It was his ambition to be an oriental philosopher; but he was always a very Yankee sort of oriental. Even in the peculiar attitude in which he stood to money, his system of personal economics, as we may call it, he displayed a vast amount of truly down-East calculation, and he adopted poverty like a piece of business.
—R.L. Stevenson, of Thoreau*
We had been talking about E.F. Schumacher, the author of Small Is Beautiful. “You’ll be interested to know he is a convert.” Pause. I didn’t get it. “Convert from what to what?” I asked. “He’s a Catholic.” Then I got it. He was talking in code, and did not know that particular code is no longer in use.
Perhaps I should have caught on. We had, after all, been talking about our Jesuit seminary days, back in the Fifties. We had remembered prayers “for the conversion of Russia,” said after every Mass. Conversion meant one thing then—acceptance of the one Church. But I had just come from a series of meetings where conversion was a hot topic, and the conversions involved were those of Jimmy Carter and Charles Colson. Besides, the people I go to Mass with do not use “convert” in the way Jerry Brown still does. It takes a dropout from the Church to talk in outmoded ways without knowing it.
He knows, to be sure, that much of what he liked in the old Church is gone. “Not eating meat on Friday was like Jews wearing the yarmulka—it gave one a sense of tradition. All the binding symbols are disappearing. Even the Trappists—I used to go to their monastery, but now they can talk, and eat any time of the day, and even watch television.” So Brown prefers to “hide out” at Richard Baker’s Zen center, where the life is more selfconsciously disciplined, structured, drilled. Some think Brown is interested in the East because of a taste for mysticism. They forget that the political leaders who most intrigue him are Mao Tse-tung and Ho Chi Minh. It is the ability to organize a people to puritanical effort and standards that he admires. He reduces Eastern mystery to seminary slogans: Age quod agis—the least mystical of Western spiritualities.
Brown rarely goes to Mass any more—though some friends have urged him to “hit the communion rail” as a way of retaining ethnic support. He had the Sufi Choir perform at his gubernatorial prayer breakfast. Last Easter, he tried to find a Latin Mass he could attend, but the only group offering one was schismatic—right-wing diehards separated from Church authority. It was too risky politically, even for a dabbler in Sufi liturgies.
Brown seems to remember with fondness only the hard things of religion, the external discipline. His preferred rite would be all Ash Wednesday, with no Easter. There are men with a positive taste for selfdenial. Thoreau was one. Emerson said he found Thoreau always readier to say no than yes. Stevenson, in one of his acute psychological studies, described the man’s “negative superiorities,” his ascetic self-indulgence: “When we go on to find the same man, on the same or similar grounds, abstain from nearly everything that his neighbors innocently and pleasurably use, and from the rubs and trials of human society itself into the bargain, we recognize that valetudinarian healthfulness which is more delicate than sickness itself.”
Much has been made, and rightly, of Brown’s spare style in office—no mansion, no limousine, no banquets. He is accused of theatrically displaying his lack of display or credited with the sacrifice of something he might want. But he is no doubt telling the simple truth when he says he prefers to live thus—always has, and always will. Others love the perks of office and hate the duties. He loves the duties, hates the perks. He has cenobitic appetites.
It goes beyond personal preference. His taste is made a norm for others. Donald Burns, a close friend from Brown’s Yale Law School days, told me: “I have a nice home, but quite modest. Yet when Jerry visits, I’m sure he thinks I have too many creature comforts.” And he added: “He is incorruptible, because there’s nothing he wants.” It surprised people that Brown launched himself so well and enthusiastically into the campaign rites of Maryland, moving from Muhammad Ali to “Polock Johnny’s.” He found ways to boast of the effort’s very rigors, tireless in his claim that he does not tire. He kept telling reporters how long it had been since he ate, how long since he slept. He even told us how long it had been since he bought a suit (“before I was governor”).
I asked him about the campaign silliness, and he spoke again in code: Mea maxima penitentia vita communis. I had forgotten, until he reminded me, that the phrase came from a patron of Jesuit novices, the seventeenth-century seminarian who died at the age of twenty-two, John Berchmans. I do not know if young Berchmans was really the prig that came through to us in the seminary; I do know I would not treasure up or try to live by any of the slogans peddled to us in his name. In fact, as I talked with Brown, it dawned on me that all the things I hated in the seminary he seemed to prize—right down to the compulsory readings in a crazed thesaurus of miracles (leaning heavily on worms) assembled by one Alphonsus Rodriguez (not the A.R. of the Hopkins sonnet). The Brown religion was not only all a thing of rigors, but of the particular rigors of the 1950s.
Yet he claims to be a voice of the Sixties, the only presidential candidate formed in that decade’s creative fires. As he put it to students at Towson State University: “I started in politics in the 1960s, in the civil-rights movement, in the antiwar movement. I marched with Cesar Chavez.” To those at the May 1976 Black Delegates’ Congress in Charlotte, he said: “I represent the generation that came of age in the civil-rights movement, in the anti-Vietnam war movement…. I’m a new generation.”
But when one looks to the bases for Brown’s claim to be the voice of the young in the Sixties, they seem fairly slim. He refers to his “Berkeley days,” and during his Maryland campaign The New York Times mentioned his “three years” there. It was three terms—spring of 1960 through spring of 1961. That was three years before the Berkeley rebellion began with the Free Speech Movement. I asked Brown about this, and he admitted, yes, the only excitement during his stay was the holding of HUAC hearings in Oakland. “But that was right across from I. House [International House] where I lived.” Did he take any part in the demonstrations or reaction to them? No. Brown was able to graduate in three terms because Berkeley accepted his credits—mainly in Latin and Greek—from the seminary. Though he took his undergraduate degree with a classics major, he told me he had only one. Greek course at Berkeley, in which he read only one play. He could remember the name of the play, but not of the professor. He says he is still working his way through Mark Schorer’s reading list from his English course—a slow journey, I should think.
When Brown moved to Yale Law School in 1961, he was still intellectually provincial enough to seek out the other two ex-Jesuit seminarians in his class as his closest friends (and one of them as his roommate). Both would later work for him in California. It was during this period, many articles on Brown have asserted, that the young law student went South to work in the civil-rights movement. I asked him about that. In the spring of 1962, during the Easter break, Brown did travel to Mississippi to look at the unrest there. As the son of California’s governor, he visited with Governor Barnett, and he met some of the demonstrators. He did no civil-rights “work” at the time, and the never went back. Bill Coffin, Yale’s chaplain, was organizing Yale efforts in the South at that time. Brown told me he never even met Coffin in his three years at Yale—which was impossible if he was interested in doing any civil-rights work.
We come to his next claim, his work in the antiwar movement. That seems confined to backing Eugene McCarthy’s campaign in California in 1968, without going into that effort full-time or actually meeting McCarthy or members of his national staff. So the Sixties experience he continually refers to shrinks to some knowledge of Cesar Chavez before his own election as governor.
Brown’s real experience in the Sixties was that of any Ivy League lawyer laying the foundations of a career—he clerked for the California Supreme Court from his Yale graduation until 1966, when he went into the corporate firm of Tuttle and Taylor in Los Angeles. He ran for Community College Board in 1968, and for secretary of state in 1970. It was a fast rise through normal channels—not hard for the son of the state’s first Sixties governor (Pat Brown’s terms of office ran from 1958 to 1966). Jerry Brown’s younger sister put her feet on the rungs of the same cursus honorum, with election to the Los Angeles Board of Education in 1975.
Here we come, of course, to the one debt Brown is most anxious to deny—that he is really just a politician following in his father’s footsteps. He was not “radicalized” by any Sixties experience, or even profoundly affected by one (with a possible exception in 1960, to which I must return). That is the mildly surprising thing about someone his age, in his place, with his background. The Zen mumbo-jumbo, churned out on demand by his freaky chauffeur Jacques Barzaghi (aka Lorenzo), was simply protective California coloration for a bachelor lawyer making his career. Now that Tom Hayden and Sam Brown are trying to look “straight” and electable, both find good words for a man who was always electable but never moved in the earlier world of Sam Brown or Hayden.
Brown himself, despite the vague litany of Sixties experiences, makes no directly false claims about his distance from the things he “observed.” He was nearly invisible at Yale and in the McCarthy campaign. When he first attracted notice, it was only as his father’s son—and there’s the point. The youth issue was a way of playing down the obvious debt he owed Pat Brown. He exaggerates every other aspect of his life, to minimize that one. He talks easily, often, and at length about his three and a half years in the seminary, his little more than a year at Berkeley, his three years at Yale, his few months in Chile (which took him away from his father’s 1966 campaign). But he never talks, if he can avoid it, of the eighteen formative years in his father’s house.
Stevenson, "Henry David Thoreau: His Character and Opinions," in Familiar Studies.↩
Stevenson, “Henry David Thoreau: His Character and Opinions,” in Familiar Studies.↩