Jerry Brown for President: The Way We Were

At the least, Brown clearly wants to influence the politics of 2016, which prompts this discussion of his first three presidential campaigns, each of which was telling and intriguing in its own ways.
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Governor Jerry Brown said while touring inland California a few days that he's not planning to run for president in 2016.

"No, that's not in the cards," he said in a rather off-hand response to a question about weeks of reports touting him as a presidential prospect. "Unfortunately. Actually, California is a lot more governable."

Which is why he's running now for re-election, of course, as I've been saying since was elected to his renewed governorship in November 2010. Brown is already the longest serving governor in California history, with the current term following after his controversial yet largely successful first two terms from 1975 to 1983. He already has to be ranked as one of California's great politicians, not to mention one of the most intriguing American political figures of the modern era. Now he's in position to stake a serious claim to being California's greatest governor, rivaling the past governorships of moderate Republican Earl Warren and his own father, the legendary Governor Pat Brown.

To do that, it's best to win a smashing re-election undistracted by much talk of a presidential campaign, then expend local political capital on driving home some top priorities early in his next term. Former Lieutenant Governor Abel Maldonado, a veteran legislator and Arnold Schwarzenegger appointee whom many touted as the best Republican to run against Brown, just dropped out, tweeting that Brown "is a good governor." Since the issues in play are big issues of concern to America's biggest state concerned with the challenges of the future, they are issues with national implications and scope. Brown loses nothing with regard to his national and international profile by talking them up along with the ongoing story of California challenges and emerging solutions.

For the latest example of that, there is today's declaration of a California drought emergency, "the worst," Brown says, in a century of record-keeping. California has periodic droughts now accentuated by climate change, with the Sierra snowpack ominously disappearing.

As for the presidency, we won't really know for a year or more how strong and resilient Hillary Clinton's front-running candidacy is likely to be. If circumstances favorable to a Brown candidacy exist they will present themselves during that period. For Hillary's issues of vulnerability, if any, will, to a large extent, prove out over the time period in which Brown is running for re-election and setting the stage for his next term.

At the least, Brown clearly wants to influence the politics of 2016, which prompts this discussion of his first three presidential campaigns, each of which was telling and intriguing in its own ways.

One thing he should definitely do, as I wrote last week in the kick-off column for the year, is be a favorite son candidate in the California presidential primary. Having the biggest delegation to the Democratic National Convention would give him plenty of room to maneuver in a variety of scenarios and at the least amplify his voice on behalf of his and California's priorities.

There are already signs that 2016 can be a very flavorful and perhaps surprising year.

I chose last week, as you may recall, to write about former Secretary of Defense Bob Gates's book rather than New Jersey Governor Chris Christie's bridge-closing. Why? I don't like to write about what everybody is talking and writing about. Especially when it's a really obvious situation. With a couple of his top people thrown under the bus over this, he already looks like he encourages a vindictive political hack operation. And if it's shown he specifically knew what was going on -- er, how could he not? -- it will dog him forever. Not that I thought he would be the Republican presidential nominee before this.

The Gates book and the situations it may engender is much more interesting intellectually. Not least with the revelation that it was not the career spook Gates but Hillary Clinton who was by far the biggest hawk in the Obama Administration. And who adopted a false stance of opposition to the Iraq surge not because she opposed the move but because she was concerned about countering then Senator Barack Obama's strength in the first-in-the-nation Iowa presidential caucuses.

You may recall that I was one of the first to write that Hillary had to be considered an odds on presidential favorite. But things can change as events play out over time.

It may be that Hillary's greatest advantage is that, aside from Vice President Joe Biden -- who's called Brown "the smartest politician in America" and who trails Hillary by a big margin in the polls -- the other potential candidates who are not in their 70s as largely unknown and have yet to happen upon a route to real fame.

Before discussing in a forthcoming article how Brown can influence the politics of 2016, either as a straight-out presidential candidate or as something less immediately clearcut, let's look at Brown's first three presidential campaigns.

The reality is that Brown always intrigued but underperformed as a presidential candidate. Like some explorer of the political genetic code, Brown, after the fashion of the bioscientists and genetic engineers developing recombinant DNA as the next phase of California's revolution in technological innovation, engaged in what I called the development of recombinant ideologies.

His experimental approach made Brown look quite opportunistic at times and more than a little inconsistent. But I know from contemporaneous conversations with Brown and his associates that, while of course operating as a politician, a pragmatic breed which by definition is ever on the lookout for opportunity, he was looking for new ways to pursue his consistent values of promoting a society of intellectual exploration and development of capability in which strategies for overall prosperity are pursued in a context of environmental balance and social justice. Not that he didn't go down some blind alleys in the process, the full assessment of which would have to come in book form.

In May 1976, first term Governor and new presidential candidate Jerry Brown held a rally in San Francisco's Union Square, where he was joined by Warren Beatty and Willie Brown.


A New Spirit

Brown entered the presidential race very late, after publicly expressing little interest in the contest, by calling a few reporters into his Sacramento office late one afternoon. Prompted by New South figure Jimmy Carter's emergence as the leading Democratic contender and what seemed to be his limited appeal, Brown frenetically geared up an instant campaign, relying on girlfriend Linda Ronstadt -- whose hit songs sometimes played on speakers in the trees in Capitol Park -- and her former back-up band, a little group called the Eagles, to help raise big bucks. (At times, the Democratic campaign seemed like a battle between the superstars of California rock and Southern rock, with the Allman Brothers giving their all to fund former Georgia Governor Carter's campaign.)

In those days, many Democrats and media types were looking for a new JFK. Brown, a former Jesuit seminarian whose unusual blend of skepticism and futurism emerged in the miasma of post-Vietnam, post-Watergate American politics, didn't denounce the idea but he didn't really play along much, either, far less so than many others, including Gary Hart, Brown's Yale Law classmate, who was to conduct a more rationalized and better insurgency-to-leadership campaign in 1984 which established him as the presidential frontrunner for 1988, a status which Brown, for all his superior improvisational and rhetorical gifts, has never had.

Brown presented himself as the man of the future who respects the past, offering a New Spirt from the New West of California. It was all quite vague. But as Brown noted, "A little vagueness goes a long way in this business."

"The country," he said rather famously, in words which echo especially today, "is rich, but not so rich as we have been led to believe. The choice to do one thing may preclude another. In short, we are entering an era of limits."

Once he was on some ballots, Brown won a string of late victories over Carter and the rest of the Democratic field, which included Frank Church, Mo Udall, Fred Harris, and Sargent Shriver.

Brown's friend, San Francisco socialite Nancy Pelosi, was the daughter and sister of Baltimore mayors. As fate would have it, Brown had designs on the Maryland primary as his first target. He made Pelosi, just beginning to think she might want a political career of her own, his political director for Maryland. She helped Brown, who rode to the California governorship in 1974 with an initiative to clean up politics, forge alliances with Maryland machine politicians. That plus his "new spirit" charismatic appeal to younger reform-oriented voters enabled him to roll to a smashing victory over Carter in their first state battle.

This inside/outside approach proved a formula which served Brown well as he won a string of late victories, following Maryland with wins in Nevada, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Louisiana, and California.

He nearly won in Oregon, where he lead in the polls but had the disadvantage of not being on the ballot. So he ran as a write-in candidate, finishing a close third behind Church and Carter. I helped organize his big rally at the University of Oregon in Eugene, then as now the national capital of track and field and the center of Oregon's youth culture. Our brochures were single-sheets consisting of a half-profile shot of Brown looking hawkish yet hip, accompanied by two paragraphs of boilerplate about his background and ideas.

It was all terribly vague, yet quite effective. Brown practically mesmerized the huge crowd then, eschewing the motorcade, set off on foot across the campus trailed, like the Pied Piper of yore, by what seemed like most of the crowd. The braver students popped up to the front of the procession to ask Brown questions, to which he gave witty and often acerbic replies. A little in awe, satisfied by the interaction, they then fell back, only to be replaced by their fellows with more of the same.

For all the momentum and even magic of Brown's late run for the nomination, it was too late. Carter had too big a headstart. And Brown was only 38, having been governor for less than a year and a half. Much of Brown's machine support was interested in Senator and former Vice President Hubert Humphrey, a friend of Pat Brown whom Jerry had nonetheless opposed in the 1968 campaign as a delegate for the anti-war candidate Gene McCarthy. But Humphrey was ailing -- he died in 1978 -- and Carter was able to close the deal. Still, for all its lateness and vagueness, Brown's late run garnered him the runner-up slot and seemed to presage a bright future in presidential politics.

If only he hadn't run at the wrong time.

"The Shape of Things To Come," Jerry Brown's fateful 1980 address at the Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison, produced live for television by Francis Ford Coppola.


Protect the Earth, Serve the People, Explore the Universe

Ironically, Brown's second presidential campaign began in the most conventional fashion and ended up as perhaps the most alternative of his ventures, and certainly the least successful of his presidential forays. Brown, who won re-election in 1978 in an historic landslide over the Republican attorney general, was long expected to take another shot at Carter when the president ran for a second term. Which, not incidentally, is generally a bad idea. Running against an incumbent president of your own party, that is. It all became even more problematic when Senator Ted Kennedy decided to take his long expected shot at a restoration of Camelot.

Carter ran as a centrist Democrat with establishment backing; Kennedy as the unreconstructed liberal his brothers Jack and Bobby never really were. The two big personalities, representing the two biggest ideological tendencies in the Democratic Party, left Brown with very little oxygen in the race. Even though Kennedy stumbled horribly when asked why he wanted to be president, his backers, drawn by the national legend and loyalty to the Kennedy family weren't going to be so easily dissuaded.

Brown continued in the race. It proved, in my opinion, to be one of the most fateful decisions of his career. What it meant is that Brown ran for president in each of his two terms. Put another way, he ran for office every two years. By the time 1982 rolled around, with the end of his second term and the opportunity for a new office he could actually win, a seat in the U.S. Senate, a body for which he was very well-suited, he had typed himself as a perennial candidate. And in his second presidential campaign, with a candidacy that could be characterized as taking him beyond the edge where change can lie out to the fringe which for too many disqualifies you. That was a process come of looking for a distinctive rationale for a candidacy that was failing to engage my voters and activists.

He should have pulled the plug on the campaign, or never run in the first place.

Instead, he continued on, looking for a breakthrough for his E.F. Schumacher/Buckminster Fuller-inflected platform. In the process, he developed an intriguing program. The slogan, of course, was awesome, as was the poster, which my first wife loved so much we had it up for years. "Protect the Earth, Serve the People, Explore the Universe," complete with a hero shot of Brown addressing the massive 1979 anti-nuke/pro-solar rally in Washington. Jerry Brown for captain of Spaceship Earth. No wonder that the campaign arrived as the first Star Trek film was released.

Brown called for a constitutional convention for a balanced federal budget, big increases in the space program, and an energy program based on massive expansion of renewable energy and energy efficiency efforts and the phase-out of nuclear power, which had then just suffered through the Three Mile Island accident. He opposed Kennedy's massive national health insurance proposal, instead pushing the promotion of wellness strategies, including rewards for people who engage in healthful living. He also advocated national service for the nation's youth, non-military in nature for those who don't join the armed forces.

After finishing a distant third in New Hampshire with 10%, Brown spent the month of March getting shellacked in contests around the country, stuck in single digits. It was a far cry from four years earlier.

Notwithstanding the not unpredictable snafus with what was still early stage technology, "The Shape of Things To Come" holds up well as a piece of political oratory and prognostication.

Brown resolved to make a do or die stand in Wisconsin. There, on March 28th, the Friday night before the Wisconsin primary, Brown pulled together the themes of his campaign into a major speech dubbed "The Shape of Things To Come," after H.G. Wells. Director Francis Ford Coppola of Godfather fame, fresh off a little picture called Apocalypse Now, flew in from California to package the speech as a live television production from the steps of the Wisconsin state capitol in Madison.

In those pre-Internet days, I listened to the speech over a speaker phone in a Santa Monica office. "We can invent a future," Brown intoned as he laid out his vision for a high-tech industrial policy encompassing networked personal computers, space exploration, genetic engineering, and new energy and transportation systems. It all sounded very good. (So good that I used to play a cassette of the speech in my car.)

There was just one problem.

Coppola, who still helps Brown with his TV ads today, was clearly a master of big-time Hollywood filmmaking. But the live special effects he employed to accompany Brown's speech didn't work. In fact, they were disastrously distracting, with, among other wonders, a little spaceman walking and somersaulting across Brown's forehead.

Brown got only 12% when the vote went down on, fittingly, April 1st, winning his one and only one national convention delegate of the entire campaign. Yet, as I wrote in December 2010, the speech looks eerily prescient now.

Eerie prescience, however, like irony, is not something that generally plays all that well in run-of-the-mill American politics.

Things got very heated at times between Jerry Brown and Bill Clinton during their 1992 battle for the Democratic presidential nomination.


Take Back America

By 1992, many counted Brown out, a supposed has-been at 54. After leaving the governorship and losing a closely fought U.S. Senate race to Republican Pete Wilson, Brown ran a couple of think tanks, worked as a lawyer with an LA law firm, ventured to India to work with Mother Teresa, and spent nearly a year living in Japan, where he studied to add to his mastery of Zen Buddhism. It was all a bit too flavorful for most Democratic taste makers. Like most of the smarter set in the political media, they were lining up behind a new hope who had assiduously cultivated them for years, Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton.

Running a not infrequently angry populist campaign, Brown vowed to "take back America from the confederacy of corruption,careerism, and campaign consulting in Washington." He called for term limits on Congress and vowed to take contributions only from individuals and in amounts no greater than $100. In those pre-Internet days, Brown financed his campaign largely through an 800 number, which he flogged relentlessly. Just as some do with web sites urls today. Brown still has that 800 number, by the way.

In addition to his now customary themes on renewable energy and climate change, Brown championed a progressive version of a flat tax (in which corporations and some wealthy individuals would pay more), living wage measures and a single-payer health care system, and questioned international trade deals.

Largely discounted this time around, Brown started off slowly, getting nowhere in Iowa and finishing a distant fifth in New Hampshire. But five days later, he won Maine. Eight days after that, he took Colorado, after having been in fifth place there the day he took Maine. He was in the mix.

But he was still losing, with ex-Massachusetts Senator Paul Tsongas as Clinton's main rival, though he was mostly losing, too. Then Brown put together three successive wins against the other candidates, beginning with a head to head showdown in Connecticut with Clinton followed by Vermont and Alaska. Polls suddenly showed Brown running first in three big primaries on, as fate would have it, his birthday, April 7th: New York, Minnesota, and Wisconsin.

Brown proceeded to get, as the saying goes, too clever by half. Seeking to win black voters, who had not been turned off by Clinton presiding over the execution of a brain-damaged convict while in the midst of personal scandals that year, Brown floated the idea of Jesse Jackson being his vice presidential candidate. But Jackson was radioactive with the Jewish community then, and the move backfired. Brown plummeted in New York from first to third, finishing behind not only Clinton, who re-established his hold on the race, but also Tsongas, who had suspended his campaign. He also lost narrowly to Clinton in Wisconsin and Minnesota.

Also beset by a conveniently timed fake cocaine scandal, which ended up going nowhere, Brown's high water mark had come and gone.

Brown stayed in the race, to the increasing dismay of the party leadership, garnering a host of distant second place finishes. What Brown really wanted was to stay in long enough to get to California, where he knew he would win a trove of delegates to strengthen his position at the Democratic National Convention in New York City.

Though he had plenty of money, mindful of persistent charges that he was being divisve, Brown decided not to run TV ads in California, which helped Clinton to a 7-point win in the Golden State. But with proportional representation, Brown had most of the delegates he wanted for a showing at the New York convention.

Before going to New York, Brown traveled to Rio de Janeiro for the UN's first Earth Summit. Concern about greenhouse gas emissions and climate change was crystallizing, and Brown had plenty to say about his longstanding ideas on renewable energy technology, conservation, and energy efficiency measures.

After returning from the world stage, Brown found the going at the New York convention to be rather less than anticipated. Which is not to say that Brown didn't get plenty of attention, including, in something of a sibling snafu, a CNN skybox interview while sister Kathleen Brown, then California's state treasurer and an aspiring gubernatorial candiate, addressed the convention.

Brown did many interviews, including a very respectful one (I'm four feet outside of frame there in Central Park) by a frightfully talented and quirky young actor named Robert Downey, Jr. for his documentary on the 1992 presidential campaign, The Last Party. Downey, now the world's biggest movie star and an old Brown friend, appeared in November at a $2 million Brown fundraiser in LA.

But even though Brown, as agreed, had ceased hostilities with the Clintons, he didn't really get the sort of high-profile/high-prestige convention speaking slot he deserved. 1992 turned out to be another good showing in presidential politics, another runner-up finish for the Democratic presidential nomination, but not much more. Brown was to go through another wilderness period before emerging finally on the track that took him, two years after his father's death reminded him of "the family business," to two terms as the very hands-on/pop-up everywhere mayor of gritty Oakland, a landslide election as California's attorney general, and then a smashing gubernatorial election victory over billionaire Meg Whitman's biggest spending non-presidential campaign in American history.

So, three different Brown presidential campaigns.

Each campaign presented different shades of Brown.

In 1976, the brighter, more pop-inflected shades of Brown, albeit against the backdrop of the Era of Limits.

In 1980, the more programmatic, and more alternative, Brown, caught in exactly the wrong dynamic for his approach.

In 1992, the angrier, more disgusted Brown. In this C-SPAN clip, which unfortunately is not embeddable, I introduce Brown before one of the last speeches of his last presidential primary campaign at Sony Studios, at a summit on urban issues conducted by Hollywood activists and the U.S. Conference of Mayors. Here you see the not atypical Brown of the period, serious, intellectual, and more than a little dour. Though not in the scold mode which at times typified the '92 adventure.

Yet for all their differences, there are thematic throughlines running down the spines of each candidacy -- new energy and transportation systems, a global perspective, environmental stewardship, unconventional education, the challenge of making a commonwealth of growing diversity, a rejection of political hackery, faith in innovation and skepticism about conventional economic growth.

And there are other similarities, not the least of which is that, for all their flashes of brilliance, daring, and inspiration, none of these campaigns was especially well-conceived or executed. While Brown did well, far better than most who run for president, a politician this intriguing and talented should do better.

What Brown lacked was an ongoing perch, the ongoing context in which to engage presidential issues without detracting from his larger responsibilities. That would have come had he won the U.S. Senate seat I believe would have been his for the taking in 1982 had he not run a second time for president in 1980. Which would have placed him in potential competition with the likes of Gary Hart, Joe Biden, John Kerry as presidential-oriented senators. With the difference being that Brown had already been the two-term governor of California.

But that was not to be, leaving only the ever intriguing now of Brown's life.

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