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BROWN on BROWN : A Give-and-Take With the Former Governor on His Life, Politics, America and the State of Humanity

January 29, 1989|EDMUND G. BROWN JR. and JOHN BALZAR

EDMUND G. BROWN JR. ENTERED elective politics as a candidate for the Los Angeles Community College Board of Trustees, a low rung on the political ladder. That was 20 years ago. He went on to become secretary of state and a two-term governor. His political career also included runs for President in 1976 and 1980. He was considered one of the most exciting and controversial leaders of his generation. He retreated from political life after a 1982 defeat in a run for the U.S. Senate. During the next six years, he traveled, studied and waited. Now he's back, starting his second political career as a candidate for chairman of the California Democratic Party.

These days, he steps before his audiences awkwardly, just as he always did. His carriage is wooden, and his hands have no place to go. A slight grimace signals his discomfort. He carries no 3x5 note cards, no leather binders with TelePrompTer scripts.

Then, he begins to speak. It's hard to tell at that instant whether the awkwardness actually disappears or not, but no one notices any longer. People stop watching and start listening. Jerry Brown is telling them what is on his mind now. And almost without exception, whether they hate him or love him--or both--Brown-watchers are engrossed by the rapid firing of his intellect.

As he is fond of observing, Brown was the last major contender for the presidency who had no speech writer. Like no one else in politics, his thoughts are his own--his property, his proud currency. In an era when even lowly press secretaries are constrained to utter only "prepared statements" and when almost everyone accepts "no comment" as a legitimate response, Brown is a renegade.

For better or for worse, or maybe a little of both, Brown, born into politics the son of a politician, insists on playing outside the rules--he always has. And the passage of time has done nothing but hone a provocative edge on the question: What's on Jerry Brown's mind now?

Times political writer John Balzar, who has covered Brown for 15 years, prepared these observations about today's Democrats, the play of California politics and this man once known as "Gov. Moonbeam." Brown, now 50, offers his own perspectives in reply. The former governor wrote his portion of this dialogue at a portable word processor in his office and in his new apartment in San Francisco.

THE SEEKER AND THE LESSONS LEARNED

By now, almost everyone has heard that Jerry Brown has traveled the world the past six years searching for answers, staring into the face of impoverishment and rolling up his sleeves alongside Mother Teresa.

His critics dismiss Brown's wanderings as self-indulgence, a retreat from the political battlefield at a time when many of his ideals and associates were under fire. "If he had really wanted to empathize with the poor he could have gone to Oakland, where an ex-governor could have an impact," says Richard Katz, a Democratic assemblyman from the San Fernando Valley. "I don't understand why he has to go to India for a three-week window of empathy. That's the part of Jerry Brown that misses it for me."

Demands another Democratic politician: "Where was he when Rose Bird was at the stake?" Bird, of course, was the woman Brown appointed chief justice of the Supreme Court who later was defeated in a savage campaign with few important defenders willing to come to her aid. Brown wrote a single newspaper piece in her defense and refused all other comment.

Brown's admirers see just the opposite in his journeys. They describe a contemporary Diogenes willing to venture far and risk ridicule to gain new insight and renew his intellectual strength. They ask: In an America of timid politicians bent to the winds of public-opinion polls, why attack Brown for daring to stand up and be different? And some of his closest friends say there's no difference between Brown the private traveler and Brown the public politician. He is a man said to be seeking a moral order to all areas of life. By his own admission, Brown knows only two vocations: politics and religion.

One of Brown's longtime associates, Los Angeles pollster Richard Maullin, puts it best: "Jerry speaks most articulately and comfortably in normative terms--about the moral order of things. What's right? What's wrong? What is the purpose for which we engage in government?"

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