Most Californians will not remember Jerry Brown from his first two terms as governor. In those days, between 1975 and 1983, he was stunningly youthful, heir to his father's name yet slightly at odds with his legacy, brash, serious and intellectually adventurous. Brown could seem flighty — the futon, the tumble of ideas, the pugnacity, the make-it-up-on-the-fly daily schedule — but he mirrored California as it was. He was a young governor in a young state, energetic, optimistic, a little off-kilter.
Those who have only heard tell of those days will not fully comprehend the spectacle of Gov.-elect Brown. On stage Tuesday night, he was gentle, surrounded by children, a little clunky in his movements. He was happily, conspicuously and appreciatively married. Jerry Brown, of all people, was avuncular.
So what does the new Brown share with the old? As he transitions back to the office that has been so closely associated with his family, Brown has the opportunity to demonstrate that he has retained his shrewd ability to work the levers of powers while also proving that he has outgrown some of the excesses that marred his earlier service.
In his 1970s iteration, Brown charmed California with his broad intellect and abundant creativity, but also disappointed it with pronounced lapses of judgment. In 1977, he appointed the woefully unprepared Rose Bird to serve as chief justice of California, and she struggled until the voters ultimately removed her. The following year, Brown was caught flat-footed by the state's taxpayer revolt, initially dismissing Proposition 13 and then pivoting to embrace it. He ran two campaigns for president (the first of which couldn't help but distract him from the state's business) that were remembered more for Brown's lack of discipline than for anything he brought to the contests. Moreover, Brown had then — and has still — a tendency to blurt, forever forcing him to extricate himself from mild embarrassment.
In his next term, the challenge is to marshal experience and expertise — both of which he has to spare — while tamping down his impulsiveness. The Brown who waffled over Proposition 13 is not much in demand today. But the Brown who patiently and painstakingly negotiated rights for farmworkers is badly needed in a state with complex problems whose solutions require a student and practitioner of power. As mayor of Oakland and as California's attorney general, Brown demonstrated maturity that is sorely lacking in today's Sacramento; he now has the chance to impose seriousness of purpose on his new colleagues. As a candidate, Brown foolishly promised he would not raise taxes without a vote of the people; now given the chance to govern, he should shed faux populism in favor of hard choices and personal accountability.
As for his opponent, Meg Whitman, she bid farewell to this race with thanks to her supporters for having "made history." Not so. A year from now, Whitman's campaign will be the answer to a trivia question ("What candidate spent the largest personal fortune to secure an office, only to lose?") and little else. She introduced no new ideas into California politics, and proved nothing other than that the arrogance of business executives does not translate well into political leadership, and that even extravagant sums of money and consultant-driven positions do not guarantee an office.
Whitman did not make history. Brown already has, and may again.