Jerry Brown: The Prince of the West
There is a story, perhaps true, about an Indian monk named Bodhidarma who traveled to China in the year 520 and had an audience with the Emperor Wu of Liang, a ruler known for his interest in Buddhism. The emperor told the holyman of all he had done to advance the faith and asked what he had merited by his good deeds.
“No merit whatever!” said Bodhidarma, abruptly.
“What, then, is the sacred doctrine’s first principle?” the emperor asked.
“There’s nothing sacred,” the monk replied.
“Who, then, are you,” the emperor pressed, “to stand before us?”
“I don’t know,” said Bodhidarma.
It was a sensation rather like floating. Completely out of hand, but almost serene, almost euphoric. There was so much noise, it was quiet. Everything seemed to be moving in slow motion and we had no real control over our bodies. Somehow I had found myself inside the protective ring of plainclothes state police, and was now tucked just behind the candidate’s shoulder. The ring moved like a soap bubble through the crowd, bouncing and skidding toward the door.
Around the bubble, there was mayhem: people were pushing and screaming, hands were grasping out above the crowd, the air was filmy with sweat. Then the bubble seemed to collapse under their pressure and the hands were all over — reaching, patting, touching, tearing. A button was torn off Brown’s suit; my press badge was ripped away. We moved inexorably toward the door, then through it . . . into a larger room with more people, but also more space.
It was Jerry Brown’s first crowd in Maryland — the sort of crowd that makes a candidate believe that anything, even the presidency, is possible; a crowd to be remembered after the brief — inevitably abortive — campaign was over; a crowd to be stored for future reference.
Standing outside afterward, Jerry Brown’s hair was tousled and his lips slightly parted — his version of a smile. He rubbed his hands together and said, “Now that was something. . .” as if he weren’t quite sure exactly what it had been.
Jerry Brown wandered aimlessly through Maryland, knocking them dead. He arrived (via tourist class on a commercial flight, of course) accompanied only by a glorified baggage handler and a press secretary whose sole function appeared to be shrugging his shoulders and saying he could never tell what Jerry might do next. He was surrounded by few of the trappings of the usual presidential campaign — no press releases, no position papers, no pollsters, no media adviser and only a benighted stab at scheduling. Even the words “Brown for President” were expunged from some of his buttons and they simply became brown buttons. Later, he would dub himself “The Uncandidate.”
There are a different set of ground rules for an uncandidate. All you have to do is be honest, which isn’t particularly difficult if you never say anything. While other candidates promise that things will get better if they are elected, Jerry Brown would promise no more than “clarity of mind” and add that things would probably get worse in any case. “A president is just an ordinary person,” he would say in that cruiously high-pitched adolescent voice of his. “He gets up in the morning and goes to bed at night. There isn’t all that much he can do except set a tone and chart a vision.”
An uncandidate remains aloof from the tawdry political process, and can even make light of it. “Issues? What are issues?” he once said, jauntily. “Issues are the last refuge of a scoundrel.” When reporters — those pests — ask questions about such silly things as his plans or his position on the B-1 bomber, an uncandidate can toy with inscrutability, cast aphorisms to the winds, conjure up the names of little-known philosophers and theologians, pun unmercifully — all designed to show how far removed he is from the temporal inanities of politics. He will suffer the fools, but not too gladly.
That first night, after the tumultuous welcome, he said to me, “Hey, there were a lot of Schumacher people in that crowd.”
(For those of you who are sadly — well, perhaps not so sadly — uninformed: E.F. Schumacher is an obscure British economist who in 1973 authored Brown’s favorite book, Small Is Beautiful, of which we’ll hear more later on.)
Since I’d studied up on Jerry Brown’s reading habits, I could respond — equally absurdly, “A lot of Buddhists in Baltimore?”
He almost laughed, “Yeah, a lot of Buddhists in Baltimore.”
As it happened, many of Brown’s most devoted supporters in Maryland were members of a bizarre and anachronistic Eastern sect known as hacks. Their credo was, “Take care of your own and go with a winner when you can,” and this California fruitcake seeméd like a winner, even though he eschewed the long-held ritual of the greasing of the palms.
The most important local politician to openly endorse Brown was known as Theodore “TV Teddy” Venetoulis, the Baltimore County executive whose two predecessors had been indicted and so, presumably, his constituents expectations had already been lowered. He was young and dapper and one of those people who seemed to be perpetually leaning slightly forward, as if he were about to ask a favor. Venetoulis threw all his resources into the fray, including his key aide, David Hutchinson, who once owned a string of “nightclubs” in Baltimore.
Hutchinson was street smart, as funky as Brown was aloof, and well qualified to head the Brown advance team since, he said, “it’s no different than handling a nightclub act.” He recruited a brigade of operatives who tended toward leisure suits, wide-collared shirts with pictures of Italian villages on them, and blown-dry hairdos that looked a little like Jackie Kennedy’s old bouffant. At least one of these was a former “doorman” in one of Hutchinson’s “nightclubs” who said he didn’t know much about Brown but his wife had been watching TV and had seen the candidate on Sixty Seconds. Hutchinson said pretty much the same: “I don’t know anything about him. If he starts doing good, I’ll read up on him.”