Jerry Brown has spent much of his race for governor assaulting the character of his Republican rival, Meg Whitman. But with a jaw-dropping bit of rhetoric, he has extended his criticism to a former Democratic president, Bill Clinton. And he has done so in the least delicate of ways, by referring to Clinton's dalliance with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.
"Meg Whitman. She stops at nothing. She's even got Clinton lying about me. That's right. No, did you see that? Where he said I raised taxes. It's a lie," the Democratic nominee said Sunday, referring to a television ad the GOP candidate is airing that contains video of Clinton criticizing Brown during the 1992 presidential primaries.
"I mean Clinton's a nice guy, but who ever said he always told the truth?" Brown told a crowd at the opening of a Democratic Party office in East Los Angeles. "You remember, right? There's that whole story there about did he or didn't he. OK, I did — I did not have taxes with this state."
The last line was an oblique play on Clinton's defense against the brewing sex scandal in early 1998. At the time, Clinton asserted, "I did not have sexual relations with that woman." It was later proven that he did, and he subsequently faced impeachment proceedings.
Brown's comments were captured Sunday at an unannounced visit to the Democratic Party office. Video of his comments surfaced on a political news website on Monday. Several hours later, Brown called a news conference and apologized.
"Bill Clinton was an excellent president," Brown said in Oakland. "It was certainly wrong for me to joke about an incident from many, many years ago, and I'm sorry for that."
Brown apologized to a senior Clinton aide but has not spoken directly with the former president and demurred when asked if he expected Clinton to endorse him. Attempts to reach a Clinton spokesperson were unsuccessful.
Brown and Clinton have a tense history because of the 1992 presidential primaries, during which they tangled as they vied for the nomination. Their contest was at times ugly and personal: Brown called Clinton the "prince of sleaze," and they got into a finger-pointing dispute in a debate when Brown accused Clinton of funneling state money to Hillary Clinton's law practice, and Clinton mocked Brown's expensive suits and family wealth.
After Clinton racked up enough delegates to win the nomination, Brown declined to endorse him at the party's convention. The antipathy continued through Clinton's presidency, with Brown saying in 1998 that Clinton's policy failings were "overwhelming," and that Brown voted for Ralph Nader in 1996.
Last year, Clinton was seen as extending the enmity when he endorsed Gavin Newsom in the Democratic gubernatorial primary. Newsom quickly dropped out because he couldn't raise enough money to compete against Brown.
Clinton became an issue in the gubernatorial contest last week, when Whitman began airing a 30-second ad that featured the footage of Clinton trying to refute Brown's claim that he lowered taxes as governor of California from 1975-83.
" CNN — not me, CNN — says his assertion about his tax record was, quote, just plain wrong," Clinton says in the ad. "He raised taxes as governor of California.... He doesn't tell the people the truth."
As The Times reported Friday, the CNN report was inaccurate. The Brown campaign has called on Whitman to take down the ad; the Whitman campaign has refused.
Democrats were dismayed but unsurprised by Brown's gaffe. The candidate is known for his free-wheeling, anti-talking-point nature, and earlier in the campaign he faced criticism for comparing Whitman's campaign to that of a Nazi propagandist.
"It represents everything that insiders simultaneously love and fear about Brown's campaign instincts. He's clever and witty but not always strategic," said Dan Newman, a Democratic operative.
Garry South, who worked on Newsom's gubernatorial bid and is a harsh Brown critic, said the remarks reflected a "self-indulgent death wish," given Clinton's continued popularity in California.
"He needed Bill Clinton to step up and undermine the validity of this ad," South said. "Instead of that, he trashes the guy. Unbelievable."
Even as Brown apologized, he tried to steer the discussion back to questions about Whitman's honesty.
"As a billionaire, she thinks she can make things up and lie in a political campaign," Brown said. "You know, I've made my mistakes, and the inappropriate joke about President Clinton is one of them. But from me you'll always get it straight. I'll tell you the truth."