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 that momentous event, Brown finally addressed the state by television, with his customary evangelistic buoyancy, on the new “mood” and new “idea” about government posed by Thirteen. Shifting impatiently back and forth across the screen, snapping his right hand out in taut chops while spearing his left hand repeatedly in his coat pocket, giving altogether an impression of a barely containable eagerness, he proposed, “California is still a land of dreams—“ and then, his dark quick eyes glitteringly intent, he added in that bark of his, with the vague hoarse huskiness of an adolescent on the verge of a voice change, “we can be a model…. They’re taking a look at us.”
At the least, “they” are at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, and have been for some time. Ever since the last-minute mayhem he performed almost offhandedly on a progressively harried and hectic Carter in the 1974 primaries—taking Maryland from him by a vote percentage of 49 to 37, taking Nevada, bringing off a sabotaging write-in raid in Oregon, winning uncommitted slates inclined to him in Rhode Island and New Jersey, taking California, in the end coming traumatically close to spiriting the whole thing back into wild uncertainty—Brown has continued to exercise a particular hoodoo on Carter and his company.
The significance of Carter’s recent gambit, for instance, to amend the nomination process into a more compacted schedule of regional cluster primaries, thereby short-circuiting any possible chain effect of a challenge in 1980, was hardly lost on anyone. In a way, the wariness about Brown in Carter’s White House approaches Richard Nixon’s old obsession about the Kennedys—and would possibly be exceeded now only by Carter’s own suspicions about Ted Kennedy’s designs. To Nixon, the Kennedys seemed in possession of all those graces and vitalities—a vibrant public presence, elan, simple likability—that he had recognized long ago nature had left him bleakly and irredeemably devoid of. But Carter’s uneasy fixation with Brown owes more to the fact that they both derive so immediately and elementally from the same political moods, both of them direct political inheritors of the ruins of Vietnam and Johnson’s Great Society and Watergate, both of them creatures now of the mystique those dislocations left: that of the outsider, a leadership of the casual and anti-formal gesture, a certain studied unpretentiousness (Carter slinging his suitbag over his shoulder, Brown roosting in a rented apartment with its celebrated mattress on the floor and discarding the gubernatorial limousine for a 1974 Plymouth Satellite), and both of them, finally, answering to much the same curiously hybrid political disposition—an airy liberalism in social instincts, circumscribed by a budgetary frugality conservative to the point of the penurious.
In one of the shoal of biographies of Brown that recently came swimming forth, Robert Pack quotes San Francisco mayor George Moscone, “You in effect [can] get away with political murder in the sense that you could come off as a fiscal conservative, have the rhetoric of a liberal, and be a great friend of the so-called unwashed. That’s the new wave of politics.” In any event, in the political sensibility of the moment, Carter and Brown are engaged in a kind of mirror-competition. And as Carter had reason to suspect after those last six primaries in 1974, Brown would seem to bode the more arresting and electric articulation of that sensibility to which they both belong, that script to which both their political fortunes are cast—with Carter left to be haunted by the speculation that he managed to win it only by the fact that he happened to land on stage first.
Some have since suggested that Carter has succeeded in dispelling forevermore that mystique of the antipolitician, and inherently with it Brown’s own prospects. But despite that cavalier flair of the apolitical irregular that still lingers about him, by 1980—assuming he is not rudely ambushed by Republican Evelle Younger in his current effort to be re-elected as governor—Brown will, in fact, have presided for some five years over a state that amounts to something like a Republic unto itself, with a gross production figure that would rank it about with Canada as among the world’s top ten economic powers and with a clamorously complex constituency that is the largest in the country outside the president’s—in all perhaps as imposing an apprenticeship for the presidency as is available. At the least, should the frost by 1980 be on the rose in the romance of the unpolitician, Brown could hardly be taken, by then, as still an outsider, an unseasoned prospector.
Moreover, in 1980 Brown will be, at forty-two, considerably closer to the general age of the American electorate than will Carter. (After sitting in on his first governor’s conference, Brown allowed that the convocation was “interesting from an anthropological point of view.”) And through his governorship, if nothing else Brown has acted as a consummate embodiment of what seems the emerging personality of that next electoral generation following the concussions of Vietnam and Watergate: a fitful antistructural impulsiveness “analogous to adolescence,” as J.D. Lorenz notes in the brightest and drollest of the Brown biographies. His casing of the American condition could as well be a description of the “midlife crisis” much discussed now in works of pop psychology—a “first awareness of its own limitations” producing a “mad search for an identity, the continuing uncertainty about who one actually was, the dogmatic assertions followed by the inchoate questioning…the desire for illusion, the treatment of private experience as if it were totally representative of the outside world and were, indeed, the outside world.”
It may be portentous, in that regard, that Brown has hauled forth out of California, that far edge of the continent which has served as America’s cultural hothouse for what is most exuberant and virulent in our nature, and in whose thin, shadowless sunlight the rest of the nation has always seemed to dream its future, the images of its next being. Over the last decade or so there, in a state so prodigiously expansive and diffuse, “the party structure,” as one Brown aide told Robert Pack, has ceased to be “horribly significant…. Every candidate starts from Ground Zero and creates his own campaign with a party structure to assist.”
In the same way, all the conventional and familiar apparatuses of power seem to be disintegrating now over the rest of the nation, no more eloquent testimonial to that than Carter’s own success: instead, simple personality has largely replaced the systems and machineries of party. At the same time in California, made up as it is of a more or less pastless and feverishly peripatetic population inhabiting a kind of nebulously sunny and frenetic limbo in which all the old pretechnological reference points for defining experience have vanished, it’s as if the only reality left has become the “media-meaning,” the “media-mirage”: the California reality. And if the rest of the nation as well is rapidly being transmuted into an electronically homogenized mass society, a culture of the simultaneous and the endlessly various, Brown would perhaps constitute its most generic politician yet. As one of Brown’s consultants put it, a bit differently, to Schell, “What we need is a man who can handle insanity. Maybe part of the testing procedure for high office should be, ‘How much madness can you handle before vulnerability shows?’ ”
For his part, as Brown propounded to Pack, “I see the world in very fluid, contradictory, emerging, interconnected terms, and with that kind of circuitry I just don’t feel the need to say what is going to happen or will not happen…. It’s the circuitry of semi-conductors and computers and electronic interconnections, that’s what’s happening today.” For this reason, probably the most effective of the biographies of Brown is finally Orville Schell’s, which is written somewhat in Brown’s own electronic style of free-form nonlinear attentions, a kind of cinéma-vérité documentary: it’s really book as film. Brown himself once notified Schell, in one of his customary impromptu McLuhanesque pronouncements, “I don’t see life as a static picture on the wall that is frozen forever. Life is flow, life is evolution. Motion is the medium for much of our culture. Just pure movement…. Mobility increases the choices…new configurations of plot and human organization.” Since when has an authentic presidential prospect given vent to such transcendental expostulations?
While Brown indulges now and then in such complaints about the press as “they like to concentrate on trivia, like my dead front tooth…, [they] usually don’t say that the president is trying to do X, they say that the president is trying to improve his image by doing X,” nevertheless Brown himself belongs inveterately to the journalistic reality, the pop-metaphysic. One disaffected aide maintains that Brown will never actually engage an issue until “it gets in the media, and then it has a reality of its own.”
Specifically, nothing seems to captivate him quite as much as his own reflection in that media-mirror. Returning from a personally subsidized jaunt to Japan, he crisply apprised the newsmen waiting at Sacramento’s airport, “One of the reasons I paid for my own trip is so I wouldn’t have to answer so many of your questions.” But as soon as he arrived back in his office, he instantly had a fleet of assistants scuttling about to collect all the press commentaries on his excursion they could find. And in the midst of even leisurely banter with a newsman, according to Schell, he will abruptly snap, “Okay, what is all this, what are you always writing down?” and twist forward to peer intently for a moment at the scrawls on the reporter’s pad—some journalists, in fact, having adopted the resort of a private hieroglyphic code against the constant likelihood of Brown lunging in “for one of his surprise raids.” Lorenz suggests that this fierce interest in what journalists make of him is prompted by Brown’s essential condition of being “a marginal personality.” Throughout his political ascension, says Lorenz, “Jerry used the nervous system of the media as a substitute for the corporeal presence he felt he lacked.”
Lorenz himself happens to be a defector from Brown’s administrative commune in Sacramento, but his book, Jerry Brown: The Man on the White Horse, passes well beyond an exercise in peevishness. He offers a singularly intriguing sighting on Brown out of the old scripts of the mythology of the race, Orestes, Oedipus, Absalom, Alexander, which he terms “the hero cycle…, the definite stages a hero-to-be passed through.” Contemplating Brown’s progress as son of the politician Pat Brown, Lorenz writes,
He was born of a noble family. Sometimes his father was king. From the very beginning, he was not like other children. He felt different, he displayed precocious powers: cleverness, strength, wisdom beyond his years. Somewhat inexplicably, he entered into a conflict with his father. He was cast out of—or left—the reigning house. He wandered in the wilderness—a dark forest, the desert—where he gained a true sense of himself…. The hero-to-be returned from the wilderness to face his final test: the decisive encounter with the father-figure. The father might welcome him, he might oppose him, but in any case the hero-to-be had to take the father’s place…. By replacing the father with himself, the hero-to-be turned the old consciousness (represented by his father) in a new direction, he manifested the new consciousness through his own being and, in so doing, he became the hero.
Pat Brown, first as attorney general of California and later governor for two terms, was an affable and uncomplicated spirit, robustly convivial, himself the son of an Irish-Catholic poker-parlor operator in San Francisco’s Tenderloin District, a natty, strutting figure with a derby always tilted on his head. But Pat’s own and only son, Jerry, was far more a minting of his mother, a woman of redoubtably sober German Protestant origins—he had her austere acute face with sharp eyes under dark-smudged eyebrows, her controlled and self-contained remoteness. As Pat Brown readily submitted to Schell, “Jerry’s very much like her. My wife is very persnickety…. Neither one is very demonstrative.”
Growing up in those American Graffitti years of the early Fifties in California, he was, throughout his father’s political expansion, a notably detached and prickly youth, tense, abstracted, a touch sullen. An acquaintance of his then told Pack, “My impression of Jerry was that he was in some ways deprived, not necessarily financially, but sort of a lonely kid.” He contracted an early antipathy for what he regarded as the crass and buffoonish ceremonies of his father’s world—an aversion all the more grim with his sensation that his own identity was being subsumed and assimilated into the bumptious pageantry of his father’s ambitions.
As Brown’s sister Barbara tartly recalled it to Pack, “I felt like I was just kind of an ornamentation,” and when Brown presented his gallery of children at rallies to approving applause, he “would make some inane remarks…. It’s kind of hard when your father comes driving up in a big limousine with state police and blows the siren. He thought that was funny.” More than that, though, as Brown confided to Schell, “I was attracted and repelled by what I saw of politics in my father’s house…, the artificiality…, role-playing and repetition of emotions. Particularly that: the repetition of emotion.” In time, he came to seem possessed of some undefined but unabating and unappeasable sense of grievance—he was an almost rabidly querulous and disputatious adolescent, engaging in ceaseless stalking arguments with his father while Pat Brown was serving as attorney general, even pressing the father of one of his friends into arguments while the other boys would be playing basketball in the backyard, until finally his father’s friend would murmur, “Jerry…Jerrrry, go home.” Pat Brown reflected to Schell, “Jerry was a good kid. But he was wild as a March hare. When I say wild, I mean he was hard to control. He was very rebellious.”
But for all his professed distaste for his father’s realities, when Pat Brown finally assumed the governorship, “members of the governor’s staff regarded the younger Brown,” reports Pack, “as a meddler who did not share their awareness that Pat Brown, and not his son, had been elected governor.” One long-time associate of Brown’s proposes, “I think he clearly wanted to be governor as long as I’ve known him.” Brown himself once remarked to Lorenz, “I never was elected head of anything when I was in school. Not even nominated. Other kids were the popular ones,” and he then added with a grin, “I had to run for statewide office to get elected.” But in those campaigns of his own, for secretary of state in 1970 and then for the governorship itself in 1974, “what [did] he have that literally a thousand others [didn’t] have?” as one California political tactician posed to Pack—through his father, “he had immediate entree and access.” Indeed, more than one California political veteran accords Brown’s success in those enterprises primarily to “the residual love that people had developed for Pat Brown since Reagan had defeated him. All of that inured to the benefit of the young Jerry Brown, and the young Jerry Brown was quick as a whip.”
Pat Brown himself, when he was governor and Jerry was a student at Berkeley, once dispatched an aide, says Pack, to conduct Jerry personally on a tour around the political terrains of California because, the aide remembered, he “very much wanted his son to see how he was perceived by the party faithful. I think Pat had an inordinate interest in the kid.” Another Sacramento regular declared to Pack, “I have always sensed in the ex-governor a tremendous desire to be close, to bring his old friends in to help Jerry.” Even so, Jerry wound up managing, in effect, to obliterate and efface his father: when he announced to him that he intended to run for secretary of state, the elder Brown simply dismissed his own huge hopes of resurrecting himself that same campaign season with one last exertion against his adversary in the earlier reelection defeat, Reagan.
That deference, that abstention, conclusively ended his own political career. He went on to troop about the state for Jerry, mobilizing all his old partisans, and though the younger Brown did not demur from these energetic solicitudes and intercessions of his father, it was the impression of intimates that “Jerry didn’t do much to disguise the fact that personally he didn’t want all those former cronies of his dad’s too close around him.” During his term, then, once while he was in a skirmish to overhaul certain campaign-contribution disclosure procedures which Pat Brown had accepted during his term as attorney general, Jerry asserted at a press conference, “If you read my father’s opinion allowing this, you will find it absurd.”
Pat Brown later allowed himself the vaguely wistful comment to Schell, “He must have watched all my mistakes.” A California political analyst puts it, “I suppose every son has to struggle to some degree to free himself from his father. But with Brown, a lot of times it promised to turn into an effort at psychic homicide.” Whatever the case, Pat Brown heaved himself into Jerry’s gubernatorial campaign, elated by the conviction, as he later whooped happily to Pack, that “a lot of people vote for him because of me.” The elder Brown’s former legislative assistant agreed: “They do…well understanding that the kid doesn’t show any kind of consideration for his father.” Indeed, as governor, according to Lorenz, Jerry “refused to return his father’s phone calls, he ignored his father when they appeared publicly.” A particularly choleric critic of Jerry Brown in Sacramento asserts, “He only came by his power and prosperity in this state through what I would call a conscious act of political cannibalism.”
Pat Brown himself will merely propose, with an invincibly cheerful diffidence, “I think Jerry recognizes that I made some very serious mistakes as governor. I let my emotions in a great many cases get away from me. I don’t think Jerry does that. He’s much tougher than I am.” But he also mused to Schell, “Sometimes I’m not sure I really know Jerry.”
In the same way that Carter is most precisely understood from his rite of passage through the exactingly calibrated rigors of Annapolis, Brown is, finally, most fully defined by his three and a half years, from 1956 to January of 1960, in a Jesuit seminary some forty miles south of San Francisco. It was, by all accounts, a flight—into one of the few refuges where, as Lorenz quotes a Brown intimate, “his father’s influence didn’t work.” When members of his family visited him there, for two hours on one day each month, they found him in a kind of euphoria. Consigned to a meager cell with a straw mattress and no running water, his only books such fare as the Bible and Thomas à Kempis and biographies of the saints, he was delegated to sweeping floors and swabbing out latrines, occasionally ranging forth to pick grapes on the slopes around the seminary.
While Brown was there his father waged his first campaign for governor—but Jerry’s isolation was absolute: he heard no murmurings or rumor of the convulsions of the Hungarian uprising, for instance, until he stepped back out of his cloister some two years later. Jerry later recounted that he would sometimes exist in a total, pure silence, uttering not a sound, for “about eight days. Then I think there was one period where I only talked four out of thirty days.” Whatever effect such prolonged immersions in stillness might work toward discovering one’s own nature, it could also pass into a variant of that peril cited by Nietzsche: if one gaze too long into the abyss, the abyss will begin to gaze into thee. Dwelling for so long in an inner universe of silence may tend to exert its own lasting thrall, the eye-glaze of inversion, from which one perhaps never wholly emerges afterward.
During this suspension in mute solitude the novices would systematically flog their bare rumps with thongs of rope—“to deny the body,” as one of them told Pack, “by actually inflicting pain on it.” Among these mortifications of the flesh which Brown administered to himself was binding himself in “chains,” more like strands of chicken wire. A fellow seminarian recalls that “Jerry would wrap the chains around his legs and arms so tightly that when he walked to the chapel for morning mass, he would be limping and he would look like he was being tortured.” During confession, though, Brown would admit to such a dread of the pain of the scourge that, during those periods when the sounds of self-lashings were muttering up and down the halls, he would merely be larruping away on his mattress.
Eventually, he began to be visited by broodings in which, as he related it to Schell, “chastity…the spiritual concepts and the way I was pursuing them seemed to lose their reality, to be too abstract and removed from the vital existential world that I wanted to be a part of.” Along with that, not incidentally, “the mystical Three Degrees of Humility eluded me.” As it happened, “the book Doctor Zhivago had just come out,” Brown later elaborated, “and Pasternak had those great scenes in there about the winter turning into spring, and the whole natural cycle. I could remember one of the lines. ‘Man is born to live, not to prepare to live.’ ” It was out of such high melo-romanticism, then, that Jerry seems to have repudiated the astringencies of the Jesuits and was freed at last from St. Ignatius. The first full day of his reentry back into the careless sprawl and clatter of earthly life was passed simply ambling about San Francisco’s North Beach, drinking a beer in a dim cranny of a saloon, slipping into several coffee houses to sit listening to jazz and poetry readings, all the while secretly and dizzily exulting, “I don’t have to meditate. I don’t have any vows—I’m ready, here I am.”
He went on to study classics for a while at Berkeley, then installed himself in Yale Law School for three years, during which he made a brief excursion down into the civil rights movement in Mississippi—its governor, Ross Barnett, phoned Brown’s father, then governor of California, to advise him that Jerry was shortly going to be clapped into jail if he did not speedily take himself back to New Haven, but by the time Pat Brown managed to reach Jerry to implore him, “Your mother is in a panic,” it turned out that Jerry had already elected to decamp. After his graduation from Yale, then, he fell into the one consuming and desperate romance of his life, as most of his familiars tell it—a woman whom he continued to see for two years before they parted, leaving Brown, for an extended time afterward, in a deep and moping depression.
As a matter of fact, his disengagement from those Jesuit asperities at the seminary seemed not all that complete. Brown once reminisced to Schell about that hiatus of holiness in his life, “I look back on it as containing a great deal of truth…. The goal is to try to overcome the self-indulgent, weak part of human nature.” If nothing else, it was as if he had come away permanently beguiled with that Jesuit ethic of self-disregard, the integrity of self-abnegation; it left him still entertaining a certain indifference, if not contempt, for all the common, incidental, pretty pleasantries of this world.
Joining an eminent Los Angeles law firm after Yale, Brown nevertheless confined himself to driving “an old ratty Chevy,” one friend told Pack, and another recollected how he was entreated by one of Brown’s aides, shortly after Brown determined to run for secretary of state, “to go out to Jerry’s pad to get Jerry moved out of the place because it was a…fucking dump. There were a bunch of hippies there, people blowing pot,…I couldn’t believe it.” Even then, his apartment, other than a light scatter of miscellaneous litter, was blankly bare of all but a bed on the floor. He had, as well, a certain distracted and self-neglectful air, his hair often limply in need of washing; one close friend during the gubernatorial campaign had to inform him, reports Pack, when Brown once spilled into his car after a flight, “Christ, you’ve got b.o. like crazy, man.” Brown simply mumbled, “Yeah, I’ve had this same shirt on for three days.”
Brown’s self-levitation into the governorship of California provides, on the whole, an intriguing instance of what happens when a Jesuit ascetic is summoned by the sirens of temporal consequence and station, and comes into power—the forms that such a man’s asceticism mutates into when he strikes a contract with Caesar. As secretary of state, he had proven uncommonly assertive and pentacostally earnest in so nominally perfunctory a job, acting out of a strenuous if conventional liberalism in re-creating that office from its clerical functions of supervising elections and maintaining state records into a bristlingly activist agency for procedural political reforms, including a measure forbidding lobbyists from giving anything to any candidate for public office.
His term fortuitously happened to coincide with the ramifying scandals of Watergate, and Brown did not fail to avail himself of what marginal openings it offered him, filing charges to revoke the notary’s license of the California lawyer who had, for Nixon’s tax-accounting convenience, backdated Nixon’s deed of bequest of his vice-presidential papers. In fact, his opponent in the governor’s race, Houston Flournoy, proclaims, “He was suing everybody all the time…. He was like Drew Pearson. If you swing enough times, you’re going to hit a home run now and then.” For all his seeming industry and vociferous pronunciamentos, though, one television reporter during Brown’s days in that office confided to Pack that it remained his puzzled impression that “he wasn’t doing very much. I mean his desk was spotless.”
When he forged on for the governorship, then, Brown’s initial lead on Flournoy of some fourteen percentage points in the polls steadily dwindled to, in the final vote count, only three, with Brown becoming toward the end of that campaign increasingly “shrill and insistent,” as one associate admitted to Pack. In retrospect, few seriously question that it was Ford’s pardon of Nixon, about two months before the vote, that supplied Brown an early inflation of support sufficient to carry him on through those last ragged days. On election night, though, his mother thought it meet to whisperingly beseech him, as he was mounting a podium to take his triumph, “Humility, Jerry, humility.”
Brown later suggested to Schell—in a remark that hinted, perhaps, of self-reflection, a sense of his own demurral from the Jesuit strictures—that “the Jesuits are not what they used to be when I was there. The world certainly doesn’t seem to be very permeated with self-mortification now.” On his part, though, he would still confess to at least the lingering “Jesuit ideal” of “the spiritual life. The theme is that there is the world, and then there is the spirit, and you opt for one or you opt for the other…. The spirit is everlasting, but the world is transitory.” As he further explained to Schell, “We were supposed to be ‘In the world but not of it.’ It would be nice if one could be in politics but not of it.”
Indeed it did seem he had wound up in a rather improbable, if not impossible, apposition of values. While one confidante insisted to Pack, “I don’t feel he’s been corrupted, or his idealism has been corroded by what he’s living in,” the truth is that, during the primary campaign, he had entered into something very like the first exigent beginnings of a corruption. His staff began to compile personal dossiers on his opponents, Bob Moretti and San Francisco mayor Joseph Alioto, to avert any further evocations by them of already guttering insinuations about Brown’s sexual declension. A close consultant of Brown’s, Tom Quinn, confirmed that “I informed Moretti and Alioto that if they tried anything, we’d let this stuff go,” and Moretti’s campaign manager acknowledged that “Quinn claimed he had stuff that could destroy Bob’s life.”
At the least, Lorenz points out, it was the beginning of a morally treacherous process which could, quite effortlessly and imperceptibly, phase from the defensive into the aggressive: “What if the farmworkers legislation wasn’t going to pass unless a particular state senator changed his vote and we knew he was mixed up in the prepaid health mess? If it was all right to use blackmail to protect Jerry’s reputation, why wasn’t it okay to use it to ‘protect’ the farmworkers legislation? I felt as though I was looking at a pet boa constrictor in the bathtub.”
Nevertheless, after his election Brown said to a delegation of divines from a Jesuit academy in Los Angeles, “If you want to know what my administration will be like, look at St. Ignatius’ eleventh and twelfth rules in the Summary of the Constitution. Rule eleven is that Jesuits abhor completely and without exception all that the world loves and embraces. Rule twelve is that each Jesuit should make his first and foremost endeavor to seek in Christ his greatest abnegation and continuous mortification.” Whatever else, it would have to be said that Brown proceeded to address himself to his pastorship now over the affairs of California with a certain forbidding Jesuit rigor and soberness. In Sacramento, they found him to be, as someone told Pack, “not a person who likes to engage in small talk”—at those soirees around the capital at which he ventured an appearance, he would either “get into some pretty urgent discussion, or he just wouldn’t stay.”
An education lobbyist told Pack how, after relaying to Brown an invitation to a farewell party for legislator George Moscone, who had just been elected mayor of San Francisco, Brown waited until 10:30 that evening to phone her and inquire, warily, just who was there, just what kind of party was it, was it any kind of “drunken brawl.” Thoroughly reassured that everything was quite orderly and subdued, nevertheless by the time Brown finally arrived, the tone of the occasion had waxed somewhat more flamboyant—and Brown, with little more than a cold glance around and a few mutterings, quickly exited.
His somewhat spare and monastic temper as governor—a demeanor that to some approaches the priggish—has tended, actually, to scandalize a number of legislators. As a Democratic official commented to Pack, “The public loves the mattress on the floor and the Plymouth. But a lot of politicians came up the hard way, and they view some of these extra benefits as the perquisites of political office. For some legislators it’s a big deal to rent a state car. It may be the first new car they’ve ever even had though they don’t own it, and Jerry’s made it kind of sinful and mean and bad for them to do that anymore. This kind of puritanism infuriates these guys.”
Even the settings in which he chooses to live and work have a functional austerity that could be called Jesuit Executive: in his apartment and his personal offices, Lorenz reports, it is “always the same: two white sofas set perpendicular to each other, a glass coffee table, large potted palms, and abstract art on the walls.” In these places, he applies himself to marathon sessions of work, from twelve to fourteen hours a day, sometimes seven days a week—a regimen that has served much to sustain that wan pale hue of the seminary in his look. He only sleeps in short skips—“Let’s see,” he once mentioned to Schell, “I got two hours of sleep last night. So I better sleep three hours tonight”—and he takes most of his meals, fitfully, in restaurants or passing snatches from franchise driveins, or will scavenge whatever others in his office leave out, or if he happens to find himself before a substantial spread, will eat with a heedless and chaotic randomness, “all hands,” as Schell describes one instance, “pieces of fried chicken, a glass of milk, some pineapple, some chocolate cake…with no apparent regard for the proper sequence.” Usually he will work for long spaces of time without pausing to eat at all. It’s as if all other attentions beyond his exercises as governor are vague and haphazard incidentals, fleeting distractions. One epic session with his aides in plotting a piece of legislation hauled on for sixty hours through a span of seventy-two, until, as Pack quotes one of those there, “the stroke of genius arrived sometime late Sunday afternoon. We damn near starved to death.”
Asked once if perhaps the intensity he had brought to the office might not be regarded by some as a bit too fierce, Brown retorted, “One can’t go home at five o’clock and just forget it. It’s really hard to take the problems of society seriously and then forget about them at five or seven or eight.” Or as he put it to a friend, “Anyone who has time to shine his shoes isn’t doing the important things in life.” Pack quotes a childhood friend of Brown’s who is now a member of his administration, “Jerry is still kind of homeless…. I feel for Jerry in the sense that I think he’s just one poor, lonely son of a bitch.” It sometimes appears to his friends as if Brown has enlarged his cell at the seminary to the governorship of California. Explaining once his fourteen-hour, sixty-hour stints in his Sacramento office, Brown offered to Schell the line, ” ‘Each time I left my cell and returned, I felt a lesser man.’ Thomas à Kempis said that. I don’t know why I remember it, but I always do.”
Part of that intensity, though, is a certain odd abiding chill and distance. As one critic maintained to Pack, “Have you ever seen Jerry Brown laugh? And you never will, probably…. I look at people who don’t laugh and who don’t love and who don’t respect, and I say they got really deep, deep problems.” If not that, still Brown is capable of abstracting himself into a peculiarly brittle and sometimes disconcerting distance—his childhood friend whom he appointed to a state regulatory board remembered that afterward Brown phoned him with the admonition, ” ‘And always remember, always remember, that everybody perceives you as being very close to me.’ It’s kind of interesting that he had to tell me that. I kind of went, ‘Oh, yeah, really?’ “
Lorenz recounts one rather bizarre incident when Brown, in the course of an exposition to his aides about the hopeless farce of many unemployment programs, abruptly summoned into his office “a woman working in the back room…a medium-sized, dark-haired woman of approximately twenty-six years of age,” who, says Lorenz, “had dated Jerry at one time, I gathered,” and Brown then proceeded briskly to interrogate her, for the edification of everyone sitting about, on how she had once managed to receive unemployment benefits while comfortably established at her mother’s house and without looking for a job—“ ‘You see?’ Jerry declared as he pointed his finger at the woman.”
In fact, Brown brusquely resorts at times to a singular manner of intimidation which, as Lorenz relates it, faintly evokes the guttural arts of Lyndon Johnson: careering once through the offices of a state agency, says Lorenz, Brown suddenly halted and wheeled around—“ ‘You,’ he said, pointing to a middle-aged man in a white shirt, ‘what’s your title around here?’…The man’s answer caught in his throat. I followed the path of Jerry’s still outstretched forefinger. Like a laser beam, it was pointed at a spot about three inches below the man’s belt buckle. Ah, yes. I knew how the man felt. Jerry had done it to me on occasion, and invariably, one’s immediate desire was to double up and cup one’s hands over one’s groin.”
One of Lorenz’s former colleagues in the Brown administration concluded that “all his life [Jerry’s] had a lead to protect. He spends much of his time keeping people from getting close.” As Lorenz states it, Brown simply “has no yen for intimacy.” It is solitary hauteur, a moral and intellectual imperiousness, which many attribute also to his Jesuit conditioning. But at least one Brown acquaintance contended to Pack, it’s merely that Brown is psychically “constipated.” For instance, he went on, “Jerry does have this feeling that once he’s made an appointment, he’s given away a little power,” and Brown himself once ruminated to Schell, “One only has a certain amount of psychic energy.” Largely for that reason, another associate told Pack, “Jerry feels somewhat uncomfortable about having people that he doesn’t really know well in a position to do things in his name.”
In this compulsion for total control and containment of everything in which he is importantly implicated, Brown has developed a ferocious obsession with the most meticulous particulars of a matter, a testy “reluctance to rely on other people’s opinions,” says Pack. When he presented a farm labor bill to the legislature in 1975, he bluffly decreed that any tinkerings with its details would result in his dispensing with the entire measure—which prompted a furor from assemblymen about his “total preemption of the legislative process…a corruption of what the legislative process shall be.” Brown remained grimly intractable.
But it is principally Brown’s surgical detachment that discomfits many around him. “The world is just a chess game to him,” one of his more ardent Sacramento antagonists snorts. And indeed, what impels Brown has always seemed more the element of purpose than passion. Again, from his Jesuit novitiate, a former priest observed to Pack, “There is a process, an attitude, an underlying approach to problem solving and people relationships that remains. Your will and mind are in control all the time, and therefore there’s a danger of being too heady and not having enough heart.”
While Brown was in the midst of his contribution-disclosure crusade as secretary of state, he announced, “Norton Simon is a close friend of my family. He was a schoolmate of my father’s…. I obviously am unhappy that his name appears on the list of candidates who did not file timely campaign contribution reports. However, it is clearly my duty to act against my friends when they violate the law, as well as against those people I do not know.” A Sacramento commentator later told me, “Now that kind of unstinting rectitude and staunchness might be thoroughly admirable in a priest or a saint or a religious prophet. However, I’m not sure it’s always suitable or even healthy in a democratic politician.” Even Brown’s father was once moved to volunteer to Schell, “I don’t think Jerry gets tormented over very many things, just between you and me. I think he has convictions about things, but I don’t think he agonizes over them. He just feels they’re right or wrong.”
That somewhat remote and cerebral didacticism might account for Brown’s curious comportment through the death-penalty dispute in California in 1975. While his father was governor, it had been primarily Jerry’s entreaties that had finally prompted Pat Brown to defer the execution of Caryl Chessman, and then during his own term, Jerry returned unsigned to the state senate a measure to reinstate the death penalty with the declaration, “At some point, each of us must decide for himself what sort of future he would want. For me, this would be a society where we do not attempt to use death as a punishment.” But with that pronouncement, he then made no efforts to dissuade the legislature from overriding his veto—though, when that override came, a single vote would have made the difference. Instead, on the day the override was confirmed, Brown himself was seated in a darkened auditorium in Los Angeles, watching a slide presentation on the measureless promises of outer space during a Space-Day program. When his press secretary slipped down the aisle to inform him the execution bill had cleared, Schell reports, Brown simply murmured, “Well, I don’t want any cameras—anything,” and remained there in the dark for the rest of the proceedings.
Lorenz believes that in Brown’s eventual, and creditable, coalition with Cesar Chavez to achieve a farmworkers law defining and insuring the right to union representation, “Jerry was like the tin woodman in The Wizard of Oz, who had no heart. Cesar would give him a heart. Cesar’s alliance with Jerry would supply the warmth, the compassion, the feeling, that the Jerry Brown image lacked…. The men of the soil were, literally as well as figuratively, bringing the man of words down to earth.” Even so, during a period of some dissonance with Chavez in the thick of their collaboration, Brown was heard to calculate, “I can beat Chavez, I’ll outfast him. He’s too weak from the previous fasts to do one again….”
If Brown in his governorship has often suggested a spoiled priest with a clinging sanctimoniousness trafficking now in the vulgarities of politics, he has most conspicuously retained a propensity for the mystic in that unlikely transference. Queried for his analysis after Carter’s election, Brown responded with a meditation about “the fundamental mystery” finally at work in all elections, beyond the comprehension of statistics and demographics. Most notably, though, Brown has repaired to that secondary mysticism which frequently serves as a resort for lapsed or disenchanted Pauline theologues—Oriental metaphysics. He acquired a great enthusiasm, lasting through his governorship, for passing his weekends at a San Francisco Zen retreat, where he “liked to sit in the sun,” says Lorenz, in that “austere, quiet environment, which seemed to remind him of his days in the seminary.” However uneasy this conjunction may seem, one of Brown’s essential political texts, as much as Ignatius’s eleventh and twelfth maxims, became the precept of Suzuki-Roshi, founding eminence of that Zen enclave: “In a beginner’s mind, there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s, there are few.”
During his governor’s campaign Brown was fond of flourishing the somewhat occult pronouncement, “You watch. I’m going to move right and left at the same time.” And if there were moments during the campaign when his oratory seemed incongruously, suspiciously Reaganesque, it was simply assumed, says Lorenz, that he was “building a Trojan horse out of conservative rhetoric, but all along, the liberal shock troops were hiding inside, waiting for the moment of reckoning, and one night they would descend by ropes and ladders.” To more than a few, Brown seemed to offer, with his vaguely counter-cultural ambiance, the first true major possibility for the blithe spirit of the Sixties now to govern in the Seventies. And indeed, after his assumption of the governorship, it became Brown’s whim to play, over the loudspeakers in the park beside the capitol, anthems by the Sufi Choir of San Francisco, Gregorian chants, and Beethoven’s Ninth, along with ballads by Loretta Lynn, Helen Reddy, Merle Haggard. For the entertainment at governor’s receptions and galas, he directly imported that choir of the Sufis, and one of his appointees to the state board of regents, an anthropologist, Brown impressed into enlightening a governor’s Prayer Breakfast with a discourse on pregnant goats and peyote.
Nevertheless, a cynicism soon began to emerge that, as one young observer reported to Schell, “when you get right down to it, Brown is really an old-time politician who just borrows the rhetoric of our generation.” If not precisely that, Brown has turned out to belong to a certain peculiar, indigenous California political genre that could be called hip conservatism. For all his urban bohemian flourishes, he not only evidenced a parsimoniousness about program-fundings and a general suspicion of governmental social measures that were more than a little reminiscent of Reagan’s reign, but was inclined to deliver himself of exhortations that could have been classic Reaganisms—as when he once advised that welfare mothers were going to have to “tighten their belts.”
One assemblyman conjectured to Bollens and Williams that, between Brown and Reagan, there is “a curious convergence of the new left and the old right.” For that matter, Brown’s perspective on crime, aside from his sentiments on the death penalty, has the most minimal traces of mercy in it. Signing a mandatory-sentence law for anyone convicted of using a firearm in a crime, he opined, “This may not rehabilitate nor get at the underlying causes, but it will punish those who deserve it. The philosophy of this bill is based not on sociology or Freudian theory but on simple justice.” Somewhat more succinctly, while campaigning in the presidential primaries, he proposed, “Prisons don’t rehabilitate very well, but they punish pretty good. We tell them that real early. We say, ‘This is your punishment, and if you do it again, you’re going to get more.’ It’s not pleasant, but it’s not supposed to be.”
The truth is, Brown’s working vision of mankind is really the ancient, dark one: the race’s immutable incorrigibility. “I think that the notion that human nature changes is a complete absurdity refuted by every chapter of history,” he asserts. The human animal is “weak,” and his basic political need is “a type of government that recognizes that mankind is always brought down by his own instincts.” It is a political view still partaking in much of that Jesuit abhorrence of self, the contempt for the merely human. At the least, Brown hardly proceeds from the liberal humanitarian-rationalist ethic—a rejoicing in man and all his grand dimensions of possibility. He is less a spirit of the Renaissance than of medieval scholasticism. As he expounds it, “Life is a vale of tears, and I don’t think that is going to change.”
Brown’s vision of government amounts to an elemental Rooseveltian antithesis—a repudiation of that almost forty-year-old American political principle of benign governmental intervention in society. Rather, it is Brown’s premise that human society for the most part possesses a life of its own beyond any meaningful impingement or amelioration by even the most benevolent governmental designs. “I think it’s important to realize,” Pack quotes him as saying, “that you don’t change the world…[by] holding out bureaucratic or political solutions to profound human questions that in fact are not answerable with a government program, but must be lived with and through as just part of being a human being.”
It may be the case, as a number of Brown’s critics submit, that one should beware of those who seem a bit too agreeably ready to accept the unimprovability of life. But if Brown’s governorship has largely been an extension of those asperities at the seminary—where, he recalled to Schell, “I used to refuse to put salt on my eggs”—that impulse for abstention has also taken the form of Brown’s fabled espousal of what he has hailed as “the era of limits” in a world suddenly apprehended as finite in its provender and accommodations for waste. Out of this view, mainly inspired by E.F. Schumacher and Buckminster Fuller, Brown has somehow managed to generate an apparent immense excitement, and no little popular rapport, about the challenge of “lowered expectations” and, what is like a political equivalent of the aesthetic of “less is more,” the notion that “small is beautiful.” (One Sacramento pundit cracked, “If small is so beautiful, why doesn’t he just quit all this and go run for mayor of Fresno?”)
It was particularly Brown’s promotion of lowered expectations that brought a protest from his political opponent Bob Moretti: “What he’s in effect saying is, ‘Listen, you guys, we’re sorry, but the cars have run out of gasoline. We’ve got ours, and there just isn’t enough room for you to get yours.’… He’s saying there’s no room for anybody else on the bus…. This whole business of lowered expectations is alien to me, and I think it’s alien to the American political and economic system.”
But Brown contrived in time, through an improbable bit of dialectical legerdemain, to convert his exuberance over reconciliation to limits into an ebullience about expanding those limits into space, soon advertising instead of an era of limits, “an era of possibilities.” He began to effuse, “There’ll be new worlds. Let’s explore them…. There are certain inevitable evolutionary movements that we’re not able to stop but we can shape a little bit, work with, be a part of.” It may have occurred to Brown that California’s economy is deeply involved with the space industry. But what apparently helped to produce this additional enlightenment was a Wall Street Journal study ranking the state next to last as a promising locale for business, along with the cancellation of a projected $500-million Dow petrochemical plant in northern California owing to the myriad ecological requirements of California state agencies. Before long, Brown had even refined his gospel of limitations to apply to environmentalists—they should consider the effects of their efforts on employment and the hardiness of the economy.
But Brown’s governmental aesthetic of “less is more” has perhaps been most vigorously pursued in his own manner of dealing with political questions. Over the four years of his term, he has emerged as an odd sort of anti-matter politician. Often citing George McGovern’s fatal penchant for the specific in 1972, Brown answers to a deep instinct, says Lorenz, “that substance could be death to a politician.” At a press conference opening his presidential adventure, he admitted, “I can’t give a lot of ready-made recipes on how to solve each and every problem”—adding, though, that he had “a lot of energy.”
In fact, he affects a kind of effervescent evanescence, maintains a certain jaunty elusiveness that often leaves people not quite certain whether he means to be taken straight. It is a bearing, says Schell, “which can prove disconcerting to a person who views a particular issue or problems with a sense of gravity and concern. There is something about his attempts to keep the heart of the matter at a distance, to keep talking, lest a certain problem evoke strong feelings, that can be unsettling.” Instead, it seems his instant reflex, always, to feint, to slip off from the true center of gravity of a matter.
What Brown is actually exercising, though, is a kind of negative physics of politics. Or as Lorenz explains it, Brown proceeds according to the principle of the Zen Archer: “Hit the target without aiming at it. Build up your authority by exercising less authority. Assert your leadership by exercising less leadership,” and most importantly, “gain power by eschewing any interest in power.” Translating this into his administrative style as governor, Brown himself has commented, “you don’t have to do things. Maybe by avoiding doing things you accomplish a lot.” Lorenz has somewhat less sprightly recollections: “He would dilly-dally around for awhile…. He would let the popular desire for a resolution of the problem reach such a fever pitch of intensity that people would plead with him to make a decision”—and thereby he would find he “had gained authority by doing nothing.”
In Brown’s application of Zen to the art of political power, he negotiates his way considerably more by the unsaid than the said, conjuring through the unsaid an “ambiance of possibility,” Lorenz says, which affords a citizen “space to project his fondest wishes onto Jerry, space to identify with Jerry. The interval was the key to Jerry’s method. Jerry gave the voters the feeling that he was creating an opening for them to fit into.”
It was rather in this way that he announced for the presidency: after implacably refusing for weeks to indicate whether he would run, one evening after a press conference he invited four reporters into his office and, as they chatted and sipped fruit juice, he mentioned in passing that “a certain dialectic and dialogue…has been characteristic of my administration. That kind of philosophy and approach is what I think is necessary, and my entry into the [Maryland] primary will tend to give that approach a hearing.” So soft a side-pocket shot it was, one of the reporters went on to ask another question before they all realized what that idle, almost-unheard plop meant. Actually, Lorenz says, “the announcement had been planned for months, but was made in a typically casual, offhand manner, recalling the observation of McLuhan: ‘In the cool TV age, the office must chase the man.’ ” Subsequently, still operating on the effect of the dynamic hiatus, “Jerry announced no platform and no program. He would let his audience fill in the gaps, thereby allowing the sensation of participation.”
But Brown’s Zen precepts of “inaction may be the highest form of action” and “let it emerge”—something like his own spry improvisation on the much benighted “benign neglect” of years ago—have also made him into a more or less reflexive politician. He is only finally goaded into action, as Brown himself confided to Pack, when “it looks like something has to be done today or something bad will happen,” and Lorenz quotes him, “Listen, I’ll believe I have to do something for the unemployed only when I see them rioting in the streets.” A former Sacramento functionary attested to Pack, “Jerry will wait until the level of suffering and the pressure has increased to a point where people are more willing to compromise and accept a solution, so Jerry becomes more identified with the solution than the problem. I’m not sure that is good government, but it is good politics.”
To Lorenz there is a portion of wisdom in that even as an attitude about government, akin to the Tolstoyan patience and equanimity of the old general, Kutuzov, in War and Peace. As Brown declared, “What is any leader? What can a President do? There isn’t all that much he can do except set a tone and chart a vision.” Bob Moretti rejoins, “He calls it creative inaction. I call it sitting on your ass.”
In any event, one result is that Brown lives in what Lorenz terms “a state of constant contingency.” Brown demanded of Pack, “Why make decisions when you don’t have to? So long as you can keep all the alternatives open, why not?” Or as he insisted to Schell, “The problems I deal with on the state level are not immediately all that earthshaking. What I’m dealing with can usually be postponed…. I don’t duck things, I postpone them for further reflection.” Bollens and Williams somewhat fancifully characterize this almost manic Hamlet-like tentativeness as the sign of a “man who accurately reflects the mood of a time of uncertainty.” It more likely has to do with that dictum of Suzuki-Roshi’s to which Brown is so dedicated, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities,” which would help explain, among other things, Brown’s reluctance, after the presidential primary season was long spent, to relinquish his candidacy up until the very last instant at the convention: “I wanted to see the process to the end. Why give up until the counting is finished?”
What Brown has conducted for four years in Sacramento has often seemed a government by wisecrack, by haiku, by epigram—“You know what I think our society lacks? It lacks good passage between adolescence and adulthood…. I think that the boredom we are seeing in schools these days is because there is not enough mixing of mind and body.” He is especially devoted to abrupt unanswerable pronouncements, such as “Opportunity is the great enemy of commitment,” such Wildean variations on Dr. Johnson as “Issues are the last refuge of scoundrels.” Suggests Schell, “These out-loud ruminations that he shares with anyone and everyone present at once establish some form of communication and keep the listener at a strange distance.”
They have also invited the impression at times that Brown’s essential notion of the service of government consists of a running consciousness-raising session. Indeed, Brown once indicated to Schell, “That’s the important part of the political process, placing ideas in the public domain. I see my role as identifying ideas that are on the margin and bringing them into the mainstream.” The difficulty, as a journalist with the state’s educational television station remarked to Schell, is that Brown sometimes seems “an intellectual who feels thinking about something is the same thing as doing it.” For that matter, Brown himself has professed, “People who stand for an idea that has energy connected with it have real power.”
It is Lorenz’s hunch that, more than anything else, what Brown is really occupied with is relieving his own boredom. During the later stretches of his campaign for governor, Brown, having sunk into an inexplicable grumpiness, abruptly produced during an interview a somewhat exotic proposal for abolishing one of the houses of the legislature. An aide moaned to Lorenz, “Is he flipping out?” But Lorenz speculates, “Jerry used a small crisis (the interview) to head off a larger problem (his own boredom). The fallout from the interview was like a slap in the face. It woke him up. It got the adrenalin flowing again.”
Lorenz speculates that Brown is constantly skirmishing against the sodden lassitudes of a boredom not unlike that of society at large, in which “there was too much experience to process and where the experience was too confused,” a drab ennui of sensory overload in which the only way to recover a freshness and quickness of nerve is “to have a crisis.” Indeed much of what is memorable about Brown’s administration consists of whimsical episodes of political guerrilla theater, like the occasion when he heaped thirty-four volumes of federal and state welfare laws on a table before the assembled California Welfare Directors Association and, announcing they contained some five million words, then hoisted up a Bible and brandished it in the air, intoning, “If I have to take my pick, I take this thing against that mish-mash any day.” Lorenz concludes that “Jerry’s performance was reminiscent of the Happenings that were put on in New York and Los Angeles in the 1960s…juxtaposing images in a bizarre way (the welfare laws against the Bible) in order to produce a new sense of the absurd.” Such capers, as he puts it, are “one way of dealing with the Blue Meanies.”
It is also the nature of such impromptu politics to accumulate certain accompanying inconsistencies, to which Brown usually sniffs, “Then was then and now is now.” It is, of course, Zen logic—as Lorenz expatiates, “What and how we are at one point is, in reality, different from what and how we are at another. Life is a continuum, so to speak, consisting of a series of moments in which we live constantly in Now”—an apprehension of reality hardly anticipated by the founding patriarchs in the Constitution, an eminently un-Zen document. But as Brown told Schell, “People find it interesting how I go from Whale Day to Space Day, from one issue to another. Life is a mosaic. Life is many themes. Life is many seasons. So is a governorship. So is culture. So is history.” One of his admiring aides effused, “Jerry Brown is like one of those crystal balls that hangs over the dance floor….”
In his ambition to involve the citizenry in this adventure, Brown’s administration has, perhaps necessarily, taken on aspects of a government by metaphor. Brown’s spurning of the governor’s mansion erected by Reagan, his striking from the budget a $135,000-order for briefcases for Sacramento’s bureaucratic corps—such gestures “seem to occur to people as symbols of a larger understanding,” Schell says, and “they seem to obviate the need for further questions.” A Sacramento reporter, in fact, calls Brown’s administration “a symbol machine.” Metaphor seems to have been particularly at play when he appointed a Mexican-American who grew up on welfare to direct the state welfare system, a Japanese-American who passed eighteen months in a California Nisei camp to manage the state prison system, the husband of Jessica Mitford, author of The American Way of Death, to sit as a member of the Board of Funeral Directors and Embalmers. Also, as Brown’s appointee to the chief justiceship of the state supreme court, Rose Bird, herself in her forties, pointed out to Pack, “In a very real sense, he has jumped a generation in terms of governance. He has appointed an awful lot of people in their thirties.”
Brown’s own retinue of aides is composed of a somewhat eclectic assortment, from the paperclip neat and efficient Tom Quinn to Jacques Barzhagi, a French-born erstwhile filmmaker and actor and naval navigator, permanent student of philosophy, a tidy and wispy man with glintingly shaven head and a swami’s squinting peer behind steel-rimmed spectacles, his arms embellished with tattooings of Japanese script. Nominally Special Assistant to the Governor for the Arts, he is in effect Brown’s spiritual and philosophic medium, who also takes his laundry in for cleaning, keeps his pantry properly stocked, and selects furniture for his quarters. Brown also likes to keep the company of such modern druids as Ken Kesey, Jacques Cousteau, Carl Sagan, and Ray Bradbury.
But all these associations and gestures with their larger connotative cargoes Lorenz pronounces government by “synecdoche,” which he attacks: “Rather than authorizing a substantial reorganization of the prepaid health program, he would inveigh against state subsidies for bureaucrats’ briefcases…. Instead of planning major reductions in the property tax, he would save a few dollars by flying first-class on Pacific Southwest Airlines…. He would do in the microcosm of his own life what it was too risky to do in the larger world.” Of Brown’s proclamation of Whale Day Lorenz offers this: “The whales were a perfect symbol…there was absolutely no action Jerry could take to save them, the whales being beyond the three-mile limit.”
It is in Brown’s particularly fluent and dazzling deployments of symbology that Lorenz divines his ultimate foreboding about the Man on the White Horse. He quotes Brown: “People want a dictator these days…. They’re looking for a man on a white horse to ride in and tell them what to do. A politician can do anything he wants so long as he manipulates the right symbols.” Such Faustian contemplations are a bit unsettling when they come from a politician. But it is also Lorenz’s suspicion that symbology has largely replaced substance in the perceptions of the population of what is happening to it, the figures with whom its destiny is involved. “If American television viewers had not watched the Waltons for the three years preceding the 1976 election,” says Lorenz, “they might have found Jimmy Carter less familiar, less acceptable,” but as it was, “Jimmy Carter was John Boy grown older.” Was Plains, Georgia, he asks, “the metaphor that would enable the people to accept IBM?” Much, indeed, can be smuggled in through symbols. Lorenz’s implied question is whether E.F. Schumacher and “small is beautiful” and The Whole Earth Catalogue are to provide the disarming sensibility through which the electorate will convenant with a new, electronic, hip medievalism.
Pondering Brown’s designs in 1980, a Democratic assemblyman suggested to Pack, “He probably surprised himself at the success he met in the 1976 primaries. And he got to believing he should be president. And you know something? I don’t think he’s fully recovered from it. This fellow’s really been bitten.” Brown himself reflected on Carter to Schell, “He’s an intelligent and fair man. But he’s a moralist, not a philosopher, and he really believes in hierarchy. I’m not sure Carter properly appreciates the degree of decline in our society.”
But in any full-scale national offensive against Carter in 1980, Brown’s gravest liability could be that he will be perceived, across much of the Republic, as a bit of an exotic—that same “weirdness factor” that has arisen before in regard to Carter. An occasional adviser to the Carter administration recently asked, “How in the hell are they going to vote for some Buddhist Jesuit out there in Indiana and East Texas or in Queens or South Boston?” Brown himself once wistfully ruminated to Schell, “Maybe we should all just Carterize ourselves with a wife and children….” The looming imponderable, of course, in all such conjectural equations has become Ted Kennedy. But just as Brown’s opponent in the 1974 governor’s race energetically set about casting Brown, as Lorenz recalls, as “a little different, a little eccentric, a little cut off from the mainstream of American experience,” Carter could be depended on not to be above evoking Brown’s less-than-Norman-Rockwellian flair. To such considerations, Brown simply resorts to one of his seminarial texts: “Amor fati. That means, ‘Love your fate.’ ”
Since July, in fact, Brown has been occupied in his own cultivations of that fate with his deft budgetary accommodations to the disciplines exacted by Proposition 13—not a little facilitated by that $4 billion surplus. One Sacramento analyst maintains, “If the voters sowed the wind with this thing, it’s really going to be another year or so—when the surplus is gone, the new revenue rate has bottomed out—before we’ll know whether they’ll be reaping a whirlwind.” But so far, implementing Proposition 13 seems to have worked little detectable depredation on most state services, with perhaps the most meaningful thing reaped from it up to now a considerable ruddy flush in Brown’s own political haleness in state polls.
Until his larger fate shows itself, he continues to plunge about in his peculiar state of constant contingency, with ceaseless chatter of random speculation and curiosity: “What do people really want from leaders? I suppose that you can say that some way or other everyone is into politics for his ego. How do you get rid of those egos? Do you want to get rid of those egos?” Briefly mulling the possibility of bringing along his girl friend, Linda Ronstadt, with him for a train ride with a diplomatic delegation from mainland China, she nestling beside him in the front seat of a car in shorts and bare feet, he frets to Schell, “What do you think the Chinese would make of it?… Maybe it’s a little weird…. I’ve got to keep things straight. Can’t mix everything up…. Do the Chinese get philosophical in an eclectic way?” It is, in all, the most engaging thing about Brown, this pellmell carnival of questions, challenges to the assumed.
Campaigning in the 1976 Democratic primaries, Schell reports, Brown would suddenly pause in the doorway of some diner to murmur, “Where’s the center of this experience?” or while waiting for a hotel elevator during his trip to Japan, “Why are we doing this?” At an airport in Los Angeles once, awaiting the arrival of Carter for a presidential banquet that evening, Brown kept up an endless and inexhaustible yammer, all the while swooping and striding about the pavement of the runway apron in semi-circles: “Where’s the landing area?… Whose limousines are these?…What’s the meaning of life?”
September 28, 1978