U.S.A.

California dreaming: the odd man in

William Lowther August 20 1979
U.S.A.

California dreaming: the odd man in

William Lowther August 20 1979

California dreaming: the odd man in

U.S.A.

His detractors call him Governor Moonbeam because, as one of them put it, of his “blue-sky unpredictability. ” Others see him as the United States ’ last hope. But whatever you think of Governor Edmund G. Brown Jr. of California, he must now be considered a major force in U.S. politics. Last week he formed the “Brown Exploratory Committee” to start full-time work on a campaign to challenge Jimmy Carter for the Democratic presidential nomination next year. He is the first challenger from Carter’s own party. Washington Bureau Chief William Lowther examines Brown's potential, his politics and his extraordinary performance in public life:

William Lowther

On the face of it, California’s Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown—former seminarian, current adherent of Zen Buddhism—seems a most unlikely candidate in the race to wrestle the presidency away from Jimmy Carter. But the odds against him are certainly not greater than those faced by the unknown peanut farmer with “bornagain” religious convictions who took on Gerald Ford in 1976. However futile and quixotic the quest may seem, in United States society Jerry Brown has a

chance. And if he doesn’t actually beat Carter, then he might very well damage him so badly in the early primaries next year that the White House will fall vacant to a third man.

Thus Brown’s entry into the Democratic lists is of considerable significance to the United States’ political future. And his campaign received an immediate boost when Everson (Chuck) Esters, the director of black affairs for the Democratic National Committee in Washington, resigned his job to join the governor in California. Esters’ defection is especially embarrassing to Carter because the president relied heavily on black support to win in 1976. Brown too has strong support among minority groups and the Esters move gives him even more legitimacy with a percentage of the population that can swing the vote and has done so in the past.

So no one in the White House laughs at Jerry Brown anymore. They shake their heads in wonderment—not amusement—for when it comes to personal eccentricities bachelor Brown steals the day. It is difficult to think of anyone who could match his capers, in all the history of America’s flamboyant politics. Yet, such exploits as his trip to Africa earlier this year with his girlfriend, rock singer Linda Ronstadt, do not seem to have done him a bit of

harm. One newspaper running the story under the headline JERRY AND LINDA: WINNERS OR SINNERS IN A WORLD OF HYPE AND HYPOCRISY, went on to say ironically: “Perhaps Linda Ronstadt does not realize the risks she is taking by being seen in public with an elected official.”

But Brown’s eight-year friendship with Ronstadt is sure to be an issue now. The two have never talked publicly of marriage and, despite everything, the United States is probably not yet ready for a live-in First Lady—especially one who has been linked romantically with rock singer Mick Jagger and comedian Steve Martin. Especially one who has been quoted as saying bluntly of her affairs: “I wish I had as much in bed as I get in the newspapers.”

No doubt about it, the governor will have to cool her down—if not exactly put her on ice—before the New Hampshire primary next February, the first in the race to the White House. And he will have to live down the embarrassing rebuff the state senate handed out recently when it rejected his appointment of another woman in his life, Jane Fonda, this time a political ally, to the California Arts Council. The Senate recalled unkindly her Vietnam wartime visits to Hanoi. But he is quite capable of doing so. Indeed he sometimes seems capable of anything. At the last minute, in 1976, Brown entered six presidential primaries and beat Carter in five.

Things have changed since then. At that time Brown was running as the knight on a white horse come out of the

West, preaching squeaky-clean politics while the electorate still had the nausea of Watergate in their nostrils. Now they have suffered through nearly four years of Carter and his evangelical earnestness. They have seen—and judging by the polls disliked—the anti-political politician at work. They may also have learned that politicians who pretend to be something else do so as just another political ruse.

Moreover, as Brown admits, he practises the art of what he calls “canoe politics”—paddling a stroke on the right and then a stroke on the left—and he could fall as much victim to a backlash against the “non-politician” as Carter himself.

Yet he is a master of riding whatever political ploy is in fashion. “His magnificent flip-flop on Proposition 13, the radical tax-cutting initiative, reaped him a landslide re-election victory last year and revealed him as a born-again fiscal conservative,” wrote one Californian commentator last month, adding: “He proved himself as adroit a politician as ever emerged from a smokefilled room.” Even the accident at Three Mile Island was exploited to re-establish Brown’s environmental credentials. He called loudly for the closing of one nuclear plant in California and a halt to nuclear development, repeatedly reminding the nation that it was he who had established what amounted to a moratorium on atomic plants in the state until a safe method of waste disposal was perfected.

Brown’s current standing in the polls is poor but he replies that his campaign is just beginning. As one California political observer put it: “He could become a political science textbook. He could write political history. Or, he could wind up as a postscript.”