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Jerry Brown and his Joseph Goebbels gaffe

Comparing rival Meg Whitman's campaign to the work of the Nazi propagandist was not just careless rhetoric but an affront to historical memory.

June 19, 2010|Tim Rutten

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jerry Brown doesn't deny that he recently compared his Republican rival Meg Whitman's approach to political advertising to that of the fanatical Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels.

Brown, however, told a San Francisco radio show Thursday that he made the remark in "a private conversation.... Nobody had a pencil." He said, "Nobody said, 'By the way, is this a statement that you're making to the public.'"

Welcome to the new political world, Mr. Attorney General. It's changed almost beyond recognition since your days as governor, when you used to socialize at night in bars and private homes with journalists and legislators, and could rely on everybody keeping what was discussed to themselves. The 24-hour news cycle, the Web and cellphones with cameras have functionally abolished privacy in politics.

Doug Sovern, the Bay Area radio reporter who made a story of the remark, told the Associated Press that he was out riding his bike when he encountered Brown jogging through Oakland. They paused to chat, and Brown criticized the volume and tone of the political ads with which Whitman — the billionaire former EBay CEO — papered the airwaves. "By the time she's done with me," Brown said, "I'll be a child molester. She'll have people believing whatever she wants about me. It's like Goebbels. Goebbels invented this kind of propaganda."

Brown, Sovern said, was "a public figure in a public place. He knew I was a reporter and didn't ask for it to be off the record."

Fair enough, though anybody who ever practiced political journalism knows there's also value to having conversations with the people you cover that are relaxed and casually forthcoming because you both assume they're private. If something demands to be reported, you always have the option of saying, "I'd like to use that. Can I assume we're on the record?" Many political journalists think that's the civil and more productive way to proceed, but it isn't the only way. There wasn't anything improper — or even unfair — about Sovern's decision.

It's also strongly possible that he fixed on the Democratic candidate's remark for the same reason it appealed to Brown rhetorically — it's overheated, sensational and exaggerated. It's also morally wrong. To compare Hitlerism and its adherents to anything or anyone who isn't genocidal isn't just careless rhetoric but an affront to historical memory and to those who suffered at the hands of a unique historical evil. Tragedy is not a rhetorical device or a tactic of argument.

Jerry Brown is experienced enough and smart enough to know that. Saying what he did in any context simply reinforces suspicions that, at 72, he's cranky, a touch old and slightly out of touch. GOP senatorial candidate Carly Fiorina — another political novice and former CEO — created a similar impression of disconnection at the other end of the experience spectrum, when she failed to realize she was talking into a live mike and insulted Barbara Boxer.

One of the unfortunate consequences of Brown's gaffe is that it will make it harder to have a serious conversation about the astonishing role personal wealth has come to play in California politics. Whitman already has poured $91 million from her personal fortune into the gubernatorial campaign. She spent a stunning $76 per vote in the June 6 primary. In May alone, she burned through $281,000 per day. (Brown, by contrast, spent less than 50 cents for every vote he won.) Fiorina, who ran Hewlett-Packard until its board dumped her, also drew heavily on her own vast fortune.

Whitman now is saturating World Cup matches on Spanish-language television with ads stressing her opposition to both Arizona's anti-immigrant law and California's Proposition 187. The latter is a particularly neat trick since her campaign chairman is that measure's most prominent backer, former Gov. Pete Wilson. During the primary, when Whitman was desperately shoring up her right flank on immigration, she even made a commercial with Wilson. Nowadays, it's all but impossible to win a statewide office in California without significant Latino support. Since 1994, when he helped win passage of 187, Wilson has been the political equivalent of el chupacabra — something Latino parents use to frighten naughty children. Thus Whitman's expensive exercise in rebranding.

It may be true that money won't buy you love, but the jury still is out on what it will buy you in California politics.

timothy.rutten@latimes.com

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