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.

When he does refer to his father, he misleads, no doubt unintentionally. Asked why he will not live in the governor’s mansion Reagan built, he says he lived in the old governor’s mansion and never thought much of the experience. But he never did live there. He visited, just as little as he could. Pat Brown was elected governor after Jerry entered the seminary. And when the son decided to leave the seminary, he did not have his parents pick him up—he called a friend who had left before. Then he went to Berkeley and Yale, living on campus, before taking up his legal duties as an adult. He briefly visited his father’s mansion as a man in his middle twenties—hardly, one would think, a traumatic experience. In the same way, when explaining why he drives a Plymouth rather than the official limousine, Brown remembers going to a baseball game, in his father’s limousine, through a crowd which pounded on the windows. The impression he leaves is that it was the governor’s limousine. But if this happened in his childhood, it had to be the district attorney’s car or the attorney general’s; and the reaction to the experience seems deliberately or otherwise exaggerated.

Robert Scheer, in the commentary he wrote on his interview with Brown for Playboy, said: “The closest Brown has come to rebellion in his personal life was joining a Jesuit seminary for three and a half years of virtual silence and daily penance for sins he had not yet had time or opportunity to commit. Given his prior Catholic school education, this was about as rebellious as an eagle scout’s enlisting in the Army.” That was no doubt true of most Catholics brought up in the period of Fifties religiosity—especially those of us who went (like Brown) to Jesuit high schools and came to admire the “scholastics” (college-age seminarians on teacher-service to the schools) as bright and idealistic young men. Catholic families were proud to have a boy go off to the seminary in those days—and we went in unprecedented numbers.

But Brown’s was not the typical Catholic family Scheer seems to imagine. Jerry Brown’s mother, like her mother before her, was a “convert” all right—but from Catholicism to the Episcopal religion. Bernice Layne came from a non-Catholic family; and she dutifully bundled him off to church without ever joining him there. More than that, his grandmother on his father’s side was noted for her acerbic anti-Catholicism, and she had harsh things to say about her grandson’s decision to become a priest. Pat Brown’s own ethnic-politics religion seems to have been played off in Jerry’s mind against the fervor of Jesuit scholastics he met at school. Then, when he graduated from St. Ignatius High, his father proved just as opposed to his entering the seminary as did the non-Catholic members of the family.

Jerry was, after all, the only son of the four children. So great was opposition to his choice that he yielded to his parents’ entreaty that he take a year in college to think it over—but he took that year at the Jesuit college, Santa Clara, and entered the seminary a year later than most of his novitiate classmates. So it was a kind of rebellion—one that became more pronounced with time. Brown took his first (“simple”) vows the spring of Pat Brown’s inauguration as governor, and a classmate of his told me Jerry did feel uneasy about the limousine when it showed up for periodic visits at the “juniorate” (second stage of Jesuit training).

Then, in 1960, Jerry Brown made his first and only remembered attempt to influence Pat Brown’s decisions. The governor had inherited the sticky problem of death-row author Caryl Chessman, who had delayed execution with appeals through the reigns of Earl Warren and Goodwin Knight. Time was running out for him, and sympathy was running high. But so was the call for his death. Pat Brown is a sentimentally good-natured man, but one who resisted political pressure poorly. With Chessman, he got the worst of both worlds, first issuing a stay of execution, then turning down final clemency. Pat Brown dates to this sequence his reputation as “a tower of jelly,” and implicitly blames his son for urging him—at first from the seminary—to grant the stay of execution.

The night before Chessman died Jerry called his father from I. House urging him to spare the man—unsuccessfully. Donald Burns, Jerry’s room-mate at Yale, said Pat would call New Haven to discuss later clemency issue requests (which Brown became rather free in granting). But even in the long bull sessions Jerry loved at Yale, he did not bring up what was said in those phone calls. “Now that I come to think of it, that sounds odd,” Burns added.

The younger Brown, still opposed to capital punishment, is very skeptical of rehabilitation schemes, and has said punishment should be just that—some people are not amenable to reason. Asked if he would respond to an Attica as Rockefeller had, he said he would use “no more and no less force than the situation required.” He seems to resent his father’s wavering incompetence in handling the Chessman case as much as his yielding to political pressure at the end. Jerry is critical of sentimentality and likes to boast of his “clear mind” in crises. If Pat Brown was going to let Chessman die anyway, he should not have played with the hope of clemency. Asked point-blank what he would do in such a position Jerry answered: “I would make the decision and not agonize over it.” The sentence is a ringing condemnation of his father.

So one Sixties event did shape Brown’s later actions—the Chessman execution. But only because it crystalized a long struggle to repeat his father’s career without being like his father. Over and over, that is his real guiding principle. The other norms that he suggests—his Jesuit days, Sixties activism, Ivy League law study—are part of an elaborate smokescreen laid around political drives and emotional revulsions. Brown shows an open contempt for political hacks, and gets furious at their attempts to influence him.

Just before his first campaign trip to Maryland, Brown gave a press conference to announce his new program against banks’ “redlining” of loans to minorities. He spoke with a passion and mordancy that surprised Sacramento reporters, used to his fey and teasing manner. Don Burns, who had come up with Brown on the plane from Los Angeles that morning, said the transformation had nothing to do with redlining. In some time snatched between briefings on the redlining proposal and arrangements for his Maryland trip, Brown had taken several calls from California pols and money men, who offered him backing for the presidency—then set their terms. Brown got madder at each call, and was in high oratorical dudgeon with Burns before they went out to face reporters. He was angry, but not at redlining bankers. This kind of displaced fury against political ways serves his political ends. As a politician, he is a very good hater.

The other Brown, who so intrigues and eludes people, is insubstantial. Brown the intellectual can dazzle the easily dazzled—Marquis Childs fairly swoons at his dialectical skills. On “Firing Line,” Brown and William Buckley traded Latin tags, each pretending to know something about Thomas Aquinas. To have read a book is to pass for an intellectual in politics. Brown likes Catholic mentors—like Marshall McLuhan, Ivan Illich, and E.F. Schumacher; but there is a faddism to his interests, fed by personal seminars with these authors. When I asked his very bright legal counsel, Anthony Kline, for an example of Brown’s intellectual discernment, he referred me to a toast given at the reception for Japan’s emperor. “It was just a few sentences Brown wrote out at the table, but it said so much.” I got a copy of the toast from the governor’s press office, and found that he said, “Centuries of separation are gradually dissolving into a global village.” Citing the second best-known tag from Marshall McLuhan in 1975 is hardly a sign of intellectual prowess.

I asked Brown himself if he had written anything he felt proud of, either before or after becoming governor. “No, I only gave one lecture in my life—it was on this as an Alexandrian age.” Those who care for excerpts can look in the collection of his Thoughts (City Lights, 1976) on page 50—he seems to think that Alaric lived in the Alexandrian age. “One thing I’m proud of is the Arts Council Bill. Gary Snyder and I wrote it up in Nevada City one night. We wanted to make it a model of good English.” I later asked Barzaghi, who drove Brown to Snyder’s telephone-less cabin, about that night. “Everyone else went to sleep, but I stayed up to watch them. It was an act of creation.” After that advance billing, I was amazed to read the measure—it intermits the bureaucratic with the gaseous.

When I asked Brown about his Catholicism, he said, “I am interested in Catholic theology.” I asked what he had read recently, and he said Thomas Merton—which suggests either arrested development or his living off Fifties capital for too long. He sometimes quotes Teilhard de Chardin on “convergence.” Since I devoted a chapter of my last book to Teilhard, I tried to talk to him on the subject, but he said: “Oh, I don’t feel I really understand him.”

Some assume that Brown’s presence in a Jesuit seminary must have familiarized him with St. Thomas or St. Augustine. But the early stages of Jesuit formation were, in the 1950s, intellectually stultifying. For two years nothing was read but ascetic books like The Imitation of Christ and semiliterate biographies of obscure Jesuits. The Bible was not studied. St. Thomas was first encountered in one’s fourth year—and by that time Brown had left the Society. The aim of the early years was to “mortify” the intellect, to empty it before refilling it with knowledge on a Renaissance scheme that tried to “re-enact” the order of natural-to-supernatural learning (arts-philosophy-theology). Brown got midway through the first step (arts). One classic that was studied in the novitiate was the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius, and some have tried to explain. Brown in terms of that book. The California historian Kevin Starr even tried to predict the successive years of Brown’s reign according to the “weeks” in the Ignatian Exercises.

But the last place to understand the Exercises, in the 1950s, was a Jesuit seminary. The Exercises were used by Ignatius, one on one, while counseling individuals in the choice of a vocation. They were meant to develop initiative in an order that broke all the rules of monastic permanence, discipline, silence, and contemplation. Ignatius, though something of a natural mystic himself, fashioned a team of individuals to counter northern reformers on their own terms. From the outset, his fellow Spaniards tried to fix times of prayer and monastic practices on his order. He savagely fought this off while he lived, but a series of ascetic Spanish generals totally changed the nature of his order shortly after his death. What came through in the Jesuit houses by the 1950s was almost the exact opposite of what Ignatius intended. What we got was a mixture of American religiosity with Spanish ascetical weirdness. As I pointed out, Brown seemed to like the rigors—but from a natural bent of his own, one that preceded and survived novitiate “taking of the discipline.”

None of what I say reflects on Jerry Brown as a politician. Indeed, I am arguing that he should be judged precisely as a politician, not as an intellectual. The only reason he encourages the displacement of these priorities is to prevent people from thinking he is a politician in the same sense that his father was. As a politician he has major claims to make. His own orderliness, the talents he draws on, the high aims he sets, come across not in bull sessions about Teilhard but in his marathon budget draftings, which he conducted in a cold fury of proud competence.

In putting together the Farm Labor Bill, which provided for collective bargaining in the fields, Brown showed all the political arts of wheedling and head-banging. He got growers and workers together, and brought the legislature along with him. The bill was written by Rose Bird, Brown’s appointee as secretary of agriculture—he uses women’s talents very well in government. (The administration of the farm program has fallen apart because Brown appointed a board that too openly favored Chavez—but it will in time be pieced together again, and the law is there, now, to be implemented.) One reason old-style pols resent him is the way he beats them at their own game.

Brown’s distaste for hacks has led him to bring in an extraordinarily talented group of administrators, many of them from California’s legal aid programs or the universities. They are fashioning imaginative programs—for tax reform, court reform, highway measures, and child care. If Brown is no intellectual himself, he is at least not afraid of them. Besides, his moves make political sense. Most of those appointed are his age or younger, with no previous political ties. They are totally dependent on him, with no prior debts to others and no claims they can make against him. They have been willing to put up with the unorthodox style of Brown’s governing. This style derives less from the publicized reasons—Zen meditation or monkish reclusiveness—than from two of Brown’s most stubborn traits: his single-mindedness, and the fact that he is a night person.

Brown, with his passion for order and a “clear mind,” likes to tackle problems one at a time, working on each intensively, while other decisions are put off, other areas ignored. “I focus,” he told me. “That’s the way I do things. I zero in.” He boasts about the long hours he serves at the office, but some associates say the early hours are put in for appearance’ sake and not much is going on. Brown warms up to a problem slowly and begins to get enthusiastic only toward nightfall. “At six I’m just getting started,” he told me—and aides have found that out in midnight sessions and early morning phone calls. Those who are not willing to put up with this schedule are considered somehow “soft” or not quite loyal. He has criticized an aide who put his family life above his job.

Brown makes great demands on others, but resents any demand made on him—not only by his father’s friends and other hacks, but by his own assembled team. He acts as if close emotional ties would cloud the thing he prizes most, his clear mind. In Stevenson’s words: “A man who must separate himself from his neighbors’ habits in order to be happy, is in much the same case with one who requires to take opium for the same purpose.” Brown must not only be independent, but be seen to be independent. When rumors spread during his race for governor that aides Tom Quinn and Richard Maullin were directing Brown, the result was a rapid downgrading of their importance. When a journalist started calling his pretentious “Kato” (Barzaghi). Brown’s Svengali, the driver was seen much less often with his boss. Brown, who loves order and stability, is solicitous after the marriages of friends—but one such friend says he asks how things are going with an air of expectation that things must not be going well.

Brown told me, “I fly down from San Francisco, where almost no one I know is divorced, to Los Angeles, where almost everyone is divorced, and I wonder about the future of this society.” Old friends of the saltier sort make it clear Brown is no homosexual; but some doubt he could ever give out the hostages to another that love or marriage requires. He speaks often of his own family as a stable one, but he prefers to eat Christmas dinner with a high-school chum, not with his father or mother. He has a genuine compassion for the poor and mistreated; but he seems to feel it best from some height of ordered action. He intends to help the disadvantaged, but without the sentimental ties that might make him waver, like his father; look a fool; let his heart cloud his head.

Stevenson admired, but with a shudder, the Thoreau who wrote: “It is not that we love to be alone, but that we love to soar, and when we do soar the company grows thinner and thinner till there is none at all.” Thoreau goes on, immediately after, to say: “Use all the society that will abet you,” and Brown proves he can do that. Despite his bristling at hacks, he can deal with distant unthreatening “bosses” like the crippled band that helped him out in Maryland. Still, the man who can reflect on a campaign crowd and murmur Mea maxima penitentia vita communis must always expect little shivers in among the earned praise of his excellences.

He is no saint, no mystic, no scholar; he is a politician. But he is a different kind of politician. A better kind? Perhaps. He has his compulsions, but so do old-time politicians—compulsive womanizers, or boozers, or boasters. Brown has certainly done well, so far, by California—and been rewarded with immense popularity. The enthusiasm spilled over into his Maryland victory. Brown not only means to soar but has begun to.

This Issue

June 10, 1976