Brown: Proverbial Weather Vane

SEPT. 10, 2010

Brownian movement in physics: The constant zigzag movement of particles in a gas or liquid, the position of none of which can be predicted ahead of time.

Jerry Brown, the Democratic candidate running for governor (again), is trying to reinvent himself (again). But the past is a funny thing, and impossible to totally shake off. Brown was governor of California from 1975 – 1983, ran for president, ran for Senate, was the mayor of Oakland 1999 – 2007, and currently is the attorney general of California. There’s quite a bit of history in Brown’s career.

Some of Brown’s most interesting years were when he was governor. Only 37 years old when he was elected, Brown was referred to as the “boy governor.”

A friend recently reminded me of the 1978 tell-all book, Jerry Brown, The Man On The White Horse, about political life with Jerry Brown during the campaign and when he was governor, written by J.D. Lorenz, a colorful character in his own right.

Former Brown appointee, friend and business associate of Cesar Chavez and Ralph Nader, and founder of California Rural Legal Assistance, Lorenz worked for seven months as the director of Brown’s California Economic Development Department until he resigned in disgust, or was let go for political reasons (it’s a photo finish), and then wrote the book.

Jerry Brown, The Man On The White Horse, is quirky and sometimes funny, but hardly a flattering perspective of Brown, and should be mandatory reading for every California voter as it not only gives an insider view of the state Capitol in the 1970’s, Brown’s personality comes to light.

Describing Brown as “keeping everyone who worked for him off balance,” Lorenz was told on his first day of working for the campaign, “Jerry will deal with you as long as he thinks you have more water in your glass than he has in his.” Lorenz wrote, “Jerry would cajole me, flatter me, be nasty too, but he wouldn’t ignore me. And all the while he’d be trying to pour my water into his glass.”

During the seven-minute inaugural address in 1975, (the shortest inaugural in California history), Brown said that unemployment was the number one problem in the state.

Lorenz said that his own rise to the top of an agency was uneventful, but dissatisfying given that he wanted to create a jobs program in the state, and never able to convince Brown to agree to it. ““Lorenz,”” the Governor-elect of California said to me after the November 1974 election,you’re supposed to be an innovator. See what you can do about this unemployment problem,” wrote Lorenz. He was appointed head of the EDD instead.

But there is a dark side to Brown revealed in the book, making it difficult to believe that he is just eccentric. Coupled with mocking statements about kids who receive free school lunches, and saying that women belong in the home, Lorenz wrote that Brown had a dark, pessimistic view of the world.

Lorenz not-so-subtly writes of race-related issues surrounding Brown. Lorenz explained that Jerry planned “to tilt towards the Mexican-Americans” because “blacks were the wrong symbol in the 1970’s” and “bad for the image.” Brown even prevented Lorenz from hiring a black assistant.

And then Brown dreamed up a plan to turn Camp Roberts, an old Army base in San Luis Obispo, into a work camp. “We should take 20,000 black kids and 20,000 white kids and put them together in Camp Roberts, said Brown. “The black kids can teach the white kids how to fight and the white kids can teach the black kids how to read,” Lorenz reported Brown saying in a meeting with several of his staff present. “Jerry was making a blatantly racist remark,” wrote Lorenz.

“Black kids in a concentration camp? (Yes, but it would be an integrated concentration camp)” Lorenz writes. “He wasn’t serious. He was being outrageous.”

But Lorenz couldn’t believe that Brown was serious – a growing problem between them.

“People want a dictator these days, a man on a white horse to ride in and tell them what to do,” Brown said in 1974 after meeting with Cesar Chavez. Lorenz wrote that Brown was critical of Chavez’s charisma, and needed to subdue Chavez in order to be that Man on the White Horse.

“In actuality, there’s often nobody there,” wrote Lorenz. “Brown is just projecting images in the media, diverting the electorate from real-life problems that he feels incapable of solving.”

A particularly relevant excerpt from Lorenz’s book, explains much of the Brown philosophy that dominated the time, and appears to continue to this day: “Jerry was the mirror of the society in the mid-1970s. He was giving us, the voters, what he thought we wanted. And he was usually correct in his estimates. Even in November 1976, almost two years after he had succeeded to the governorship, he was scoring a 78 percent approval rating in the California Poll, a level of popularity unprecedented in California history. If we didn’t like what we saw, we had only ourselves to hold accountable. We were looking at our own reflection in the mirror. If we wanted Jerry to cut out the reliance on symbols, he would oblige. If we wanted him to pay more attention to black people, he would do so. He had no commitment one way or another. He didn’t care. The sole concern he had was expressing the popular will successfully enough to be re-elected governor in 1978 and president in 1984. Jerry was the totally democratic man. Like the proverbial weather vane, he turned in whichever direction the winds blew him.”

During his eight years as California’s governor, Brown’s style was to govern more through symbolism, according to Lorenz – style over substance. He refused to live in the governor’s “Taj Mahal” mansion, very oddly slept on a mattress in a cheap downtown apartment on the floor, and refused to be driven in the traditional governor’s limousine, instead choosing to be chauffeured around in an ugly blue Plymouth. Style over substance, very visible choices, all heralded by a compliant media in love with the idea of an eccentric, boy governor.

And then there are those who quietly thank Brown for unknowingly help Proposition 13 pass, because he failed to respond to widespread complaints during his first term as governor about state and local government officials using unrestricted property tax increases to fix budget problems, rather than making cutbacks or fiscal reforms.

Last July, Brown made an egregious political calculation comparing Meg Whitman to Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels. While Brown’s statements comparing Whitman to a propagator of the Holocaust was deeply offensive, he successfully burned an image impenetrably in the minds of many voters.

Weakly, Brown issued an apology and said, “I regret making the comments. They were taken out of context.”

American Thinker contributor Peter B. Chowka wrote about the incident: “Jerry Brown the skilled communicator and media meister must know that an unfair reference linking his opponent to Nazi monster Joseph Goebbels cannot be recalled.” His weak apology aside, his thoughtless (or maybe carefully thought out) dig has helped to paint a potentially lasting derogatory word-picture of Whitman — a symbol in the minds of many in the electorate — perhaps subliminally, but in any case maybe having enough weight to influence the outcome of a close election.

More recently, in trying to understand Brown’s continuing popularity in Oakland, “a compliant media treatment of Mr. Brown continues in Oakland to this day,” wrote J. Douglas Allen-Taylor in the Berkeley Daily Planet in 2009. “While he was Oakland mayor, and governor, media which often treated his failures as lovable eccentricities rather than public disasters, failing themselves to hold Mr. Brown accountable.”

Lorenz too wrote about the adoring media during Brown’s two terms as governor.

Allen-Taylor wrote, “It would seem to be almost bizarre, doesn’t it, that while it was Jerry Brown who helped begin California’s fiscal descent, we are poised to put him back in place to give us the final push over the brink. No wonder the rest of the country considers us weird.”

–Katy Grimes

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