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The Chameleon Candidate

March 22, 1992|Hendrik Hertzberg | Hendrik Hertzberg is a senior editor of the New Republic

WASHINGTON — For Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr., it all came together in Michigan. No, I don't mean the alienated voting bloc that yielded the Californian one-quarter of the tally and second place in the Motor State primary, thereby allowing him to elbow his way past Paul E. Tsongas for the honor of serving as Bill Clinton's sparring partner for the next few months.

What came together was the white turtleneck, the plaid flannel work shirt and the blue satin United Auto Workers windbreaker. Brown wore them all at once in Michigan--his "full Detroit"--and together they add up to a fashion statement that is more political than sartorial.

Peeling back Brown's 1992 "layered look" from the outside in, the UAW jacket represents Brown the friend of the workingman, the give-'em-hell firebrand who told cheering audiences of angry Michigan auto workers--and ex-auto workers--that they'd been "ripped off and lied to." But watch for the windbreaker to be replaced by a tweed jacket with suede elbow patches as the campaign moves to Connecticut this Tuesday.

The plaid work shirt signifies maverick independence--of whatever kind you like. Depending on the eye of the beholder, the work shirt may appear to be from J.C. Penney or L.L. Bean. It may say Bubba or Woody Allen. It may be redolent of gun racks, pickup trucks and barbecue on the one hand--or coffeehouses, environmental sensitivity and the junior-faculty lounge on the other. Either way, it proclaims the wearer's disdain for the dress code of the corporate boardroom and the lobbyist's office suite. The former governor of California does occasionally feel obliged to change into a business suit--but it's invariably a double-breasted model, more Bel-Air than Wall Street.

And then there is the white turtleneck that the candidate wears next to his skin. The semiotics of this garment are the most subtle and interesting of all.

"White," the Reader's Encyclopedia says, "denotes purity, simplicity and candor; innocence, truth and hope." White has been a priestly color since the days of the ancient Druids. In Brown's case, the symbolism is more than faintly saintly. The snug neckpiece of his pullover recalls the round collar of the Jesuit priesthood he once studied for. It delicately reminds us of his subsequent spiritual adventures with Mother Theresa in India and the Zen Buddhists in Japan, to say nothing of the austere self-denial of his monkish gubernatorial apartment in Sacramento.

Yet the turtleneck, seamless and smooth, also seems straight out of "Star Trek," evoking the woozy, slightly dated futurism that has always been part of Brown's appeal. Over the years, his features have grown sharper and his hairline spikier and more pointy, adding to the Spockian aura. The difference is that Mr. Spock's tunic was made of some sort of exotic extraterrestrial synthetic, while Brown's, I'll wager, is 100% cotton.

Whatever the fabric, though, this man is no Gap cretin--and no space cadet, either. Brown is more than just a master of eccentric symbols, more than just the "1-800 pound gorilla." He is also the purveyor of a powerful message.

It's a stark message: The system is rigged. The politicians are bought and paid for by the big-money interests. Somehow, the rich always get their way. Nothing will really change until the sinister forces manipulating events from behind the scenes are exposed, confronted and vanquished.

To many people--a far greater number than are actually voting for Brown--all this has the ring of truth. Public disgust with the bloated role of money in politics has been building for a long time. What makes the disgust particularly acute this year is that the country is awakening from a decade of hearing that the market can do everything and the government nothing to find itself broke, disillusioned and stuck with a spotty education system, violent and crumbling cities, health-care anxieties, economic decline with grotesque opulence for the few and a political system that, so far, has been unable to do a thing about any of it.

The trouble with Brown's explanation for these undoubted ills is that it is at once too conspiratorial and too moralistic. In the wake of Iran-Contra--and Oliver Stone's "JFK"--it is understandable that the notion of corrupt, unaccountable, malevolent forces finds a ready audience--especially since such forces do exist. And Brown's solution--a single virtuous man who will do battle with these forces--has dramatic coherence and Frank Capra-like appeal.

The real problem, however, is not bad people or bad faith. It is a creaky, cumbersome political-governmental mechanism that fragments responsibility and accountability to a degree unknown elsewhere in the democratic world. The President of the United States cannot act without Congress, and vice versa. The House cannot act without the Senate, and vice versa. Congress' maze of committees is shot through with weak points that can be exploited by well-organized, well-funded interests.

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