Looking for Mr. Good Guy
America has seen the lean, ascetic face all over its TV screens this week, the week of the California primary. Yes, this is the same Jerry Brown who has given the impression he would like to take apple pie, the flag and motherhood out of politics and replace them with granola, Zen and the virtues of youth.
Yes, it is the same Jerry Brown whose program is that he has none, whose promise is that he won’t make any, whose answer is that none exists.
It is even the same Jerry Brown who said barely a year ago that being governor of California was such a “pain in the ass” he couldn’t bear to think of running for national office.
Yet this Jerry Brown, the 38-year-old Democratic presidential candidate, has been cozying up to such non-flower children as Mayor Richard Daley of Chicago and Gov. Marvin Mandel of Maryland. He has been spicing his rhetoric less with quotations from Robert Frost and Thomas Aquinas, more with such platitudes as “my campaign is pro-America” and even the multipurpose “we could land a man on the moon but…” explanation for past social and economic failures. And since Brown swooped into the campaign in April he has politicked around the country so much there has been grumbling in Sacramento, where people remember his campaign promise just 20 months ago to be a full-time governor.
No matter. Just when it appeared that the only thing Jimmy Carter had to worry about was a sudden frontal attack by Mr. Tooth Decay, Brown’s entrance in the race has restored confusion. Backed by Mandel’s old-line Maryland machine, Brown soundly beat Carter there. Then in Oregon he picked up an unprecedented 25 percent of the vote in a write-in campaign. Going into the June 8 primary in California, Brown was a heavy favorite to win most of his home state’s 280 delegates. It is a victory meant to influence uncommitted delegates to rally to his support in the five weeks remaining before the Democratic convention in July.
Although, at best, his delegate count will be one-sixth that of Carter when the convention opens, Brown has denied that he is really warming up for a run in 1980 or trying to hold this year’s nomination for Hubert Humphrey. What he hasn’t done is explain very well why he wants to be President.
This is not unusual. While Brown has reversed his previous hermit-like aversion to reporters, now making himself available to just about anyone who carries a notebook, he evades questions by redoubling: “What does that mean?” By mocking: “How do I differ fundamentally from Jimmy Carter? How about superficially?” By backing and filling: “I’m still studying that one.”
His frequent put-downs of the Presidency—”a President doesn’t really do much”—have made his aspirations to the White House subject to some cynical analyses. They range from a suggestion that he is already bored with being governor to speculation that his real goal is to outshine his father.
Edmund G. (“Pat”) Brown Sr. (Jerry is actually Edmund Gerald Jr.) was governor from 1959 to 1966, when he lost the statehouse to Ronald Reagan (and, with it, any lingering chance to be President). Jerry grudgingly acknowledges that the family name helped him become California’s secretary of state in 1970. But he bridles at the thought that he is a political Frank Sinatra Jr. who has ridden to success on paternal coat-tails.
At times during the presidential campaign he has referred to his father—with no apparent attempt at humor—as “the governor before Reagan” and has belittled Pat Brown’s record. “My father had a lot of important programs,” Jerry says. “The master plan for higher education. The California water plan. The state highway program. And what have these programs done? We’ve got a lot of unemployed Ph.D.s and an oversupply of teachers. The water plan has led to scandals, and our freeway system has brought pollution of the air and a scandalous overuse of gas and oil.”
Pat Brown, an old political trouper, has so far shown no public signs of resentment, although he has commented privately, with a sigh, that after a lifetime in politics he may be remembered best as Jerry Brown’s father. The senior Brown probably is used to the mercurial temperament of his only son. As a seventh-grader Jerry asked his parents to arrange hormone shots to make him grow faster so he could dance with the taller girls in his class. Then, after a high school career that involved cheerleading, debating and sports, but not politics, young Jerry announced he wanted to be a priest.
Despite his parents’ strong reservations, Brown entered the Jesuits’ Sacred Heart Novitiate. For three and a half years he read and meditated, which he says he enjoyed, then left. “I had gotten everything possible out of that experience” is the crux of his explanation. Brown says he is still a Catholic, though he is also a serious student of Zen Buddhism.
He went to Berkeley, where he earned a degree in Latin and Greek, and then went on to Yale Law School. In 1962 he joined a civil rights march in Mississippi until its governor, Ross Barnett, called Pat Brown, who persuaded his son to leave.
Jerry was more persistent in his anti-Vietnam war feelings and left a Los Angeles law practice to campaign for Gene McCarthy in 1968. The next year he ran for the Los Angeles Community College board of trustees. The year after that he sought the secretary of state job and won it easily. While it was traditionally a minor office, Brown made his reputation by devising a model campaign-spending reform plan—Proposition 9—that Californians passed in referendum.
When Reagan decided against running for a third term in 1974, Brown entered the Democratic primary. Though he became the immediate favorite, the campaign was not easy. His own style was so abrasive, in fact, that one of his primary election opponents, State Assembly Speaker Bob Moretti, joked: “My first wish is that I could get out and talk to every Democrat in California. My second wish is that Jerry Brown could get out and talk to every Democrat in California.”
Another primary foe, San Francisco Mayor Joseph Alioto, fueled gossip, not unusual about single politicians, that Brown was a homosexual. In a heavy-handed attack, he demanded that Brown “come out of the closet and debate me.”
Brown often seems uncomfortable around women. Female reporters who interview him comment on his skittishness. (One who knows him well and likes him says, “There is just nothing sensual about him. I can imagine him screwing a woman, but I can’t imagine him making love.”) But there has never been evidence of anything but mildly repressed heterosexuality, and Brown has indeed sometimes dated spectacular women, like actresses Candice Bergen, Liv Ullmann and Natalie Wood.
As governor, Brown has proved less liberal than the conservatives feared and more conservative than the liberals hoped. After consistently supporting Cesar Chavez and his farm labor movement, for example, Brown is now accused of foot-dragging on appointments to activate a board which would oversee farm union elections. He trimmed school spending. Ralph Nader complained about Brown’s “mystical evasions” on consumer problems.
On the other hand, Brown appointed a multiethnic cabinet that resembled a platoon from a World War II movie. He supported bills to lower penalties for marijuana use and decrease oil depletion allowances. He got the biggest headlines, however, for some conspicuous nonconsumption. First he canceled the inaugural ball. Then he refused to move into the $1.3 million governor’s mansion Reagan had built. He sold the gubernatorial limousine and turned down the jet plane.
There was less to all this than met the eye. For one thing, Brown spends almost all his time working, so he hardly needed anything more than the $250-a-month apartment he rents. For another, he maintains a more than comfortable $125,000 house in Los Angeles. And while he got rid of the limousine, he still has a chauffeur drive his 1974 Plymouth.
A more serious criticism is that, even granted the short time he has been in office, Brown has accomplished little beyond antagonizing former supporters. Joyce Koupal, national director of People’s Lobby, an activist organization which strongly backed Brown on Proposition 9, has become disenchanted, particularly with Brown’s refusal to take a position on stringent safety measures at nuclear power plants. Brown, she says, “was a very frightened young man after he took office. It was a lot of fun to campaign, but he didn’t really know what to do. He asked questions a lot so he didn’t have to make decisions.”
A different sort of critic is Thomas E. Moore Jr., who was deputy director of the state Department of Health until he was fired in April. Brown charged “incompetency” and “insubordination,” but Moore insists that the real problem was “a very rigid control by the governor, which comes from a terrible insecurity. He is very cold, not particularly interested in social issues except as abstractions. He has brought in people who are antigovernment, replacing Reagan policymakers with nonpolicymakers. Yet life still goes on, people get older and sicker.”
Once involved in an issue, even if relatively trivial, Brown immerses himself in it, associates say. Not everyone is enthusiastic about putting in 18-hour days with working supper breaks at Shakey’s Pizza Parlors. But many of his closest aides have remained loyal, perhaps because a number of them are also Jesuit seminary dropouts and enjoy Brown’s philosophical bull sessions. And Californians in general seem happy with him. A poll last April showed 85 percent of the state citizens rated his performance so far as “fair” to “good.”
As a national candidate, he has quickly attracted a remarkable amount of attention, including upwards of 6,000 letters a week. He has done so without much in the way of specific ideas. He has in fact already retracted his statement that Americans would have to develop “lower expectations.” Now he is accentuating the negative less, though he continues to admit he has “no easy answers” and suggests that his policies will “emerge,” “evolve” and/or “unfold.” (He has joked, however, that if he is elected, “Mao will have as much trouble figuring out our foreign policy as we have figuring out China’s.”)
It seems to be less his issues and more his image that appeals to audiences anyway. Even one of his own aides, watching Brown charm a Maryland crowd, observed, “He could say ‘Afghanistan banana stand’ and they’d go gooey.” Brown’s youth dissociates him from politicians of the Vietnam-Watergate era. His trim good looks and well-tailored three-piece suits make him the closest thing to a sex symbol in this campaign. His with-it talk of “spaceship earth,” his oft-stated concern for the environment, his reputation as a Bob Dylan admirer and an ascetic seeker after higher truths set him off from those familiar political types sordidly scrounging after delegates. He seems, in sum, like an uncandidate.
The reality is somewhat different. Says veteran Republican campaigner Stuart Spencer, “Brown is a consummate politician.” His homage-paying phone call to Chicago, for instance, Brown says, was made because “anybody who wants to be President better talk to Mayor Daley.”
By July, of course, Brown’s political agility—and 50 cents—may be worth nothing more than a subway ride to the New York convention. Brown won’t commit himself yet about accepting a vice-presidential nomination. He also refuses to speculate on what he might do in 1980. His father says, “When Jerry took up golf, he’d play 36 holes a day every day. When he took up ice hockey, he’d skate for three or four hours at a stretch. Once he gathered $75 worth of pennies and went through every one to see if the dates were valuable, and then he totally lost interest. He goes all out for something until he gets it.”