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Riding His Own Coattails : WILLIE BROWN: A Biography. By James Richardson (California: $29.95, 417 pp.)

November 03, 1996|John Balzar | John Balzar is a Times national correspondent and contributing writer to Book Review

We worry about the scarcity of character in our politicians, so much so that we deem it an "issue." But what about the equally unpardonable shortage of characters in America's elective life?

Where are those who enliven the halls of government? Those who turn our heads? Those who aren't shocked into obsequiousness by the latest tremor of public opinion and instantaneous accounting? Not the ideologues or demagogues, but the stylists with some voltage in them? Well, you say, there still is Willie Brown.

And thank heavens.

By any measure, Willie L. Brown Jr. is an extraordinary and consequential politician. And in the sterile landscapes at the end of our century, he's unique. By that is meant, he is uniquely interesting.

So a biography of Brown, while timely, bears a special burden, as I see it. Can a writer dig out truths good and bad about such a grand character, probe and correct the myths, without destroying the mythology? Or, put another way, can Brown be drawn into perspective without cutting him down to size?

Yes, and James Richardson does it well: At a ripe moment, a craftsman conveys the artist, or certainly the public face of him.

This is the first book-length undertaking about Brown and arrives exactly as the worn-thin image of California's most demonized politician has been freshly recharged. Instead of presiding as the speaker of a state Assembly in decline, Brown now presides as mayor of a rebounding and exuberant San Francisco.

And don't forget the dripping irony of this: Republicans made the case for term limits to drive out power brokers like Brown, with the result of securing at least this one's revival. The longest-serving speaker in state history, Brown didn't want to leave the California Legislature; he was made to.

Richardson is a staff writer for the Sacramento Bee and he allows only once, at the very conclusion of this book, the unnerving sensation he felt in trying to grasp a "moving target." Considering Brown's flamboyance, his mastery of the squalid arts of political fund-raising and the long list of rivals he bested and ridiculed, it would have seemed just as probable for Brown today to be on the long fall downward as it is for him to be soaring up.

The suspense makes for zest--and balance--in Richardson's account. He advances on his subject knowing that his last chapter just might have ended up entitled, "The FBI" instead of "Da Mayor." After all, investigators have hungrily roamed the Capitol for years, picking off legislators and staff here and there. And no one is more appetizing to an earnest federal agent than this loudmouth liberal who flaunts his women, his cars, his Italian suits, his power and practically everyone else's conventions. But the investigators never saw a chance with Brown, even though the system in which he prospered always seemed corrupting.

Brown might respond by saying that he never had a choice between a perfect world or the real world. Not from day one. Which Richardson, with his easy touch on the keyboard, recounts in the opening words of this biography:

"It cost $7 to bring Willie Lewis Brown Jr. into the world. His father paid the fee to Chaney Gunter, a Negro midwife who delivered him on March 20, 1934, in his grandmother's drafty, whitewashed clapboard house in Mineola, Texas. . . ."

This is segregated, Depression-era East Texas, and Richardson makes better sense of Brown's upbringing than even the storyteller Brown himself could.

Yes, he was raised poor--but not really as poor as you might think. Brown's extended family included the important influence of entrepreneurs with the agility to survive in a wholly unequal world. Significantly, Richardson writes, Brown's early memories were not of the harshest aspects of segregation but how to survive it.

Brown's grandmother, and certainly his mother, Minnie, are known to those Californians who have followed Brown's career closely. He loved hamming it up later in life for his mother. When I first met her in Texas in 1983, she was a visual symbol of the extremes in Brown's life. She stood over the sink in her low-ceiling kitchen, the strap of a threadbare slip drooping down her arm, repaired with a safety pin, and over it a fantastically stylish and expensive boutique dress, a gift from her son.

Brown's father, Lewis Brown, was, according to family lore, a railroad porter. That turns out to have been a handy way to excuse his absence. Richardson, who interviewed Lewis Brown at the end of his life, reveals instead a waiter with an uncommon gift to impress the well-do-do clientele.

The large core of Richardson's book, the revealing heart of Willie Brown's life, begins in San Francisco in 1951, when he was just another young dreamer stepping off the train in an important migration of blacks westward.

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