Brown Is One Hell Of A Story

OCT. 29, 2010

For a long time now, I’ve accepted that I have a vested interest in chaos. After all, what good is an investigative reporter when government functions honestly and efficiently? And who wants to write about government officials who plan for the future, give a clear accounting of the taxpayers’ money and only say things that make sense?

Boring! That’s why it’s easy for me to figure out which candidate for California governor would make my job easier.

“Sometimes even powerlessness has a power of its own, Democrat Jerry Brown told Playboy Magazine back in April 1976. “Who is it who took India? Some guy in his underwear.”

Here was Brown, in the middle of his first term as governor back in ’76 , and he called Mahatma Gandhi as “some guy in his underwear” in Playboy. The guy just says interesting things, regardless of where he is or what power he’s got.

Pundits on the right talk about the hated “Liberal Media” as though it’s this lock-step communications arm of the Democratic Central Committee. But this is nonsense: the reporters I know (present company included) are all much too lazy to engage in such boosterism. If reporters are biased, it’s towards that which makes their stories easier to finish so they can go home.

Republican Meg Whitman, whose decision to spend $140 million of her own money might just go down in history as our nation’s greatest political boondoggle if she loses, clearly reflects this contempt for the press. Check out this San Francisco Chronicle blog post about how much Brown and Meg Whitman are charging the press to tag along with them during the last days of the campaign. Brown’s people are charging reporters $700 a day for all transportation, meals and hotel accommodations, while Whitman’s crew wants $2,050 a day, not including a hotel room.

That’s nasty – even if Whitman didn’t have money to burn.

But Brown, the devotee of Marshall McLuhan that he is, has always surrounded himself with the media. Indeed, for someone who thinks and communicates in symbols, he requires the press to be close.

And that’s all there is to Brown – symbols. “Blacks are the wrong symbol for the 1970s,” Brown told J.D. Lorenz, his first Employment Development Director, in 1975. At the time, Brown thought Hispanics were a better symbol for the times, but had a difficult time working with Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers.

Historians have long gone back on forth on Brown, trying to discern what he actually believes. Brown railed against Prop. 13 as governor, then put his name on it after it passed. As governor, Brown preached that we lived in a world of limits, yet gave away the collective bargaining store to public employee unions. Fans like Kevin Starr use the word “pragmatist” to describe Brown’s decidedly non-ideological take on public policy, while adversaries prefer “opportunist.”

In truth, there is no paradox. Brown is all of these things – an endlessly fascinating jumble of every viewpoint under the sun.

Take law enforcement. Brown fought capital punishment in the 1970s, then 30 years later remade himself as a pro-cop mayor of Oakland. Some might see a disconnect, but one of his earliest, best biographers – Roger Rapoport, who wrote the 1982 book California Dreaming: The Political Odyssey of Pat & Jerry Brown – captured Brown’s let’s-try-everything mentality.

“He has limited faith in government’s ability to solve problems and, in darker moods, suggests government intervention is likely to make things worse,” Rapoport wrote. Yet, “Jerry Brown had always supported strict law enforcement even if it meant that more men and women went to jail during his administration than under any of his predecessors.”

Both statements, though contradictory, are true. Brown does love law enforcement, and he does hate capital punishment. He does think government sometimes hurts more than it helps, and he does feel that government is sometimes the solution to life’s difficulties.

It all depends on what’s the best symbol for the day. Right now, we live in a time of government mistrust and ballooning budget deficits, so Brown talks about “living within our means.” Because as Rapoport wrote, “Even Jerry’s adversaries concede no politician in the modern history of California has been better at getting out from under losing issues quickly than Governor Jerry Brown.”

What would Brown actually do as governor? I have no idea – his previous political experience, including the eight years he already spent as governor – offer no real guide. If elected, he is quite capable of anything. And that will be a hell of a story.

-Anthony Pignataro

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