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.”
The uncandidate was formally anointed by the hacks before a boisterous crowd on a Friday evening in East Baltimore. First Brown told the crowd, as usual, that there wasn’t much he could do for them, but he’d sure try. Then the pols dutifully trooped to the microphone to say what is known in the trade as A Few Words. There was Harry “Soft Shoes” McGuirk, who came by his moniker — according to an associate — because “he kind of oozes up to you, puts his arm around your shoulder and starts to whisper.” Then Dominic “Mimi” DiPietro, who was once indicted for accepting a $5000 bribe from a pool hall operator but got off when the key witness disappeared (only to reappear later in Las Vegas). Then Joe Staszak, who did not have a nickname, but summed up the evening when he told the crowd, “Elect Jerry Brown president and this country will be lily-white.”
The next day, when I asked him about the scene in East Baltimore, the uncandidate replied, “Well, even Our Lord went out and preached among the sinners,” and almost smiled again.
Jimmy Carter was getting a bit worried about all the hoopla Brown was stirring up in Maryland. He scheduled a series of TV ads to tell people that the political bosses were using the California weirdo — “a man who has said he has no goals in his life” — for their own ends. But it was very difficult to lay a glove on a devoted young purist who rode around in a Plymouth and wouldn’t live in the mansion and was so honest that he told people things were going to get worse. The ads laid an egg.
Carter’s problem was that Jerry Brown has, if nothing else, a remarkable sense of how the media operate, of how to do one thing and appear to be doing another, of what the traffic will bear. He knew that only a politician with a reputation as pure as his could go out among the hacks and get away with it. He did it time and again.
One evening he materialized at the home of a caterer named Resnick in the Baltimore suburbs. The home was a palace of conspicuous consumption, complete with a large television set which rose from the bedroom floor at the touch of a button. It was a dessert party, the caterer having laid out massive bowls of strawberries and whipped cream, an equally massive chocolate mousse, cream pies, cheesecakes, éclairs . . .
The governor of Maryland, Marvin Mandel, who is under indictment, was there. As was his coindictee and business pal, Irv Kovens (apparently, part of the initiation rites of the Maryland Buddhists is the receiving of an indictment). Brown arrived and regaled the crowd with his environment pitch, “A spaceship earth, hurtling through the universe with only limited amounts of air, water and soil . . .” The speech was greeted by utter silence and Brown walked away from a potentially embarrassing situation unscathed because the press played up the irony of the uncandidate preaching his era of limits in the midst of opulence. He won over Mandel’s supporters by meeting with him, and won over Mandel’s opponents by appearing to tell him off.
Brown nurtured his pristine image carefully, knew exactly what he could get away with. He refused to get involved in visually tacky things like kissing babies and wearing hats, because that would make him seem like any other pol. Nor would he indulge, during a visit to Baltimore’s Lexington Market, in the sort of culinary populism — a slice of pizza here, a kielbasa there — that has made politicians like Nelson Rockefeller seem so foolish in the past. Only after it was wrapped up and foisted on an aide did he accept a “Polock Johnny’s” sausage, and then he refused to eat it publicly. It would have been unseemly for an ascetic.
He did slip once. . . and then it was because the possibilities were so titillating and the potential for mythmaking so obvious that he couldn’t resist. He decided to drive 30 miles out of his way, thereby screwing up the day’s schedule and keeping crowds waiting all over Maryland, for an audience with Muhammad Ali.
It was the day of Ali’s fight with Jimmy Young and the champ’s entourage — a remarkable assemblage of massive black men, cigar-chomping tiny white men and beautiful women — was camped out in the lobby of a hotel in suburban Washington. When Brown’s entourage arrived, it was one of those wonderful moments when worlds collide — neither entourage could quite grasp the significance of the other. A large black man approached me and asked, “This Brown dude, he a fighter?”
“No, he’s running for president.”
“President of what?”
The governor went up in the elevator to the champ’s suite and found Ali, who had just finished eating a slab of nearly raw meat; his shirt was open and there was a large roll of fat around his waist. What’s more, Ali seemed to be in some sort of trance. He had virtually no idea what Brown was doing there.
Somehow they managed to get the champ down to a press conference that lasted, according to a reporter who clocked it, all of 40 seconds. Ali said he and Brown were both young and pretty. Brown said it was all part of the unfolding Maryland campaign. Ali said he might be the “first colored man to be president.” And that was it.
The press, shocked that Brown would engage in so obvious an act of political whoredom, wanted to know why the meeting had taken place, what was its purpose?
“What are any of these events?” snapped Brown.
Well, some were more telling than others — the night that E.F. Schumacher reared his ugly head, for example. It was a speech at Johns Hopkins University on a beautiful spring evening during the second week of the campaign. The entourage had swollen considerably and now included Keith Carradine and Ronee Blakely, two of the stars of Nashville, who served as Brown’s warmup act.
The auditorium was jammed with about 2000 kids and 1000 more waited outside. The kids went berserk when he arrived and then, as so often was the case at colleges, Brown disappointed them. He rambled on in vague generalities about how important it was to pull the country back together, about how our foreign policy wouldn’t be credible until we were strong domestically and how that meant a total commitment to fight unemployment. Then he opened up for questions. . . .
About ten minutes into the question period, a young man in the front rows asked the governor what he thought about the last two chapters of Schumacher’s book — the ones where he called for a gradual conversion to a system of decentralized socialism, with the workers and the communities controlling the factories.
“Could you repeat that?” Brown asked, although it was entirely audible. “I’m not sure I understand.”
The student repeated the question.
“Well, I’m not sure I know what you’re referring to. Those last chapters are kind of vague.” An interesting response, considering the fact that the last two chapters of Small Is Beautiful are the most specific in the book.
Brown wriggled out of the question by saying that he thought the government should regulate big business, especially the corporations that were polluting the environment. It was an evasion (a lie?) he could afford, since most of the audience had never heard of Schumacher . . . or Brown’s alleged devotion to him.
The next question was tougher to wriggle away from: “What about amnesty?”
Brown said he was in favor of everybody coming home (applause), but that draft evaders should serve six months in a public-service corps that he’d set up (silence). It ended shortly after that, with the audience much less enthusiastic than they’d been when he arrived. After he left the hall, Brown asked Dave Hutchinson what had gone wrong.
“You didn’t wave, governor,” Hutchinson said: “You should always wave when you leave.”
Later that night, sitting next to Brown at dinner in an Italian restaurant that had been Spiro Agnew’s favorite, I asked him about the Schumacher business. “Those last two chapters were pretty vague,” he said.
“They were the only specific chapters in the book,” I said.
“Well, to tell you the truth, I only skimmed them.”
“I don’t believe that for a minute,” I said. He was, after all, the person who had wrenched Schumacher from obscurity. But rather than respond, Brown left the table claiming he had to make a phone call. When he returned, a slightly sloshed Ronee Blakely was waiting for him.
“I think you’re wrong about the boys, Jerry,” she said, draping an arm around his shoulder. Brown looked very uncomfortable. He looked up at her.
“I mean, Jerry, why can’t they just come home. They were right about the war, after all.” Ronee reached down and picked a clam out of Brown’s linguine. Then she pulled up a chair.
“Well,” he said, “that’s one side of it.”
“What’s the other side?”
“There’s the law,” he said, Jesuitically. “And, what about all the people who went . . . and the others who went to jail?”
“One of my old boyfriends, David Harris, went to jail and I’m sure he wouldn’t mind if they came back.”
“Well, we can argue this all night,” he said, stiffening.
With his black hair and gray sideburns he looked a little like a penguin.
“I mean, what about the tradition of civil disobedience?”
“There’s also the tradition of the law,” he said, which ended the conversation.
Soon after, Brown left and I sat down with Ronee and Keith Carradine and told them what one of the students at Johns Hopkins had said: “I think it’s kind of strange that these stars from Nashville, which was a movie about a politician with no program exploiting rock stars, are allowing themselves to be exploited by a politician with no program.”
Blakely bristled. “I may disagree with Jerry about amnesty, but O still think he’s better than any of those other guys.”
Carradine was troubled, though. “I’m not sure what I’ve gotten myself into,” he said. “They called me up and asked if I would help, and I felt it was the right time in my life to make a commitment, and he seemed pretty honest, but I just don’t know.”
Two days later, Carradine returned to Los Angeles. Blakely went on to sing again for Brown in Oregon and Rhode Island.
The campaign, which had begun with a bang, was ending with a whimper — like one of Jerry Brown’s speeches. The staff and the traveling press were united in their belief that he would lose. The crowds were thinning. He had stumbled through his speech twice too often. His TV commercials, an earnest Jerry Brown calling for “a new generation of leadership,” had become grating. Was it possible to win an election simply by not riding in a limousine and not living in a mansion? That seemed all the people of Maryland knew about Jerry Brown . . . aside from the fact that he was young and looked very clean-cut. “I think we peaked a week too early,” said Fred Epstein, the press secretary, the day before the election.
Election day, May 18th, he roamed through Rhode Island and New Jersey where there were uncommitted slates of delegates that were thinking of endorsing him. When the polls closed, Jerry Brown was curled up under a bright blue blanket fast asleep in a plane circling through dark gray clouds in a holding pattern over Baltimore. When we landed, an aide rushed up and said, “CBS has declared you the winner.”
The media crowded around, anxious for the candidate’s first reaction. The candidate, probably realizing that jubilance would be inappropriate for his image, simply said, “Well, that sounds pretty good. . . .”
It was, in fact, absolutely smashing. A landslide, almost. He had beaten Carter, 49% to 37%, beaten him across practically the entire demographic spectrum, including blacks. There was pandemonium at the campaign headquarters. Marvin Mandel, who had never openly endorsed Brown but made it clear that the mystic was his man, was there to take credit for the win. So were the rest of the Maryland Buddhists, beaming. But the victory was far too big to be attributed only to the hacks rousing the graveyards in their precincts. Prince George’s county executive, Winfield Kelley, went over to Mandel and said, “You didn’t do this.”
No, the uncandidate — standing now, acknowledging the crowd with a labored wave that seemed like he was trying to wash a high window — had done it himself. Apparently the Plymouth and the mansion (and the fact that a lot of people didn’t like Jimmy Carter’s smile) had been enough. At age 38, he was a national figure, a potent political force to be reckoned with, whoever he was.
The old man wanted a piece of the action. He shoved through the crowd of reporters toward the candidate. The reporters parted when they saw who he was. “Jerry,” he said. The candidate didn’t acknowledge him. “Jerry,” he said louder, touching the candidate’s arm. The fundraising dinner had been a marvelous success and, now that it was over, the old man wanted some of the credit.
Jerry Brown turned around and greeted his father, “Oh hi . . .” They were together under the TV lights.
“Well, four more weeks to go,” Pat Brown said, nervously, hoping perhaps that Jerry would say something nice to him publicly for a change — the fat cats who had coughed up $100 were, after all, Pat’s old cronies.
But Jerry turned his back on his father and answered a question from one of the reporters. Pat Brown grabbed his arm.
“You don’t have to do this. You’ve given them enough,” he said, referring to the reporters.
“You’ve gotta keep repeating,” Jerry said. “It’s part of the game.”
“You said I was a good teacher. Why don’t you listen to my advice?” Pat said, pathetically. But Jerry had turned his back once again. The old man moved away, muttering, “He has to get organized. He has to realize he’s a candidate for president of the United States.”
It was hard to believe that this sad old man — whose features were similar enough to his son’s that he looked like a broken, crumpled Jerry Brown — was the same guy who had crushed Richard Nixon’s attempt to be governor of California in 1962. Even harder to believe that he, more than any other, was responsible for Jerry Brown’s success. He had given his son his name — Edmund G. Brown — which was enough to get the kid elected to the Los Angeles Community College Board and then secretary of state. More important, he had given the kid his old allies — the labor leaders and Los Angeles fat cats who had to be more than a little skeptical about supporting a callow mystic — when Jerry ran for governor in 1974. He had been the buffer between the uncandidate and the power brokers. He had also given the kid a lot of grief.
Enough has been written about the strained, competitive relationship between father and son. Suffice to say that Jerry Brown was as reserved as his father was garrulous, as aloof as his father was common, and when the father moved to the pinnacle of his success in the late Fifties, the son moved to a Jesuit seminary.
The Jerry Brown that his high school friends describe seems ordinary enough for the tightassed Fifties: a debater, cheerleader, moderately good athlete, who was shy but had a girlfriend and would, on occasion, go down to the beach and get high on a six-pack with his friends.
For whatever reasons, though, he opted — after mulling it over for a year at the University of Santa Clara — for the harsh life of the seminary with its self-inflicted deprivations: the fasting, the silence, the binding of arms and legs with chains and the self-flagellation (in which the Jesuits would beat themselves on the back with knotted ropes two or three mornings a week) which the Jesuits euphemistically called “the taking of the discipline.” But there were also the high, cool abstractions of Jesuit logic, the carefully structured weeks of meditation and study. The Jesuits were known as the gestapo of the church, noted for a smug elitism that emanated from their attempts to make the mysterious orderly. From what I can gather, the thrust of the Jesuit experience was the convoluted task of making theology seem rational, of applying logic to abstractions like “sin” and “redemption.” Of course, there are no final answers when you indulge in such metaphysical games and, in the end, all the Jesuits could really offer was a method rather than a philosophy. Later, when he became governor, Jerry Brown would be accused of doing the same thing.
Having learned the method, Jerry Brown left the seminary and went to Berkeley. He spent the next ten years on the periphery of the great movements that shook the country. Classmates at Yale Law School remember him as one of a small band of whites who was concerned about the civil rights movement — concerned about, but not really involved in. Eleanor Holmes Norton, a black woman who is now New York City’s human rights commissioner, remembers that Jerry would continually pepper her with ideas and legal strategies. He seemed more taken with the logic of civil rights than the passion. Finally, he went down to Mississippi, but only to “observe” through meetings with civil rights leaders and with Governor Ross Barnett who was, after all, his father’s colleague.
Brown reacted similarly to the peace movement. Friends say he believed very deeply the war was wrong, but not passionately enough to march against it. He was a young lawyer by then, operating out of a prestigious Los Angeles law firm.
He became actively involved in antiwar politics in 1967 — ironically enough, just as his father had been retired as governor by Ronald Reagan — joining the liberal California Democratic Council, which was then split into pro- and antiwar factions. Jerry was firmly in the antiwar camp, but not really a leader. He worked in the McCarthy for President campaign, but wasn’t a leader there either. Coworkers remember him more as a hangeron whose functions were never really clear, who never ate or socialized with the others.
Then in 1969, at the age of 31, he made his move. He ran for the Los Angeles Community College Board and finished first in a field of 133 on the strength of his father’s name. The following year, he ran a state-wide campaign for secretary of state and was the only Democrat to be elected into Reagan’s second administration.
Until then, secretary of state had been a largely ceremonial office the function of which was to preside over corporate and electoral records. But Brown made the most of it, suing major oil companies for illegal campaign contributions, exposing part of Richard Nixon’s tax fraud and pushing for campaign reform. Still, there wasn’t much to distinguish Jerry Brown from any other young politician on the make: he still rode around in a limousine (although he refused to trade it in for a new model each year), and his office churned out a constant stream of self-serving press releases and reports. By 1971 he had decided he would run for governor and by 1973 he was actively pursuing the nomination.
He had positioned himself perfectly for the race. To the old-line Democratic establishment he was Pat Brown’s son, the embodiment of a return to the good old days after eight years of Reagan. To the public, he was the young and idealistic reformer, the embodiment of Proposition Nine — a strict post-Watergate reform act which was actively opposed by big business and labor. He ran a rather traditional liberal reform campaign — with media advisers and vote analysts and four-point plans to reform this or that. His closest aides were fanatic young technicians like Tom Quinn and Richard Maullin. He was favored to win from the start.
Toward the end, though, intimations of weirdness began to seep out. There were rumors that he was a homosexual and some sort of mystic. The physical manifestation of the mysticism was the lurking presence of a former French sailor with a shaved head named Jacques Barzaghi, who advised the candidate on style and metaphysics and in reality was little more than a benign bullshit artist. There was also the problem that Brown, on the advice of Tom Quinn, wasn’t really saying anything. He was just trying to sit on his lead over his bland Republican opponent, Houston I. Flournoy. In the last weeks of the campaign, the lead seemed to melt away but he managed to hang on for a narrow victory. At the age of 36, he was governor of the most populous state.
And now the mythmaking began in earnest. His administration opened with a flurry of inactivity: there would be no inaugural ball, no limousine, no mansion, no briefcases for state employees. The inaugural address would last seven minutes. There would be no tax increase. All of these, in effect, were negative acts; things he wouldn’t do. Very quickly, he built a mystique on inaction — and liberals like the cerebral style of his entropy (he seemed a lot like Nader, didn’t he?), and conservatives liked the content.
There were some very positive things he did in the first year of his administration, almost all of them concentrated in the field of civil liberties. He made a brillant string of appointments (with the counsel of the strange Mr. Barzaghi, apparently, whose opinion he trusted on matters of human nature) that opened the highest positions in government to women and minorities for the first time. He decriminalized marijuana and signed a gay rights bill. He pushed and signed a bill that finally established secret union elections for migrant farm-workers: and would not retreat from principle when the growers and Teamsters Union scuttled the funding for the bill. There was a general openness to new ideas. . . .
But a disturbing reluctance to commit himself to new (or even old) social programs. He said he would subject all programs “to a process of relentless scrutiny and challenge the basic assumptions.” He would ask a lot of questions. But it began to seem that he would never get beyond the scrutiny and sometimes the questions were downright insulting. Once, when he was presented with a school lunch bill passed by the legislature, he asked, “Do you think poor kids are really hungry or is that just another liberal myth?”
He was asking questions all right, but to what end? Some legislators, who should have been his closest allies, began to wonder if his only commitment was to the process of asking questions or, worse, to naked political expedience.
“I would watch him make public statements about how he admired Mao and China,” said one state legislator, “and then go to a private meeting where he would wonder aloud whether we were giving poor people too much, whether it was too dangerous to ask the productive elements of society to pay more money to these deadbeats on welfare.”
At another meeting, he wondered whether the problem with closing tax loopholes wasn’t that “the people who you’re giving something to [the middle class] don’t realize it, but the people you’re taking something away from [the upper class] do.”
It was a wonderful political device, this questioning of assumptions. It added to his mystique: the innocent, clearheaded young governor asking the bloated bureaucrats with their unintelligible reports to explain themselves. To conservatives, he was questioning the welfare state. To liberals, he was questioning the power structure. In truth, it could mean anything he wanted it to mean.
When a group of people who favored fluoridation of the water supply came to visit him, he asked, “But isn’t fluoridation just the use of another chemical to solve a problem? Isn’t the real problem the fact that kids eat too many Hostess Twinkies and drink too much Coke so they mess up their teeth?”
And yet, when Jim Hightower — an agribusiness expert who makes a convincing argument that the big food companies have conspired to force us to eat junk — met with Brown, the governor asked, “But don’t people like to eat junk food?”
If there was any pattern to his questions, it was in the direction of inaction — “creative inaction,” he called it. Don’t fluoridate, but don’t do anything about junk food either. He established an office of “appropriate technology” to apply his era-of-limits ideology to government and business, but only funded it to the tune of $25,000 — which wasn’t really enough to do anything. What was going on here?
I represent,” he told audiences on the campaign trail, “a new generation of leadership. A generation that came of age in the civil rights movement and Vietnam. . . .”
Yes, but he didn’t necessarily represent the activists of that generation. More likely, he represented the observers — the people who were midly sympathetic to the civil rights and antiwar movements, but were turned off by the excesses that inevitably resulted. The people who wanted to work within the system, but grew despondent when the system turned out to be utterly corrupt. It was a generation that had seen government behave either swinishly or ineffectively but rarely well — to the failed dream of civil rights and the Great Society, to Vietnam to Watergate. As a result, and contrary to popular opinion, it was a generation with great conservative potential, a generation that distrusted government and tended to see it largely in negative terms.
And Jerry Brown had seen more of it than most; he had seen the sweaty backslapping, the phony guffaws and overblown rhetoric firsthand, in his own home.
Oh sure, he would pay lip service to such Democratic party staples as national health insurance and reviving the cities, but his real intensity — to say passion would be inaccurate, since it implies an emotional depth he may not have — was reserved for preventing new taxes and preventing the government from becoming what he called “the family of the last resort.”
Once, when we were discussing this, Brown said that an activist government attempting to impose social solutions represented “basically . . . a totalitarian urge which must be resisted, and I think a lot of liberals haven’t thought that through. . . . They can talk all they want about the right to privacy, but the logic of a centralized welfare state is [the same as] a 1984 regimented society.”
That’s a rather frightening statement on two grounds: first, he seems to see government purely in abstract, negative terms — and unable to see that many of those bothersome billions flowing from the state coffers are going to feed, clothe and house poor people. Second, he seems to see a centralized welfare state as much more of a threat to democracy than a centralized corporate state. He doesn’t like to talk about corporate power at all, in fact.
But the implications of Jerry Brown’s peculiar form of ungovernment go even further: one evening in Sacramento, when I was having dinner with Gray Davis, the rather benign automaton who serves as Brown’s administrative aide, the conversation moved to the question of getting people interested in solving the more abstract, and perhaps more threatening, problems like environmentally caused cancer and the rapid depletion of natural resources — the basics of Brown’s “spaceship earth” pitch.
“Well, I’m sure that World War II was an abstraction to most people before Pearl Harbor,” Davis said.
“You mean government can only act effectively in a crisis?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said.
Brown, always elliptical, put it another way: “Ideas come from the fringes into the center of power.”
In other words, you have to pressure government in order to get it to move. And observers in Sacramento say that pressure, especially in the media, is the only way to get Brown to do anything. “The best way,” said a state legislator, “is to get some editorial writer to bang him over the head.”
Jim Lorenz, a poverty lawyer who was Brown’s first director of employment development, was the victim of just such a bang on the head. Lorenz had developed a jobs program that leaned heavily on nonprofit corporations funded by the state. Word of the plan leaked to the conservative Oakland Tribune, which made it sound like the state was going into the business of running communes. Lorenz was soon sent packing.
But then the unions and minorities began to bang Brown over the head for not doing anything about unemployment and he unveiled a $25 million jobs program that was suspiciously similar to what Lorenz had been proposing.
To be fair, Brown seemed more receptive to pressure from unions and minorities than from corporations — as long as it didn’t really threaten the corporations’ basic power. He was willing to indulge in largely symbolic acts like offering tax breaks for people who installed solar heaters and limiting the amount of water a toilet could consume per flush (which was his biggest applause line on the stump), but no basic changes. “A major function of government is to educate,” he rationalized. “Perhaps it’s enough to just raise these basic problems so that people are aware of them.”
The trouble was that Brown seemed to intellectualize everything. “Poverty” to him was an abstract concept to be contemplated like “redemption” in the seminary — he didn’t feel it in his gut. “He isn’t even close to being a normal human being,” said a black legislator. “He’s never had to live with the same kinds of problems as the rest of us. He hasn’t had to worry about not being able to pay the bills or getting an appointment with the doctor.”
But then, he represented a generation that had to worry about those things less than any other in the history of the world. As Tony Kline, Brown’s legal adviser, put it: “The American Dream has been realized in California, at least for the vast majority of people. They don’t have to worry about physical needs; many have two cars in the garage. The real problem now is what all this material wealth has gotten us.”
* * *
Pat Brown’s generation had come of age in the Great Depression of the Thirties. It had lived in the inner cities and seen human misery firsthand. It also had seen Franklin Roosevelt’s activist social programs begin to alleviate the misery; it had seen government act as a benign, positive force — not only through the New Deal, but also through the GI bill of rights after World War II, which enabled many veterans to go to college and move to the suburbs.
Jerry Brown’s generation grew up in the suburbs. Physical suffering was, to some extent, an abstraction to them. And government was a dark force moving on the periphery of their lives, intervening only to threaten to snatch them off to Vietnam or, later, to deplete their paychecks. “Most people aren’t very interested in government,” Jerry Brown told me, and he was right. They had no reason to be.
In a way, they had retreated to six-room ranch-house seminaries — far from the harsh realities of the cities and the farms — and most of their suffering was spiritual. There were no vows of silence, but with families scattering, there was no one to talk to either. They had the money and freedom to buy color televisions, but when they flicked them on and watched the news, there was nothing left to believe in.
Politics had been suburbanized. For 40 years, the major domestic question had been whether or not to give poor people money. Now poverty was an abstraction to the vast majority of people, but spiritual suffering was not. The big question became how to restore faith — and a former Jesuit seminarian, dabbler in Eastern religion and wandering metaphysician seemed particularly well suited to the task.
There was, however, one other major politician who had decided to work the same turf. Jimmy Carter was traveling around the country talking the new suburban reality, the spiritual crisis. He told people that everything would be okay, they could have a government as “good and honest and compassionate” as they were, if only they would vote for him for president. Jerry Brown found this pitch theologically distasteful: redemption didn’t come at the ballot box (or through a simple declaration of having been reborn, for that matter), it came through struggle and sacrifice and self-abnegation. People had to lower their expectations, to learn some discipline and live within limits. The answer to a spiritual crisis wasn’t action, but contemplation. “Maybe,” he told his associates during a weekend retreat at the Green Gulch Zen Center, “if Jimmy Carter can win them with his smile, I can win them with my frown.”
* * *
Jim Lorenz, the deposed director of unemployment, says that Brown began thinking about the presidency a month after he became governor, in February of 1975. It’s difficult to say, for sure, when it really began.
The presidency was certainly on his mind, though, when he called Allard Lowenstein at 3 a.m. one day in June of 1975, and asked him to come to California for the summer. Lowenstein, who had organized the Dump Johnson movement in 1968 and knew his way around presidential politics, decided to go. At the same time, student interns were researching the election laws in all 50 states. There were no definite plans yet, but Brown wanted to be aware of the possibilities if the situation seemed right.
By late winter, when it became apparent that Carter would demolish all his early opponents, the situation began to seem very right. In fact, it seemed perfect for him: he could work both sides of the street. He could appeal to the same basic instincts as Carter, be the “real Jimmy Carter,” as Allard Lowenstein put it. At the same time, he knew the liberals and the bosses and the labor leaders would find him far preferable to the Southern charlatan. He was still, to many in the party, Pat Brown’s son.
On April 13th, a poll was released that showed Brown to be the most popular governor in California history — an 85% favorability rating (53% said he was doing a good job, 32% fair, 9% poor). “Jerry figured a rating like that couldn’t last forever,” said an aide. “He figured it would be pissed away sooner or later and, if that was the case, he might as well piss it away running for president.”
It was a lark. There was no real planning or strategy, only the vague and ridiculous dream that if Brown could beat Carter in Maryland, a grateful Democratic party would stampede onto his bandwagon. But when Frank Church beat Carter in Nebraska and Mo Udall came within a hair in Michigan, Brown became — despite the Maryland triumph — just another of a trio of candidates nipping at Jimmy’s heels. Newsweek, which had planned a Jerry Brown cover, wound up running his picture with Church and Udall and Kennedy and Humphrey, another cog in the stop-Carter movement.
He decided to take another gamble: a write-in campaign in Oregon. If he won a victory there against such long odds, he would be back in the spotlight again. But even though he convinced more than 100,000 people to write his name on the ballot, Brown finished third behind Church and Carter.
So it was over. There would still be victories in Rhode Island and California, but there would be no nomination. And, in a way, it was too bad . . . because Jerry Brown’s querulous negativism probably was much closer to the national mood than Jimmy Carter’s blind faith. His problem came in his selection of remedies: Carter asked nothing of the voters; Brown asked for suffering and self-abnegation from a people who had pretty much forgotten how. And in the end, he was condemned to a particularly appropriate kind of hell: for form’s sake, he had to continue campaigning and play out the string. . .
Memorial Day weekend found the Democratic candidates for president bouncing off each other like bumper cars in the tiniest of states. The Church and Brown campaigns shared the same small hotel, and the Carter family — as was its wont — seemed to be everywhere, aunts and uncles, wife and children, and Jimmy too.
The weather was beautiful and most Rhode Islanders were off having fun, and not even slightly interested in politics. The candidates seemed to have the state to themselves: in search of crowds, Brown walked through the neighborhoods of Providence, the beaches, and even crashed a few weddings.
If the Maryland campaign was a lark, this was a complete joke. Struck by the existential possibilities of campaigning in a state where everyone seemed to be off on vacation, Brown became more puckish than ever, and even smiled a couple of times. He took the greatest of pleasure in the fact that since his name wasn’t on the ballot, he was asking people to vote for an uncommitted slate of delegates to the convention. The notion of asking people to vote uncommitted was a remarkably appropriate symbol for his campaign. The uncommitted were, by definition, the uncandidate’s constituency, weren’t they? There was also fun to be had in knocking stuffy Frank Church’s foreign-policy expertise. “Foreign policy is no great mystery,” said Brown. The basic idea was to leave people alone. What about the Italian communists, he was asked. “That’s for the Italian people to decide,” he said. His foreign policy flowed naturally from his distaste for activist government, and it was a very good policy as far as it went — but it didn’t go so far as to admit that multinational corporations, which Church had been exposing so assiduously in the Senate, might occasionally influence what this country does in (and to) the rest of the world. Hoping to create some news, Brown decided to challenge Jimmy Carter to a debate — a spectacle that superficially might have resembled the Phantom meeting the Invisible Man, but also might have developed into an intense theological long war. Neither the press nor Jimmy Carter seemed too interested in that, though. And so it went in Rhode Island. The motorcades crisscrossed each other from time to time. The candidates emptied meaningless campaign niceties into television sets that had been clicked off by their owners, who were off at the beach. And Brown, the bored intellectual punk, looking to stir up trouble. On Memorial Day, he went to a parade. He didn’t march, since that would have been another of the visually tacky images he so disdained, but he walked along the side of the street, shaking hands with the hard-bitten locals. After that, he was supposed to go to an inner city neighborhood, but advance scouts said the place was completely deserted. So he pressed on to his next stop, an amusement park by the sea. It was empty. The Rhode Island advance team assured him that the place would open soon, and there would be plenty of hands to shake . . . but there was no one there now. Brown squinted into the sun, saw the small dots of sailboats out in the bay. He rubbed his hands together, searching for something clever to say to the assembled reporters and camera crews that formed a tight circle around him in the empty parking lot. Maybe some obscure philosopher or theologian once had said something appropriate to an uncandidate looking for uncommitted votes in an empty amusement-park parking lot . . . but finally, he sought solace in the inane. “Hey, how about some lunch,” he said. “Is there someplace around here where we can get a hot dog, or a pronto pup. . .” Jerry Brown, the ‘uncandidate,’ in the final rush of his uncampaign in New Jersey (above) and 24 hou Swelling the vote for victory in California (above) and back that same afternoon (right) in his Laur Brown Jr. and Sr. after victory in California. Pat was the ‘buffer for the power brokers.’ Uncampaigning for the uncommitted in New Jersey