Jerry Brown: The Philosopher-Prince
Jerry Brown: The Man on the White Horse
Ever since his startling pillage of Jimmy Carter’s progress in the last six presidential primaries of 1974, California’s bachelor governor Jerry Brown—errant Jesuit seminarian with still a pallor of sanctity about him, in his raven-dark suits, his sharp mouth with a faint down-tug of the haughty and fastidious, political communicant now of Buckminster Fuller and Zen thought—has continued to present one of the most perplexing presidential prospects to impend in the nation’s life since, perhaps, Robert Kennedy. For approximately the same reasons, he also strikes many as one of the most disquieting. Nevertheless, with Carter increasingly seeming to be caught in some perverse and unmanageable political undertow, already there is a sense of a vacuum ineluctably forming for 1980, a free magnetic field of possibilities. And Brown, having magically delivered himself not only intact but, if anything, enlarged out of what appeared at first to be a capsizing with Proposition Thirteen, seems more and more a figure moving in a kind of crackling St. Elmo’s shimmer of portent.
One might have supposed that Brown’s instant and vigorous identification with the sentiments of Proposition Thirteen, a popular distemper he had as vigorously deplored up until its booming ratification, would have come off in the general eye as a conspicuous piece of nimbleness, rather too cunning by half. But as one California legislator explained to me, “As powerfully as the people turned out to feel on that one, it doesn’t really matter that Brown fought it. They’re ready to forget that. On an issue as deep and strong as this was, all that matters to them is that he’s with it now.”
In fact, another state assemblyman concluded, “What looked at first like a gigantic disaster for Jerry he’s about to succeed in converting into his most gigantic asset for 1980. All he’s got to do is make it work.” In truth, if Thirteen proves as deep a national passion as many have speculated, Brown could hardly carry a more dramatic voltage into a presidential candidacy than to have answered that passion, in California, by carrying out Thirteen’s tax surgeries gracefully and painlessly—to show impressively, to that desperation and discontent over the rest of the country, that he has managed to run an effective government on much less money, that with him it can be done.
Such a projection apparently occurred to Carter as well, who quickly discounted the national import of Thirteen by ascribing it to circumstances peculiar to California—in particular, a state surplus of some $4 billion which, Carter indicated, Brown had allowed to accumulate in the face of the state’s staggering property-tax escalations. Indeed, one California political journalist suggests that, as Brown watched the surplus expand from the modest stake he had inherited from Reagan, he passed from being pleased to being mesmerized: the surplus took on a wondrous fascination in itself—entranced, he would have watched it magnify on to $40 billion if Proposition Thirteen had not intervened.
Nevertheless, one Friday evening some two weeks after…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.