THE BLOG
06/15/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Jerry Brown's Long and Winding Road

After clearing the Democratic field last year, Jerry Brown makes his first speech to the California Democratic Party convention as its de facto nominee for governor on Saturday. The LA event comes at a key moment of definition in what is arguably the biggest race in the country this year.

Billionaire Meg Whitman, the handpicked choice of Republican presidential frontrunner Mitt Romney, has been burning up the airwaves for months with the biggest spending statewide campaign ever seen in America. The former national co-chair of the McCain/Palin campaign is way ahead of super-rich state Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner, who is trying to put on a closing burst of advertising himself, slamming her between now and the June Republican primary. And she's pulled even with or slightly ahead of Brown, who has spent virtually nothing.

On April 9th, Jerry Brown appeared at the first of the 2010 Google forums in conversation with Google CEO Eric Schmidt.

He's also conducted a fairly stealthy campaign. To the extent that someone who is California's chief law enforcement officer and is constantly engaging publicly with a raft of high-profile issues can be described as stealthy.

But while Whitman, who's barely bothered to vote and lied in her first TV ad about how long she's lived in California, flip-flops her positions with dizzying rapidity and tries to "brand" herself with relentless advertising, Brown has genuine definition. The question is: Whose definition will prevail?

If ever there was a political figure who brought to mind the title of the Beatles' classic, "The Long and Winding Road," it's Jerry Brown. He was California's youngest elected governor, at age 36, when he was sworn in the first time in 1975. If he wins in November, he'll be our oldest governor. An intellectual provocateur by nature, Jerry Brown, one of the most intriguing political figures this country has produced, has played a myriad of roles and offered a myriad of positions.

Ever fascinated by the new computing and biological technologies he helped foster in his first go-round as governor (when Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, Intel co-founder Bob Noyce, and Silicon Valley marketing guru Regis McKenna served in his administration) -- in which shifting computing paradigms and recombinant DNA played the leading edge of the change -- Brown has always been fascinated by what I call recombinant ideologies.

Saying that he has an "insider's knowledge" and an "outsider's mind," Jerry Brown formally announced his candidacy for Governor of California last month.

There is a throughline to Brown's story. But, ever contemporary in that he focuses on the now, he resists imposing his own narrative on his own story. Because, you see, that would define it.

Which makes him intriguing. But is also a vulnerability, in that opponents can seize on selected aspects of his voluminous record and spin it out. Whitman is already testing her attack slogan against Jerry Brown: "Way Too Liberal For Way Too Long." That's something that many, especially on the left, would dispute.

Arnold Schwarzenegger may have been The Running Man in the movies, but from 1970 to 1982, no one in American politics was more of a running man than Jerry Brown.

First elected California's secretary of state, then twice elected governor, the second time in a landslide, Brown also ran for president twice and U.S. senator once during a dizzying dozen years. At the end of it, both he and the voters seemed a bit worn out, in need of a break from each other. (After a late-breaking runner-up bid for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1976, Brown mounted an ill-conceived run in 1980 which probably led to his narrow loss for the U.S. Senate two years later.)

Brown put his Yale law degree to use and also founded the highly regarded New Perspectives Quarterly policy magazine and a high tech think tank. And the former Jesuit seminarian traveled the world, working with Mother Teresa in India and furthering his Zen studies in Japan.

By the end of the '80s, the political itch had returned, so Brown ran for and won the chairmanship of the California Democratic Party. But though he built the party's first professional apparatus, party leadership wasn't his natural calling. So in 1992 he took another crack at the presidency.

Brown got off to a slow start but emerged as the chief primary rival to eventual President Bill Clinton. After a lengthy stint as a talk radio host, Brown entered politics once again as a big city mayoral candidate. But not of his native San Francisco. Or Los Angeles, where he'd lived before becoming governor, but of gritty Oakland, best known as the home of the Raiders and one of the most crime-ridden cities in the country.

Jerry Brown and Bill Clinton went toe to toe during the 1992 presidential primaries.

After two landslide elections as Oakland's mayor, with a renewed appreciation for law enforcement, Brown won a landslide election as California's attorney general in 2006.

He loves being California attorney general, a post his late father, the legendary Governor Pat Brown, held before him. Grounded, after his relationship with Linda Ronstadt and a succession of starlets, in a marriage to his witty and very shrewd wife, Anne Gust Brown, he enjoys hiking in the Sierra.

Now he's looking to be governor again, of a state that many say is ungovernable, that has seen Arnold Schwarzenegger's once record job approval rating plummet. Why would he want to to do that?

While things have gotten much worse than when Brown was first governor, none of this is new for him. Though one wonders why he wants to be in the center ring of the clown show of politics in the great circus that is California. Then one seizes on the obvious; he enjoys the intellectual jousting and give and take of the political arena. And he loves a challenge.

Brown has been described as mercurial, even erratic. The "Governor Moonbeam" moniker is forever attached to him, though the irascible Chicago columnist who coined the term, Mike Royko, later apologized for it in print, calling Brown grounded and visionary.

Notwithstanding the twists and turns, there is a narrative that runs throughout his four decades in public life, something that establishes a consistent throughline that grounds him in the nitty gritty of the real as well as the aspirational. He has always been a consistent candidate of the future. Today he presents himself as a common sense candidate of the now.

In November 2007, Attorney General Jerry Brown and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger joined forces to sue the Bush/Cheney Administration for blocking California's moves to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

I re-watched Brown's 2007 inaugural address as attorney general and was struck by the four themes in that speech. Brown promised robust crime-fighting, protection of working people, combating of greenhouse gases and protection of the environment, and promotion of "elegant density" for smart, sustainable development.

This is what he said he'd do as attorney general and this is what he's done, at a time in which few elected officials are actually delivering what they've promised.

In fact, those are consistent themes of his career.

While running for governor in 1974, Brown passed the state's Political Reform Act, which took the cash out of political campaigns and established disclosure rules for campaigns and lobbying.

While he opposed the death penalty, Brown pursued tough new laws on crime when he first served as California's governor. He also appointed the most diverse administration in the country and expanded the right to unionization, crafting the first farm labor act in the country working with his friend Cesar Chavez and legalizing unions for public employees.

In keeping with what he called the Era of Limits, financial and environmental, which seems to have returned with a vengeance, he was also rather cheap. Brown's frugal fiscal policies created one of the largest state surpluses in history. Which later had to be used to bail out local governments whose revenue was devastated by the passage of Prop 13. And he vetoed some pay raises for public employees. He's the only California governor in modern history who did not institute a general tax increase. And that includes the famously conservative Ronald Reagan.

Brown also criticized the sprawl pattern of California's development.

More successfully, he intervened to change the direction of California's energy policy, to use energy in much more efficient ways for an expanding population and economy and to increase renewable energy. President Barack Obama has repeatedly cited the energy policies Brown put in place as a model for the nation.

The fact is that a lot of good things got done when Brown was governor. And he also made some notable mistakes. Which he acknowledges, but I think he should talk more about. It will make a nice contrast in the general election, especially if Whitman, who made enormous mistakes as a corporate executive but whose ghost-written memoirs place her in the pantheon of business leadership, is the Republican nominee.

Jerry Brown greatly amused a UCLA symposium when he appeared in 2005 with former Governors George Deukmejian and Gray Davis.

The reality is that it's not a time for beginners.

Brown enjoys the give and take of public life. Unlike Whitman, he doesn't hide out behind a panoply of perks and a parade of pricey political consultants and lobbyists. He's almost shockingly accessible.

And by this point, Brown must know a lot more than he did when he thought he knew it all.

One thing Brown has always known about is the need to keep pushing for smarter and cleaner ways to grow the economy. Ways that will spur a new wave of technological innovation and create new industries and jobs, that will reduce our dependency on imported oil, reduce our skyrocketing debt, and build a sustainable future.

Of course, there is another definitional effort on Jerry Brown.

On Tuesday of last week, the California Chamber of Commerce launched a purported educational TV ad and web site on the issues. What they really were about was attacking Jerry Brown, on the essentially spurious grounds that he is a big tax-and-spend liberal. Virtually every line of the ad was false or wildly distorted, as discussed on my site.

The ad was illegal. A non-profit corporation can't run TV attack ads. Not long after came word that the Chamber, following an outcry on its board of directors and much public controversy, was pulling the ad.

The Chamber refuses to say who actually created the ad, which looks nothing like an educational effort -- the only thing legally allowed for a non-profit corporation -- and looks very much like the work of a standard hyper-partisan political hack.

The illegal and wildly inaccurate California Chamber of Commerce attack ad against Brown, which was pulled from the air shortly after its launch last week.

The ad buy, in excess of one million dollars, was reportedly placed by the Washington, D.C. area firm Mentzer Media. Mentzer was the media buying firm used by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth in their infamously distorted attack ads against 2004 Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry. That was the smear campaign which made out a Vietnam War hero to be a coward.

The real reason to have tried to run this ad under the false rubric of an educational effort was to evade the law requiring disclosure of its true funders.

But the situation stank to high heaven, and could not last. So now the ad is gone. It is so gone that it was pulled from the "educational" web site set up by the Chamber to attack Jerry Brown. And the web site itself was pulled at the beginning of this week, as it was illegal as well.

To sum up, this effort was shot through with dishonesty, from start to finish. Its origins are dishonest, its presentation is dishonest, and its substance is dishonest.

But it won't be the last.

You can check things during the day on my site, New West Notes ... www.newwestnotes.com.