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The unsinkable Jerry Brown

October 22, 2006|Martin F. Nolan | MARTIN F. NOLAN covered national politics for the Boston Globe for 40 years.

IN 1972, Robert Redford played the title role in "The Candidate," a movie about a young California politician with an uneasy relationship with his father, a former governor played by Melvyn Douglas. Ever since, Jerry Brown has been a mirror and a megaphone of political celebrity.

Two years earlier, Brown had first appeared on a California ballot as a Democratic candidate for secretary of state. He would follow this role with star turns as governor of California and auditions for U.S. senator and president. His current campaign for attorney general -- the same job held by his father, Pat Brown, in the 1950s -- is his 13th.

Now 68, the boy wonder is eligible for Social Security. His fans marvel at his durability. His foes recall "The Picture of Dorian Gray," in which the charm of Oscar Wilde's character implodes with the unveiling of his terrifying portrait (not unlike the splotchy post-Cubist official portrait of Brown in a Capitol corridor in Sacramento, which frightens visiting schoolchildren). Brown still seems to subscribe to the philosophy of another Wilde character in the story: "There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday November 05, 2006 Home Edition Current Part M Page 2 Editorial Pages Desk 1 inches; 38 words Type of Material: Correction
Jerry Brown: An Oct. 22 article in Current stated that Jerry Brown's first elective office in California was that of secretary of state. It was as a member of the Los Angeles Community College District Board of Trustees.

What most separates Brown from the current stable of California politicians is that he may be the last practicing "inner-directed" one. In the book "The Lonely Crowd," David Riesman and Nathan Glazer predicted that a new crop of "other-directed" leaders would favor polls and surveys over their own values and experience, and they were right. However they regard Brown's calculations, his critics never call him a captive of consultants, peering anxiously at pollster printouts.

Ronald Reagan and Brown's father were also inner-directed politicians. George Deukmejian and Pete Wilson, Jerry Brown's GOP successors, also relied less on polls than experience. What allowed them to turn inward rather than to consultants was that they didn't campaign and govern in a media-saturated age. Facing two news cycles a day, not 24, they consulted fewer spin doctors.

In the 1970s, I asked Brown to assess favorably one of his political rivals. The best he could do was "good staff man." In 1998, his former chief of staff, Gray Davis, became governor, determined to follow the middle of the road to the vanishing point. He learned little from Brown's eloquence and bold thinking, instead concentrating on fundraising and placating pressure groups, trying to please everybody and therefore nobody. Arnold Schwarzenegger is no longer a novice at analyzing polls either, and his would-be successors are already calibrating how to seem different, but not too different.

Brown's personal focus group has included Ivan Illich, a prominent critic of development in the 1970s; Noam Chomsky, linguist and political polemicist; S.I. Hayakawa, a semanticist before becoming a U.S. senator from California; and St. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuit order. As a Jesuit seminarian, Brown studied the "spiritual exercises" of Ignatius, chief among them the Latin maxim, age quod agis ("do what you are doing"). Temptation and ambition can nullify this admonition.

Ken Khachigian, senior strategist for Brown's Republican opponent, state Sen. Chuck Poochigian, insists that they have. Brown's career "is one of self-absorbed narcissism. Basically, he's always looking beyond his current job to the next one .... For 37 years, he's been running for office, and now it's time to give him a gold watch and retire him."

Four years after winning his first political race in California, Brown won a five-way gubernatorial Democratic primary with 37.7% of the vote, then went on to prevail in November with 50.1% support. That year of Watergate revelations and President Nixon's resignation soured Californians on politics. And Brown's inaugural campaign speech dwelt on "the rising cost of energy, the depletion of our resources, the threat to the environment, the uncertainty of our economy and the monetary system, the lack of faith in government, the drift in political and moral leadership."

This gloomy recital ushered in what Brown called an "era of limits." It contrasted with the optimism of his predecessor, Reagan, and his own father.

In 1975, the new governor's first words in his unscripted inaugural were, "I wasn't sure I was going to make it. My father thought I wasn't going to make it either. But here I am."

Three years later, when Brown was running for a second term, I sat in Pat Brown's Beverly Hills office, listening to a father describe his son. "Jerry's really a friendly fellow, but he's more like his mother. He's very reserved. He's always been that way. He's never been as glad-hand as I am," he said.

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