09/16/2010 02:35 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Bill Clinton Hearts Jerry Brown! (And Other Tales of Intrigue)

For a debacle, this is certainly working out very nicely for Jerry Brown.

I'm referring to his widely publicized joke on Sunday, in which he seemed to many to have wrecked his chances for backing from former President Bill Clinton, whose long-ago false attack (based on a very inaccurate CNN report) on Brown is featured in billionaire Meg Whitman's thoroughly debunked anti-Brown TV ad.

Clinton on Tuesday issued a very snappy endorsement of Jerry Brown. In the process, he denounced Whitman's latest TV attack ad against Brown.

Billionaire Meg Whitman's thoroughly dishonest and deeply cynical TV ad features former President Bill Clinton.

With Clinton's endorsement in hand, less than 48 hours after Brown told a rather mild joke in Los Angeles questioning the consistency of Clinton's veracity, Brown thanked his former presidential campaign rival for his backing and pivoted to the launch of two new 15-second attack ads against Whitman which brand her a liar.

Was Brown's Sunday joke, for which he apologized Monday, a gaffe or a gambit?

The effect of Brown's action was to place more attention on Whitman's TV ad and on the question of whether or not Clinton, who was with former British Prime Minister Tony Blair on Monday, would endorse him. My reporting told me all along that the former president -- who had a very nasty campaign against Brown for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1992 -- would nonetheless back his former rival and denounce Whitman's TV ad. He just, well, hadn't gotten around to it yet.

Here's what Clinton said in his statement: "I strongly support Jerry Brown for governor because I believe he was a fine mayor of Oakland, he's been a very good attorney general, and he would be an excellent governor at a time when California needs his creativity and fiscal prudence."

"The tough campaign we fought 18 years ago," said Clinton in his statement, "is not relevant to the choice facing Californians today. Jerry and I put that behind us a long time ago."

For his part, Brown thanked Clinton, whom he once offered to make his chief of staff after the Arkansan lost his first re-election bid as governor: "I am deeply honored to have been endorsed by former President Bill Clinton, who, after his accomplishment-rich presidency, continues to demonstrate his commitment to bettering our state, our nation, and our world, each and every day."

Jerry Brown's brand new TV ad.

Clinton denounced Whitman's ad, which cynically features Clinton making attacks Whitman has previously leveled and which have been widely debunked. Clinton explained that his remarks in a 1992 presidential primary debate with Brown were based on an erroneous CNN report, the author of which also acknowledges his error.

As Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's state Department of Finance stated at the end of last week, contrary to Whitman's latest false claims, taxes did not go up under Brown during his first go-round as governor. Taxes went down under Brown, by nearly 5%.

And that does not include the Proposition 13 property tax cuts. Prop 13 devastated local government revenues. Fortunately, Brown had husbanded a large rainy day fund, which he used to bail out local services which otherwise would have gone belly up. As for Whitman's claim that Brown was a big spender, the truth is that Ronald Reagan was a bigger spender than Brown, even though Brown had to spend heavily to bail out local government after the passage of Prop 13.

Clinton also finally explained why he endorsed San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom last year, just a few weeks before he dropped out of his Democratic primary race against Brown. His own remarks at the time were very indistinct. As was his supposed Newsom endorsement.

Jerry Brown's Sunday gaffe, or gambit, swiftly released through Time pundit Mark Halperin's blog.

Clinton endorsed Newsom, he said, for the same reason I have reported for more than a year, as payback for Newsom's role as a national co-chair of Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign. Newsom was one of dozens of politicians around the country for whom Bill Clinton appeared on a national payback tour.

"I endorsed Mayor Gavin Newsom for governor before he withdrew and became a candidate for lieutenant governor because of his strong support for Hillary in the 2008 primary season and because of his impressive record of innovation and accomplishment," said Clinton. "He can really help revitalize California as lieutenant governor."

Most of the coverage on Monday focused on a supposed massive feud between Brown and Clinton. Which was tremendously overblown, as I've reported from the beginning. Was their campaign against each other for the 1992 Democratic presidential nomination a rugged experience? Absolutely. Very rugged, in fact, of the sort that few have experienced.

But Brown met with the Clintons during the 2008 presidential campaign. (During which he was formally neutral but preferred Barack Obama.) And some of Clinton's longtime closest backers were early supporters of Brown for governor.

Jerry Brown discussed the situation Wednesday on Good Day LA.

Was Bill Clinton going to endorse Brown anyway? Yes.

My extremely well-informed source on this, who is not Jerry Brown or anyone part of his campaign, told me weeks ago that the former president would endorse his former opponent in October.

Meanwhile, the Whitman campaign brain trust imagined that it had executed a major coup. First by using Clinton's 1992 footage in its thoroughly dishonest ad against Brown, which it refused to pull off the air. Then by crowing about the supposed feud between Brown and Clinton by pushing more video, both of Brown's Sunday joke about Clinton and of Clinton lambasting Brown during their Democratic primary race.

The net effect, however, was to move Clinton's endorsement from October to September, making it more important in the process, given widespread earlier reporting of the supposed ongoing feud between Brown and Clinton. And to draw more attention to the Whitman ad, the falseness of which was already fading from press coverage.

This is part of the problem in the Post-Press Era, which the Whitman campaign is counting on. There is little follow-up on substance. Something is reported a few times. Like, say, that Whitman's advertising is a thoroughgoing lie. Then the coverage moves on. The increasingly deracinated news media cycles the story through and shrugs.

This is how Big Lie propaganda works. A massive lie is told, over and over and over again, until resistance to it disappears and it is accepted as truth.

It's very instructive to note the rather predictable ways in which video of the Brown gaffe, or gambit, got into the news media bloodstream. And how it was covered, at least initially.

The video, complete with edited in subtitles and a transcript, surfaced a few hours after Brown made his little joke on the Washington insider blog of Time magazine pundit Mark Halperin, whose gossip-laden book on the 2008 presidential race I gave a pretty negative review here on the Huffington Post.

Halperin's blog, which is modestly dubbed "The Page," has been a regular conduit for early showings of Whitman's TV ads.

In fact, he touts this Whitman ad as the best in the country in this election cycle, absolutely "brilliant." He has yet to mention that the ad is a Big Lie, or that it is controversial in the least. Halperin wouldn't say where he got the video of Brown's little joke. Whitman staffers videotape everything Brown says in public.

Needless to say, Whitman chief strategist Mike Murphy is a longtime Halperin source. Murphy, who appeared on Meet The Press on Sunday, is also a longtime source for a host of other Washington journos, all of whom immediately pitched in along with Halperin as a hallelujah chorus to the brilliance of the Whitman ad and Jerry Brown being an out-of-it old hothead who had just blown it completely.

Like Halperin, none of them, and I do mean none of them, mentioned that the Whitman ad is false. Nor did they mention any controversy about the ad. No, it's just a "brilliant" ad.

Actually, it's not. Whatever short-term gains her lying ad may or may not afford Whitman will be more than outweighed by the fallout.

Murphy and his media fans -- who are evidently ignorant of how thoroughly he bollixed things for Arnold Schwarzenegger -- totally misread the situation with regard to Clinton, Brown, and the Democrats.

Bill Clinton and Jerry Brown had a very heated debate in Chicago during their battle for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1992.

I met Bill Clinton at a party in 1981 at Stanley Sheinbaum's house in LA. He was, as he jokingly put, "the youngest ex-governor in American history," having just been defeated for re-election as governor of Arkansas. He was young, fun, very cool and very smart, and gave me his number at his house in Little Rock, where his wife usually answered the phone.

Being a very young, non-rich, guy, I only had the bandwidth to pursue a relationship with one unknown out-of-state politician, that being Gary Hart (who as fate would have it gave Clinton his first real job in politics) and Clinton quickly got himself re-elected to the Arkansas governorship. But it was clear following him over the years what sort of politician he was and how his mind worked.

So it was clear that he was not distracted by any supposed feud with Jerry Brown leading to an anti-Brown push in the governor's race. Even had it not been clear, Clinton's longtime man in California, former senior White House aide John Emerson -- now an investment banker and chairman of the Los Angeles Music Center -- was the best man at my first wedding and an early supporter of Brown for governor.

The logic of the situation for Clinton was clear. With the issue forced by hectoring media coverage, he would quickly endorse Jerry Brown and denounce the Whitman ad cynically using footage of himself.

Brown uses the Pinocchio image for Whitman as he cites evidence of her lies about his budget practices in this new 15-second TV ad.

Thereby short-circuiting Murphy's plans to roll out still more Clinton video attacking Brown.

Clinton was always going to help Brown. This just sped things up, given the drama of their purported feud, and made the story of the phony Whitman ad bigger.

So was Brown's little joke a gaffe or a gambit?

It's hard to say. After all, one would think that Clinton could be induced to denounce Whitman's deeply cynical ad without resorting to a Monica Lewinsky reference. But he hadn't gotten around to it.

And the drama of the controversy made the story much bigger, as most media outlets lunged for the cliched "feud" story.

On the other hand, Jerry Brown is quite capable of screwing up.

After all, in his 1992 race against Clinton, he more than matched his Patton-like moves in sweeping to victory in the Colorado primary with his boneheaded plays in New York.

Brown actually led Clinton going into the New York primary. Had he won there, Clinton, long the frontrunner, would have been very much on the ropes.

But Brown, instead, came up with a gimmick. He pledged to make Jesse Jackson his vice president. Following that little brainstorm, he seemed fated to run into Al Sharpton on the streets of Manhattan.

Instead of sweeping to victory in New York, Brown sagged to a badly beaten third behind Paul Tsongas. Who had already dropped out of the race.

In the other 15-second bookend ad, Brown hits Whitman for lying about his record on job creation and taxes.

All of which is to say that Brown's livewire tendencies can definitely get him into trouble.

But, however it happened, certainly not this time.

Incidentally, Whitman still refuses to pull her now utterly debunked attack ad on Brown, but is trying to get TV stations to stop airing the California Teachers Association's tough new ad against her, which says her budget plan would lead to big new education cuts. CTA says, nothing doing. Whitman promises $15 billion in new budget cuts, on top of the big Schwarzenegger cuts, and the elimination of 40,000 state jobs, but refuses to say where she'd take all that from.

I don't know if the CTA charges are accurate or not -- it's hard to say, given the illogical mess of a "budget program" that Whitman has put out -- but they are certainly more accurate than the nonsense she and her merry band of pricey professional prevaricators are spewing.

The former Goldman Sachs director evidently believes in all the free speech that her money can buy. And that of her allies, who are spending additional millions from undisclosed sources through three business groups to attack Brown, mirroring her own discredited charges.

Whitman, incidentally, has shattered the old record for self-funding in a political campaign, previously some $109 million by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg in his re-election to a third term last year. No one in the history of the United States has spent more money on his or her campaign, for any office, including the presidency, than Meg Whitman.

She put another $15 million into her campaign on Tuesday night. That brings her official total to $119 million. But as I've previously reported, she's spent more on her campaign than she has reported, so her real total is over $121 million.

Whitman did not report much of her early spending, including at least a million dollars spent on consultants, research, and travel, and more than a million paid to chief strategist Mike Murphy two days after he cut ties with Whitman's primary opponent, Steve Poizner. That payment, which looks much more like a pay-off, was purportedly for Whitman's credit-free Hollywood production company.

Whitman had already broken Bloomberg's campaign spending record for the biggest spending non-presidential campaign in American history. (Virtually all his spending came from his own pocket.) Whitman is well over $125 million and obviously still counting.

Whitman may as well keep spending her fortune. She is already all-in on her mega-money Big Lie campaign.