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Jerry Brown Perks Up On Presidential Politics 35 Years After One of His Best and Most Disastrous Speeches

03/28/2015 01:52 pm ET | Updated Mar 28, 2015

Governor Jerry Brown made something of a stir last weekend with a crisp appearance on Meet the Press. After months of repeatedly saying he's not running for president, the four-term governor of the nation's largest state allowed as how, if he were 10 years younger, as host Chuck Todd put it, he might well be mounting a fourth presidential campaign.

But he's not, so he isn't. Well, unless Hillary Clinton, whom Brown all but endorsed at a White House press avail earlier this month, blows up. She's a strong frontrunner. And yet, she's made some big mistakes in her pre-campaign mode and really has not impressed much even when she's not getting into trouble.

On Meet the Press, Governor Jerry Brown ripped into climate change denialist Ted Cruz, the far right Texas senator and brand-new Republican presidential candidate.

But even though he is not running for president, Brown, who just signed an emergency $1.1 billion drought relief bill largely financed by 2006 bond-authorized funds, can impact presidential politics beyond the example of his futurist/pragmatist agenda in California. So he ripped new Senate Majority Mitch McConnell for trying to undo environmental regulations on coal-fired power plants. And he declared brand-new Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz, the far right freshman senator from Texas -- who plays like a slightly better-educated Joe McCarthy -- to be unworthy of public office for his egregious denialism about climate change.

Asked what the top three priorities should be for a presidential administration, Brown had no hesitation: "Well, I think you've got to get a budget that lives within its means. And you can't spend 21 percent or 22 percent of the gross domestic product and only collect 18 percent. So you have to find some ways of getting some revenue, particularly on our roads and highways and transportation and trains and bridges.

"Pretty fundamental. Secondly, I think climate change is very important. And thirdly, we have to invest in science, in technology, in our universities, and that's building for the future and not stealing from it. So I'd like to see a positive agenda and not the mythology that somehow the government can retract to what it was in 1929 under Calvin Coolidge, carried forth under Hoover."

Actually, it sounds a lot like what he said in his least successful presidential campaign 35 years ago, especially in one of his best and most disastrous speeches, which took place 35 years ago today. Which means, unfortunately for us, that it's still ahead of the curve.

Brown was twice the runner-up for the Democratic presidential nomination, in 1976 and 1992. As interesting as those campaigns are, it's Brown's 1980 presidential campaign, which contributed greatly to the sense that he was simply running too often, that is most relevant now. The slogan for this campaign was "Protect the Earth, Serve the People, Explore the Universe."

After winning a landslide re-election as governor of California by a whopping 20 points, the 41-year old Brown set out to take down the president he'd beaten in a string of late presidential primaries in 1976.

But politics is also a matter of circumstance as well as intrinsic worth, and Brown's second presidential run ran up against big circumstances. Ted Kennedy decided to try for the restoration of Camelot, running against incumbent President Jimmy Carter, setting up the central dynamic of the primaries. Complicating it all was the Iranian hostage crisis.

As a result, there was little oxygen in the race for Brown, whose high-profile relationship with rock music queen Linda Ronstadt distracted as much as it tantalized. He looked for niches of support here and there, pushing some ideas now mostly seen as mainstream but which marginalized him at the time. Potential support bled away, even in California.

By early 1980, Brown was in danger of being humiliated at his own state Democratic convention. He'd topped out at 14 percent in the Maine caucuses, getting 10 percent in the New Hampshire primary. Everywhere else he was in single digits. His chief of staff (later California's governor), Gray Davis, came up with a way to finesse the situation in California while Brown prepared for a big last stand effort in the Wisconsin primary on April 1st.

Part one of "The Shape of Things To Come."

As it happened, just a few years out of Berkeley I already had a lot of experience playing around at state Democratic conventions, having done an earlier party platform fight as a vice president of the liberal California Democratic Council, which had hundreds of state convention delegates, and having managed an unsuccessful race for state party chairman. In the fall of 1979, as a CDC vice president and LA county energy commissioner I decided to do a party platform plank advocating the phasing out of nuclear power plants in California. Wearing another hat as coordinator of the Campaign for Economic Democracy's team of political operatives, I took the likely convention platform fight to CED Chairman Tom Hayden as a way to further develop influence for the organization in the state party, CED at that point having only a few dozen delegates. (Yet another hat was that of a naval reservist, which I didn't mention to lefty friends who, in the spirit of the times, would probably think I worked for the CIA or something. Actually, I just fooled around some with little boats.) I also sent the nuclear phase-out plank to Governor Brown's office for endorsement.

Davis realized that this state convention fight over nuclear power was a perfect gambit for the governor, so it became the Brown for President activity at Brown's home state convention, with me coordinating the operation and, as the author of the amendment, serving as spokesman. The gambit being that Brown for President was throwing its mostly non-existent presidential campaign support in the state party into winning the platform policy fight rather than engaging in a straw poll in which Brown would fare poorly. It went very well. The platform fight was both dramatic and successful, though I had to get a platform committee member -- my future best man and Gary Hart for President colleague John Emerson, now our very able U.S. ambassador to crucial ally Germany -- to vote no rather than yes on the nuclear phase-out proposal to make sure we got the exciting convention floor fight we wanted.

Which papered over, for the time being, Brown's lack of support in his home state.

Incidentally, phasing out nuclear power plants in California plays very well as policy today. The Rancho Seco plant outside Sacramento was shut down in a public vote I campaigned for in 1990. The San Onofre plant shut down in 2013 after a series of big problems over the years -- it was also down for most of the California electric power crisis of 2000 and 2001 -- with the utility trying to stick ratepayers for billions in new charges. Only the Diablo Canyon plant on the central California coast remains, and that's near a couple of earthquake faults.

After a series of primary and caucus losses, it was clear that Brown needed to make a real stand somewhere or get out of the race. Wisconsin was it. Director Francis Ford Coppola was then, as he has done far more recently, helping Brown with his TV advertising. The Godfather auteur, whose enigmatic classic Apocalypse Now was nominated for a raft of Academy Awards a few weeks hence, volunteered to produce a live TV broadcast of a Brown address from the steps of the Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison the Friday evening before the primary.

Entitled "The Shape of Things To Come," in conscious echo of H.G. Wells, the speech was set for March 28th, 1980.

Media coverage, then and forever after, focused on the production's technical glitches. Coppola tried new visual effects to augment Brown's message. But the tech wasn't ready for live TV and the effects glitched frequently, distracting from Brown's substance and performance. Little astronauts somersaulting on Brown's forehead didn't help.

I listened to it over a speakerphone in Tom Hayden's office in Santa Monica and thought it was very good (as I thought in later years repeatedly listening to an audio cassette of the speech in my car). But an advance person phoning in from the site, the late Steve Rivers -- who went on to do terrific work with notable Hollywood and political figures and causes -- reported the sad reality of what had gone out over the tube.

Brown finished third in the Wisconsin primary -- with 12 percent of the vote, picking up his only national convention delegate of the campaign -- and ended his candidacy.

But looking back at the speech is, in many respects, to look forward.

The young California governor offered a tour d'horizon of then contemporary American history, most of which rings true today.

The U.S., he noted, was unchallenged after World War II. "Our old adversaries were in rubble and we rebuilt them. And as we rebuilt them, we rebuilt ourselves." The "dividend of this renewal" gave us the opportunity to do many generous things here at home.

But the rebuilt nations became our competitors. Very gradually, the productivity rate of our country declined.

"We used to export oil," Brown noted, less than seven years after the Arab oil embargo had fundamentally changed the energy game. "Cars, television, cameras, watches... We had no peer."

Then the decision was made to expand a war abroad, then Vietnam, and to pursue a Great Society at home, a strategy of "guns AND butter."

We began to decline, Brown said, as we funded these projects "not from current dollars, but from fiscal gimmickry, borrowing from the future."

"This country," Brown declared, "has pursued a path that Rome and Germany after World War I have pursued, running the printing presses of money." Three percent a year growth in wealth declined in the 1970s to less than one percent, and "we began to fight over our decline in purchasing power."

The Republican response? "The imperative to avoid regulation and taxes."

"The credit card came into vogue." Public and private debt accelerated to prop up and paper over a slowing and hollowing economy.

"Our leaders," he declared, "can't tell us the truth. We're in decline. Now the cheap raw materials we relied on are expensive, the Third World wants its share."

It's a situation, in Brown's view, in which presidents come and go, with politics increasingly a cynical enterprise. In such a scenario, it's "hard to sustain unity, to sustain dynamism."

Brown spoke of the near demise of the U.S. auto industry. "Our third largest auto company is bankrupt," he observed. "Our second largest auto company lost a billion dollars, bailed out only by foreign sales. Our number one auto company has to give people four or five hundred dollars to get them to buy a car."

The great cities, he said, were declining, and poverty was on the rise.

Part two of "The Shape of Things To Come."

It's time, he said "to reindustrialize." Surely, he argued, we don't have to rely on a war as an excuse to revitalize the economy. It was time, he said, to invest in new technologies, protecting the environment, educating people, to make America "once again a society with upward momentum."

Laying out several specific policies, he issued "a call to arms, not to war, but to peace, to reindustrialize this country and regain our independence."

First, he said, we had to stabilize the economy, to stop inflation. The federal government had to "stop the printing press," as he put it, as government shouldn't print more money than can be sustained by the production of the economy. He proposed policies to encourage personal savings.

Next he called for industrial policies to re-tool the economy, to train and re-train workers using new technologies to create new vehicles and transit systems, including high-speed rail, and to promote health science, information technology, and renewable energy, forging a "North American economic community" in the process.

"We must revolutionize the world and make this planet a very small global village, an interconnected family on a very small speck in this universe."

Brown called for an international forum, in which developed countries create a partnership with poorer nations "exchanging our health science, technology, and energy know-how for raw materials, creating a new economic order lifting all of us."

Back at home, to restore a sense of citizenship in America which had been shattered in the '60s and '70s, Brown urged the re-establishment of the Civilian Conservation Corps begun by Franklin Roosevelt.

He then returned again to energy policy. Noting that "5 percent of the world cannot continue to consume 30 percent of its oil" without deep repercussions, including the specter of war for oil, Brown urged the establishment of "long-term contracts with Mexico, the Saudis" and other oil powers in order to hold down the price and guarantee supply.

Noting that "we waste 40 to 50 percent of the energy we consume," Brown urged national policies to promote conservation and energy efficiency similar to those he was instituting in California, which subsequently became a national model.

He emphasized renewable energy, in the form of solar energy, wind energy, cogeneration, geothermal, and small-scale hydroelectric, noting: "We waste more steam from factories than is generated by nuclear power plants." And he urged that utilities buy back surplus power that farmers, factories, and communities can generate.

Brown closed with a call to create new vehicles, reduce dependency on foreign oil, and make America stronger and more secure.

Of the 1980 Democratic presidential primary messages from Jimmy Carter, Ted Kennedy, and Brown, only Brown's has particular relevance today. Ted Kennedy -- who infamously struggled to explain why he wanted to be president in a fall 1979 interview with NBC journalist Roger Mudd -- was pushing the old-time liberal religion he adopted in lieu of the tougher, more experimental liberalism pursued by his legendary brothers John F. Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy. Carter was running on incumbency.

"We can invent a future," Brown declared in his speech 35 years ago today. Though some of it is happening in California, that future remains largely uninvented. America is largely adrift in the 21st century.

It's unlikely that Brown, who comes from very long-lived stock, will have the opportunity to foster the future he spoke, and speaks, of as president. He could probably be elected governor of California as long as he wants but for term limits, which claim him in January 2019.

But there are other ways to impact presidential politics. One is by speaking out, in various ways, during the campaign season. Another may be, if Dianne Feinstein retires in 2018, speaking out as a U.S. senator. That's what senators are supposed to and, notwithstanding his executive temperament, Brown -- properly focused and inspired -- is as natural an advocate and debater as there is around.

And it would be poetic justice. For Brown would likely have been elected to the Senate in 1982 had he not sought the White House again in 1980.

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