By Bill Boyarsky
More than a quarter of a century before Barack Obama made his name with a speech at the Democratic National Convention, another African-American politician, Willie L. Brown Jr. of San Francisco, did the same—but under much different circumstances.
Brown, who was speaker of the California state Assembly for 14½ years and mayor of San Francisco for eight, has told his life’s story in “Basic Brown: My Life and Times” (Simon & Schuster). It is an enlightening, amusing memoir of an intelligent, witty politician whose career has encompassed the grit of the California capital, the intricate—and on one occasion murderous—politics of San Francisco City Hall, and, throughout, the African-American drive for political equality.
Most political memoirs are ponderous efforts by a ghostwriter to ensure the autobiographer’s place in history. There is a lot of that in this book as Brown describes his climb from Texas poverty to political power. Too much of it is self-congratulatory. His ego runs wild when he talks about his expensive wardrobe, his charm with women and his political skill. But Brown is saved by his sense of humor, and his memoir, told through San Francisco writer P.J. Corkery, captures his cynical wit and gift of anecdote.
There are moving portions of the book. Brown was in San Francisco City Hall the day his friend Mayor George Moscone was shot to death by Dan White, who was angry because the mayor had decided against reappointing him to the Board of Supervisors. Brown’s description of the event captures the frenzy and sadness of the moment. Moments after White killed Moscone, he assassinated Harvey Milk, a county supervisor and a highly respected, even beloved, leader of the gay community. White thought that Milk, Moscone, Brown and others were engaged in a cabal against him.
Brown provides excellent examples of his arm-twisting tactics and trickiness. On many occasions he used them for a good cause, as when he convinced the Legislature to pass a bill decriminalizing sexual acts between consenting adults. Before the law was enacted, Brown, an attorney, had defended many gay and straight San Franciscans who had been arrested for engaging in consensual sex.
Most relevant today are Brown’s thoughts about African-Americans succeeding in a white political world. He provides context to Obama’s effort to deal with the issue as the Illinois senator runs for the Democratic presidential nomination.
A lot of politicians and reporters bridled when Brown brought up race when he was in power. What’s he got to complain about? they asked. Race didn’t seem central to his political persona. He was so smart and charming that whites, blacks, Latinos, almost everybody in power, sought him out as a social companion. Among his San Francisco pals were white San Franciscans Wilkes Bashford, his clothier, and Herb Caen, the journalist who made Brown one of the sparkling characters in the ever-popular daily San Francisco Chronicle column that painted a glowing picture of a city Caen called “Baghdad by the Bay (this was long before the Iraq war). The first three people to urge Brown to run for California speaker were two blacks and a white, soon joined by two more whites, another black and two Latinos.
Like Obama, Brown was elected in a racially diverse but majority white area. Both needed the support of white voters to win. While campaigning and in office, both took up issues that were important to everybody, regardless of race. But despite his campaigning, Brown found he was pigeonholed when he was elected to the state Assembly. “Once a black person gets into the legislature, the council, the senate, the cabinet, the white power brokers assume that the black member is there just as a spokesperson for the black community,” Brown said. “I’ve had to work hard, have had to show exhaustive and unerring command of subject matter ranging from timber to triage, from education to the environment, just to be taken seriously on these subjects because at first, other politicians figured I was only interested in one thing: being a spokesman for the black community on issues of concern to the black world. ... You have to fight against that limitation. ...”
A broad issue propelled Brown to national attention during the 1972 Democratic national convention. The issue was the Vietnam War, opposed by a coalition that cut across racial lines strongly reflected by the 271-member California delegation. Roughly half were women, more than 50 were of college age, and 51 were black. They ranged from farmworkers to celebrities.
Sen. George McGovern, the anti-war insurgent, had the nomination pretty well sewed up by the time the national convention convened in Miami Beach. But the forces of former Vice President Hubert Humphrey, who had narrowly lost to Richard Nixon four years before, would not quit. Humphrey was the candidate of the party Establishment even though he was reviled by those opposed to the war. At the convention, Humphrey supporters opposed the seating of the California delegation, contending it did not represent the state party. “Although we had right and California law on our side, an intense, convoluted, passionate fight tussled for days in Miami, and got wrapped up in arguments over the seating of other delegations,” Brown recalled. “It was a mess and touch and go for days.”
At a crucial point, Brown rose on the convention floor. “Seat my delegation,” he said. Referring to past convention credential fights in which he had supported Southern civil rights insurgents, Brown said, “I did it for you in Mississippi in ‘64, in Georgia in ‘68. It’s now California in ‘72. I desire no less. Give me back my delegation.” The Californians were seated, as were the other McGovern delegations. The speech was one of the convention’s highlights, and Brown emerged not as a black politician but as one of the anti-war movement’s most commanding advocates.
In his speech to the 2004 Democratic convention, Obama’s themes also cut across racial lines: “There is not a liberal America and a conservative America—there is the United States of America. There is not a black America and a white America and Latino America and Asian America—there’s the United States of America. ... We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes. ...” The speech put him on the national political stage.
Yet in becoming candidates of all the people, African-American leaders still feel a special obligation to their communities. This, by the way, is not exclusive to politicians. When I was at the Los Angeles Times, my African-American, Latino and Asian-American colleagues also felt an obligation to their communities—not to slant the news, but to make sure their people were adequately and fairly covered. It was a reaction justified, I thought, by many decades of coverage that ignored minority communities and then often reported on them superficially.
Black politicians, Brown writes, must understand that “in terms of electing political leaders, black people were and are much more concerned about your ability to speak upon behalf of black people than they are about your ability to speak up on other issues. What you must show, one way or another, is that you are absent a fear of white people, that you really are unstymied by the white world.”
The person considered the most unstymied is a black minister. “That’s one of the reasons, I suspect, why black preachers often have been afforded the mantle of political leadership even if they weren’t always good at politics,” Brown writes. “Black preachers were viewed as not subject to being influenced or compromised. The perception was that whitey couldn’t get to them. The black communities financially supported the black preachers, their upkeep provided by love offerings, pastoral aid, housing, and cars. So black people felt their clergy couldn’t be touched by the white world. A minister was seen as a legitimate spokesperson for black people—and that more than anything else determines whether or not you’ll get black support.”
Such a minister is deeply intertwined in every aspect of congregation and community, a connection that helps explain the relationship between Obama and his former minister, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. As Obama said in his speech on race, “Like other predominantly black churches across the country, Trinity [his church] embodies the black community in its entirety—the doctor and the welfare mom, the model student and the former gang-banger. Like other black churches, Trinity’s services are full of raucous laughter and sometimes bawdy humor. They are full of dancing, clapping, screaming and shouting that may seem jarring to the untrained ear. The church contains in full the kindness and cruelty, the fierce intelligence and the shocking ignorance, the struggles and successes, the love and yes, the bitterness and bias that make up the black experience in America. ... I can no more disown him [Wright] than I can disown the black community.”
Some reviewers were captivated by Brown’s rollicking view of political life. I was more interested in the dark side, vividly illustrated in his chapter on “Black Politics and Racism Today.” As mayor, Brown named a lot of blacks as supervisors, commissioners and department heads. “On the day I left, within the hour I left—my successors began a consistent systematic dismantling of that,” he said.
“The lesson for African Americans, I guess, is that you have to fight every day to maintain the progress you have made. And if you’re a black politician you’d better expect to face the charge every day of being above yourself. God forbid you should appoint blacks or friends to high office. Loyalty is something that is allowed only to the country club set. Well, this isn’t racism of an old-fashioned sort, but in America today we are in kind of denial about race in public life.”
I read these words to Brown when I interviewed him before an audience at an author’s program at the Los Angeles Central Public Library. I said he sounded angry. No, he said, not angry. Bitter? I asked. He didn’t answer. He didn’t have to. The answer is in his book when he recalled something he said to someone from the Los Angeles Times: “It’s tough being black, mister.”
AP photo /Tony Avelar