, that he was going to work for them. And it’s a word we don’t use very often: class. Class–this guy cared. And this was FDR, Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s really great contribution. He said: I come from an upper-class background, but my main job as president, because of this Depression, is to worry about the economically most vulnerable among us. That was his contribution. And that’s what your grandfather did. He took us from the Depression through the first years of the war, reminding us that ordinary folks of different colors, different gender, different backgrounds–that they mattered. And that his job as governor was first of all to help make them whole after the ravages of their life experience. I think that book, your book captures it.
DO: One other thing he did when he started with the expo up in San Francisco, he helped open the floodgates with the United Nations. Now, President Truman had just come into office, and that was a big event. It lasted, there were thousands of people there. And I found this letter from my maternal grandfather, William Shiels. And he and my–
RS: This was after he was governor.
DO: Yes. 1945. And he wrote this four-page letter to one of his sons, this was my mom’s dad. And he took my grandmother–we called her Mimi, which is what my grandkids call me, it’s very sweet–and they went up to San Francisco, and he wrote about how much fun he had with Governor Olson being up there. Because they’d have a drink at night, and he said: And when we went, we got to spend a long time with President Truman alone in a room. And he said, everybody wanted to shake Governor Olson’s hand even though he wasn’t governor anymore; they were more interested in him than President Truman. So when you hear these little stories that are real, he was a popular man. And then at the end of my book, I put in a chapter about the Earth Charter. Because we are a global society now, and the Earth Charter, which was created after the Rio Summit, was voted on by thousands of people all over the world. But it’s 16 principles that have to do with honoring each other, indigenous people, indigenous cultures–everything you’re talking about. But we have to look at this like a Magna Carta for the future.
RS: And that is how you pay homage to the Honorable Culbert Levy Olson.
RS: Read about him, and thanks for coming in
DO: It was fun.
RS: This has been another edition of Scheer Intelligence. Our producers are Joshua Scheer and Rebecca Mooney. Mario Diaz and Kat Yore are the engineers at KCRW. And once again, we have this great assist from Sebastian Grubaugh here at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, which makes the facilities available to us. So thanks and see you next week.