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Jerry Brown: California’s Mystery Man

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Posted on May 15, 2013
AP/Rich Pedroncelli

By Bill Boyarsky

One of California’s great mysteries is the state’s governor, Jerry Brown. In a time when America’s politicians strive to be everywoman and everyman, Brown goes his own way. While a nation frantically chases youth, the 75-year-old governor who glories in his age and experience, is at the top of his game.

In his new and informative biography of Brown, “Trailblazer,” journalist Chuck McFadden offers an explanation. He describes the governor as a “contrasting amalgam of religious questing, down-and-dirty politics, and consistent, fervent ambition.” (Full disclosure: As the book’s acknowledgements indicate, I saw the manuscript before it was published and made suggestions.)

This examination of the qualities behind Brown’s longevity—he was previously governor from 1975 to 1983—is valuable reading for Californians and non-Californians as the nation finds itself a prisoner of conventional politics, stale thinking and tedious political rhetoric.

Before Brown took office in 2011, California had been scorned as a prime example of dysfunction with its huge deficit, deteriorating public facilities and gridlocked government. Brown persuaded the voters to approve a tax increase that began to lift the state out of a perennial budget deficit. He helped end years of right-wing Republican power in the Legislature. And he has begun to dissipate the dark cloud of failure that has been part of the California story for decades.

McFadden, who has reported on California state government for The Associated Press, covers Brown through a political career that includes the governorship and three presidential campaigns, two of them quixotic and one, in 1992, having a certain logic behind it.

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That is expected. What intrigued me—and what makes this book especially valuable—is the way the author has zeroed in on Brown’s spiritual and intellectual growth. He says these factors have had more of an impact on the governor than his traditional political experiences, which date back to childhood. His father was Edmund G. (Pat) Brown Sr., California governor from 1959 to 1967.

The younger Brown studied to be a Jesuit priest and then dropped out of the seminary, graduated from UC Berkeley and Yale Law School and practiced law before beginning his successful career in state politics. After his first two terms as governor, notes McFadden, he rejected the usual course—“private sector occupations while plotting a comeback.” 

Instead, McFadden writes, “For the next five years, displaying the baked-in, central contradiction that makes his life so fascinating, this politician son of a politician who had never met an elective office he didn’t like, gave rein to his always-present spiritual side.”

He studied Zen in Japan with Zen master Yamada Koun and Father Hugo Lassalle, a Jesuit priest and Zen practitioner who had lived in Japan since 1929 and was severely wounded in the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Brown went to Bangladesh as a CARE ambassador during severe flooding and spent a month with Mother Teresa in her Home for the Dying in Calcutta, India. He met and admired Ivan Illich, the brilliant philosopher-priest well known for his critiques of modernity and institutions of the industrial world.

Brown’s was a conventional, stable family upbringing, also an important influence on his personality. I knew Pat Brown, his wife Bernice and their children—Jerry and his three sisters, one of whom, Kathleen, was California state treasurer and a candidate for governor. As far as a political family being normal and mutually supportive—a difficult task—this one was.

The Brown I first met, in the early 1970s, must have been an intellectually challenging kid around the family dinner table. As a young adult, he was a know-it-all, impatient or condescending with those he didn’t respect, a large category. Among this class were reporters. He appeared to believe we would not have gone into journalism if we had been more intelligent, imaginative and talented. I observed him over the next several years, not as much as a reporter assigned to him on a daily basis, but enough to see he was pretty much the same intelligent, difficult person I had always known. Then as I moved on to other assignments, I didn’t see much of him.

In 2001, I encountered a changed Brown. I had retired as city editor of the Los Angeles Times and had a teaching-research fellowship at the Graduate School of Journalism at UC Berkeley. My students were going to report about Oakland, my hometown. By then, Brown had been elected mayor, tackling the many problems of the troubled city across the bay from San Francisco. I visited City Hall to get some advice from the mayor on my class.

“This is act three,” he said, commenting on my move from the newsroom to the classroom and research library. I liked the image with its idea that more good things awaited me. We talked at length about Oakland and how he was digging into the problems of crime, poorly performing schools and the city’s failure to attract investment. I was impressed by his pragmatic style and insight into the city’s varied neighborhoods. He was grounded in reality and more open to discussion than he had been in his youth.

I invited him to the graduate school to speak to my class and others. Our dean, Orville Schell, a Brown biographer, and I were to ask him questions. But Brown took over, giving a detailed and fascinating description of each of the city’s neighborhoods, starting with Lake Merritt, in the center of the city, working north through working-class areas, east into the affluent hills, then down to the poor and crime ridden flatlands, finally finishing up where he had started, at the lake.  It was the most brilliant and practical talk on urban affairs that I have ever heard.

So I was not surprised that he was elected governor and was able to persuade voters to support the tax increase that pulled California out of a fiscal hole.

The Jerry Brown that has emerged from his varied experiences—both spiritual and pragmatic—is a conventional and unconventional political leader, as McFadden shows in “Trailblazer.” As such, he is more in tune with the hopes and fears of a restless electorate than most politicians with their entourages of polling consultants and image makers.


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