The Unithinkable Jerry Brown
Can a Jesuit-trained, Zen-oriented bachelor and political hippie hope to became leader of his country? why not? he says, Look at Pierre Trudeau
Jerry Brown was chatting with reporters some weeks ago about labor laws and various mundane matters when he offhandedly said that, by the way, he planned to run for the Presidency this year. Eyebrows shot up, jaws dropped. One photographer lost hold on a camera which hit the floor with a crash. Everyone laughed, and one of the older newsmen placed a trembling hand over his eyes. You just don’t do things that way in politics in the good old United States of America. A Presidential campaign is launched after careful planning, calculated suspense, then a deafening declaration with bands, flags and pom-pom girls. But the 38-year-old governor of California had not told even his family what he intended to announce. “It’s the Brown style in its purest form,” chuckled an aide. “Nothing is programmed, everything evolves.”
But having followed the fortunes of Edmund Gerald Brown Jr. since he became California’s chief executive 17 months ago, I doubt that his announcement was entirely spontaneous. He thinks these workine for effect. He may
play the naive young David out there with only a sling to slay the Goliath of big government, but he has one of the sharpest political instincts in the game. He says that he is serious in his bid for what Americans still call the most powerful job on earth, but is he? Or does he simply want to lead a topranking Californian delegation to the Democratic convention where he would have a key role in picking the party’s nominee and drafting a platform? Or is he, perhaps, angling for the vice-presidency? Maybe he wants both, although it’s clear that he really can see himself occupying the Oval Office. “The convention is ver\ open, with no real front-runner,” he says. “If we’re going to get America back together, it is time to try something new, and I’m the newest thing around, so . . .” So young Jerry Brown, without big-money backers or a political machine, without even a campaign manager or press secretary (not at first, anyway), plunged in. He admits to “a very low seniority in the political business,” but then just 18 months ago everyone said that he was aiming too high and too soon for the governorship, didn’t they?
His first entry in the Presidential stakes, the May 18 Maryland primary, lent some credibility to his White House aspirations. He took 49% of the popular vote, compared with only 37% for Democratic front-runner and theretofore “sure thing” Jimmy Carter. His victory, in the peculiar American primaries system, gained him no delegates to the Democrats’ nominating convention in July, but it established him as a national figure to be reckoned with. If he wins in California (Maclean’s went to press before the state’s June 8 primary) he wouldtake 280delegates to the Democratic convention and could—much to the delight of the anti-Carter forces in the party—stop the former Georgia governor from winning on the first ballot.
‘I DON’T LIKE THE DUMP. . .$1.5 MILLION AND NOT A BLADE OF GRASS AROUND IT’
What Brown has going for him is the highest approval rating (almost 90%) in the history of poll-taking. He fascinates people. He excites the media. The New York Times calls him “the hottest political property in the country.” The potentates of Time, Meet The Press, 60 Minutes, Reader’s Digest beat a path to his door in the remote
state capital of Sacramento. Some 200 lesser newshawks wait for an interview and, with the convention in New York only a month away, interest is surging. Why this astonishing national furore over a provincial phenomenon? Part of the secret is his gift for generating publicity. His trendy adjuncts—a contempt for crass materialism, a less-is-more philosophy, Zen readings and monastic retreats—make headlines.
He shuns the vast new governor’s mansion as a “Taj Mahal” (which gives rise to the question: would he live in the White House?). In style he is reminiscent of Pierre Trudeau, and indeed he was encouraged by Trudeau’s early triumphs. As he recalls it, Trudeau “catapulted to success on the Canadian scene like a stone through a stained-glass window.” Like Trudeau, Brown was Jesuit-trained. Like Trudeau, he’s an individualist, in person and politics a man who challenges conventional wisdom, a flexible theoretician. Both men approach public life with a rare blending of opportunism and ideological commitment. Brown, who was heading for the priesthood, remains a bachelor. But, as he points out, “that didn’t stop Trudeau, did it?”
Jerry Brown grew up in a world of political comings and goings. As a child in the 1940s, while his father was running for San Francisco district attorney, he was taken to meetings, rallies, political picnics. Even his sports were political—he went with Dad to the Olympic Club, where overweight pols liked to work out and talk shop. The pace became more intense as Pat Brown rose in the hierarchy, ending up, at 54, as the governor of California and a “favorite son” candidate for the Presidency. Young Jerry is remembered by his teachers at two Catholic parochial schools as a hyperactive boy who hated to sit still. Perhaps in search of a refuge from the frantic pace of his father’s life he decided, at 17, to enter the lonely, quasi-medieval atmosphere of the Sacred Heart Novitiate among the rolling vineyards of Los Gatos, south of San Francisco. There he stayed for four years, studying to become a Jesuit under an ascetic regime that made talk a privilege—20 minutes after lunch, 30 minutes in the evening; during an annual retreat eight of 30 days were spent in total silence. “And I am a talker,” says Brown. “At first, keeping silent gave me a physical pain in the stomach. But in time you learn to be quiet. One needs time to be oneself.” The seminary years, and the shyness he inherited from his mother, have made Brown a somewhat diffident politician. He is impatient with small talk and can be cutting. At a cere-
BEHIND THE LIBERAL POSTURES IS A FISCAL TIGHTWAD, AND MAYBE EVEN A COLD WARRIOR
mony honoring his 71-year-old father last year, a reporter burbled, “You must be very proud of your Dad.” “Be quiet,” said Brown, without a trace of emotion. The newsman seemed to be more confused than offended.
The Jesuit regime, it is sometimes said, made of Brown the only politician in America with a belief in original sin. He is surely the only one able to converse in Latin or Greek who has also done stoop labor in a vineyard. The Brothers were expected to pick a ton of grapes a day in their vineyard. “That’s about 50 boxes,” says Brown. “And it’s hot working those fields in summer. You have to move fast, you
can’t go down on your knees, you stoop, and you learn what farm labor is all about.” The experience left Brown with a deep sympathy for Cesar Chavez’ efforts to improve the lot of nonunionized farm workers. After leaving the seminary, he marched with Chavez in a 1969 drive to organize vineyard workers.
Why did he leave the order? Because, he says, his vows began to seem unreal. “My poverty wasn’t real poverty—I had all I needed, no worries about my next meal. Humility escaped me. Chastity seemed another form of withdrawal from human beings.” So at 21 he received his dispensation from Rome and returned to the world—the beatnik world of San Francisco in the early Sixties, of coffee shops and poetry read to jazz, the start of the counter-culture explosion. He attended the state’s most radical campus at Berkeley and later (“to my father’s great relief’) entered Yale law school. After forays into the civil rights movement he spent six months traveling through South America, “where 1 lived on a couple of bucks a day, like everyone else.” Then he joined a Los Angeles law firm. Vietnam at last spurred him into political action. “There I was, stuck in this law office, grumbling about the war but not doing anything to stop it.” He joined the Democratic Party’s left wing and before long was at work on Senator Eugene McCarthy’s 1968 campaign for the Presidency.
In 1969, young and still unknown, Jerry Brown ran for a seat on a community college board. He won easily, largely on the strength of his father’s name, and promptly set about irritating the establishment by supporting radical causes, including a ban on nonunion lettuce in the cafeterias. A year later he tried for the traditionally obscure office of Secretary of State, presided over for 60 years by one man and responsible for such trivia as cattle brands and laundry marks. Again he won by a large margin and, to the horror of the old guard in Sacramento, discovered the long-forgotten fact that the Secretary of State was responsible for election laws. Brown set out to enforce them, including some concerning campaign contributions the politicos did not know were still on the books. His drive to clean up campaign funding ran into heavy fire from Democrats as well as the Reagan regime and its fatcat backers. But Watergate changed many attitudes. As the scandal grew throughout 1972 and ’73, Brown found himself becoming a popular hero. The more the public heard about Richard Nixon’s laundered Mexican money, the more Brown’s tough ballot reform measure forcing disclosure of secret campaign funds looked good to voters. It swept through by a huge margin and on the crest of the wave the new Mr. Clean began his drive for the governor’s seat.
But Brown's election as governor in November, 1974, was unexpectedly close. Perhaps his father’s reputation as a liberal big spender had rubbed off on him; perhaps it was that he was still an unknown quantity, too offbeat personally, with his Jesuit/Zen religious interests, and the dark rumors that he went on long, Gandhi-like fasts. Perhaps, on the cool medium of television, he was too hot—browbeating his rather limp Republican rival, an academic named Houston Flournoy who had stepped into the gap left by GOP front-runner Ed Reinecke, the Californian lieutenant governor tainted by scandal. Whatever the reason, Brown was not then nearly as popular as he is today. Why has his stock soared so phenomenally in the 17 months since his election?
Far from being a spendthrift, the new governor out-Reaganed Reagan in his fiscal tightfistedness, denouncing the age we live in as “the worst period of self-indulgence in American history,” calling for a return to hard work, discipline and service—and, perhaps most important, practising what he preached. Well, most of it. Even he concedes his ascetic image has been exaggerated. He’s paid $50,000 a year, has a posh $70,000 canyon home in Los Angeles, and is seen dining out with such movie actresses as Liv Ullman and Natalie Wood. His rejection of a chauffeured limousine for a car-pool Plymouth, of the gubernatorial mansion for a $250 flat (furnished with a mattress on the bare floor) was, he says, a symbolic gesture which he hoped others would follow. “But why should the people’s servant live in a nine-bedroom six-bathroom Taj Mahal, why should he be wined and dined at public expense when so many are being asked to make sacrifices? Why should he attend grandiose parties given by pooh-bahs who are trying to curry favor, as if he was a king by divine right?” He grins. “Besides, I don’t like the dump. It cost $1.5 million and there’s not a blade of grass on the seven acres around it.”
He is a hard worker. He puts in up to 16 hours a day, seeming to get a second wind around 9 p.m. Several aides, unable to stand the frenetic pace, dropped out of his administration. He rarely takes a break, and when he does it is for a few days’ “retreat” at Tassajara, a Zen monastery in the mountains near Big Sur, or a Trappist hideout in northern California. He reads. (Favored authors: Hermann Hesse, Conrad, Henry Miller, Mordecai Richler, Yeats. Frost, Doris Lessing.) He likes Bob Dylan. Recently, he’s acquired a lot of new friends, such as nationally syndicated Géorgie Anne Geyer, whose column appears in 500 newspapers. Ms. Geyer was escorted by Governor Brown to his favorite Japanese restaurant, “an unassuming little place on the corner,” and came away glowing. “I have to admit he’s damned good-looking,” she confessed to her millions of readers. “He’s funny. He has dark, sensuous eyes. His manner is elegant. He has a devilish smile ...” Brown is a master of the media. Playboy was granted an interview—but only after the magazine (circulation: 5.7 million) agreed that the Governor could rewrite both questions and answers. The reporter came away with 20 hours of tape and the impression that Brown is “the least boring politician in America.” He is also very much a pro on TV. “He knows all about lighting and makeup, what camera angles work for him,” says a director.
The Governor has his critics, of course. Lately he’s begun getting a few bad reviews from radicals, liberals and big labor alike, the main charge being that despite all the lofty rhetoric he has yet to do anything very striking. “If you want to understand my philosophy,” says Brown in reply, “read this.” He waves before you a copy of Small Is Beautiful by British economist Ernst Schumacher. As its title suggests, this modest 1973 paperback questions the worship of unlimited growth and posits “a technology scaled to the human needs of a given community.” Brown likes Schumacher’s notion of Buddhist economics as opposed to the economics of materialism. (Why assume, he asks, that the man who consumes more is automatically better off than one who has a lower standard of consumption? The Buddhists would think this highly irrational. Since consumption is merely a means to human well-being, the aim should be to obtain the maximum of well-being with the minimum of consumption.) Nothing if not literal, he has appointed a Schumacher disciple, Dutch Professor Sim Van der Ryn, as state architect, and Van der Ryn has set about building solar heaters to cut down state energy bills. “Lower your expectations!” Brown’s favorite slogan sums up the Spirit of Schumacher. “Don’t expect government to be a panacea, a solution to all human problems. Remember the lesson of Vietnam. The war isn’t working? Throw in more money, add more planning, call out the Harvard PhDs, send in more planes, tanks and troops. Finally you get a real catastrophe, and you write it off.”
Political tradition demands plans, programs, legislative laundry lists, but Brown’s style is to question everyone remorselessly, and to insist that the things he does not do (he has not, for instance, raised taxes) may be more significant than the things he does. His inquisitorial, holierthan-thou style has infuriated many people, not least the Reagan-appointed regents of the University of California. “Illinformed meddling!” snorted one after Brown proposed that the university president (who at $60,000 a year and some princely perks does a lot better than the governor) should take a pay cut along with other senior academics. Big labor is also irked by Brown’s iconoclasm. “A very brilliant, low-key agitator,” snapped Jerry Wurf, boss of the 700,000-strong American Federation of State, County & Municipal Workers, one of the AFL-CIO’S fastest growing unions, when he failed to elicit from the Governor the answers he was looking for.
If Brown has the backing of some state labor chieftains, such as John Hennings, secretary of the California Labor Federation, it’s largely because they believe his candidacy can help their first choice for the nomination, Hubert Humphrey. If Brown swung California, the largest delegation in the country, behind Humphrey, he could expect to land the vice-presidency. They would make an odd couple: the Senator from Minnesota is your archetypal wheeler-dealer politician, an advocate of big government and much more that is antipathetic to Brown. Could he support a President whose enthusiasms include an immense federal jobs guarantee program to be paid for by unlimited growth? Well, yes, it seems he could. “I like Humphrey,” he says. Three little words that perhaps tell more about the ambitious Governor than much of his rhetoric. Love conquers all, and Brown pointedly declines to rule out the possibility of joining the Humphrey ticket. And if Humphrey failed to complete his term—his age, 65, and a history of suspected bladder cancer might bring it to a premature close—Brown would be ready to take over.
Whatever happens. Brown must expect to take some hard knocks from rivals over his inexperience and his refusal to take a clear stand on many issues. More nuclear power? Very complex—let’s wait and see. National health insurance? Maybe it can be squared with his “era of limits,” but on the other hand . . . Unemployment? Inflation? If he has answers to these problems, they have yet to emerge. Brown can point to some successes, chief among them the agreement he secured between Chavez and agro-business on a farm-labor collective bargaining law, the first in the United States. But even that is languishing, starved of funds by lawmakers who complain that the Governor’s labor board is stacked against the growers.
What sort of President would Jerry Brown make? A pretty conservative one, for all the lotus posturing and claims to represent a new wave in politics. As governor, he signed into law such items as a liberalized marijuana measure, a so-called “gay bill of rights” and higher taxes on oil companies—but these were all moves instigated by the legislature. Brown, when it comes down to fundamentals, is a tightwad with public money, favors a strong defense policy (“We must be prepared against Russia”), wants criminals properly punished (and might even support a death penalty), prefers big business to big government, and thinks Nelson Rockefeller didn’t move fast enough to crush the Attica jail rebellion. He wants OPEC (the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries) and the United Nations to stop trying to push America around (“We’ve become a big sap for other countries”), takes a dim view of welfare, and thinks attacks on U.S. institutions and the media have gone too far. It’s an awful lot for Democratic voters to swallow.