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On the 1992 Campaign Trail with Jerry Brown

March 2, 1992

Owen Franken/Corbis

“Taking out papers to run for re-election,” Jerry Brown tweeted in February, along with a low-key picture: ballpoint pen, clipboard, dark suit, a backdrop of bureaucratic beige. Governor Moonbeam—preparing for an unprecedented fourth run at the California governor’s office 40 years after his first campaign—has come a long way. Now something of an elder statesman budget hawk at 76, he was once part-hippie, part-futurist—the anti-politician’s politician. In his wilderness years, between stints in Sacramento and presidential runs, he went to Japan to study Buddhism and to Calcutta to volunteer with Mother Teresa. At the age of 57, he installed himself as the head of a five-person commune in Oakland, where he lived with his political adviser, his radio show producer, a former addict, and a kitchen-equipment saleswoman who moved in after persuading Brown to buy a stainless-steel range. She took over most of the cooking: “We eat low fat, low calories. Jerry doesn’t like a lot of chicken and meat,” she said in 1995. He always “lived his life carefully,” says former girlfriend Linda Ronstadt. In 1992, longtime New Republic political correspondent and future Bill Clinton adviser Sidney Blumenthal deftly captured Brown’s eccentricities as he made his third run at the Democratic presidential nomination.

"Thank you for calling Brown for president. Please wait for the next available representative." I have just dialed Jerry Brown's 800 number, the one he mentions in every debate. Money, he has announced, is the root of all evil. So he will accept contributions of no more than $100. The 800 number is the ether into which the dispossessed will hurl themselves, forging a touch-tone "movement"—a cross between a C-span call-in show and the Home Shopping Network. But what can one learn about the issues of the campaign by pressing Brown's ten digits? "We're not allowed to answer questions," explained the representative who finally appeared on the other end of the line. But if one can't learn about the Brown campaign, is it possible at least to learn about the telemarketing firm that employs the disembodied voices? "We're not allowed to say that," said the representative. "If you want to give money…"

The company in question, as it happens, is Compucall, which is owned by the ex-husband and the brother of Brown's campaign manager, Jody Evans, described by one Brown campaign aide as "the last of the die-hard Brownies, who sees herself as his Joan of Arc." Her first husband, Evans said, "offered services in a way no one else could offer—a lot of phones and operators. It's been great for us." There was no advance charge, just hourly billing.

This amateurish nepotism is symptomatic of the dwindled state of Brown's once great hopes. Of all the Democrats running for president, none has a more distinguished political lineage, has held a more powerful office, and has been considered to have had greater potential—the subject of three biographies before he was 45 years old—than Jerry Brown. He was among the brightest of the class of 1974—the cohort of young Democrats, suit coats thrown casually over their shoulders, sleeves rolled, who stepped into the post-Watergate opening as reformers.

Brown has always seemed different than the rest of his exquisitely careful peers because of his temperament, which is anything but centrist or centered; he stood out for his instinctive contempt for orthodoxy. He preferred to explain his direction by the metaphor of the canoe, paddling right and left but always moving ahead. As long as he was in motion, his erratic method appeared as more than mere rationalization. Yet his endless talk about the virtue of embracing an "era of limits" only helped to frame the Democrats' defeat in 1980, and his hostility to the toxicity of politics is tangential to the mood of today's electorate, eager for a reversal from economic decline. He is again a forerunner of his class—and of the growing irrelevance of its earlier politics. He is the futurist as anachronism.

The origin of Edmund G. Brown Jr.'s anti-politics lies in his family. His father, Edmund "Pat" Brown Sr., was the dominant figure in California politics in the post-World War II era, a builder of massive public works and a natural politician who loved to be surrounded by rooms full of backslapping legislators. In his father's house, the governor's mansion in Sacramento, Jerry felt himself a prop in a ritualistic play, and entered a seminary. In 1968, after dropping out of Sacred Heart Novitiate, he was drawn to support Eugene McCarthy—not Robert Kennedy. Bobby was too grounded, too gritty, still too much the regular; McCarthy was the ethereal poet whose motives seemed more spiritual than political. In 1970 Brown was elected California's secretary of state on the basis of criticism of political practices. His name was hardly incidental in his victory. As the state's chief clerk, he catalyzed an initiative that would strictly account for campaign contributions—a platform perfectly pitched for his anti-political run for governor in 1974, in the aftermath of Watergate. He was 36. His first term had its focused moments: a landmark farm labor law, path breaking environmental laws, and, for the first time, the appointment of minorities and women to major government posts. Brown refused to inhabit the expensive mansion that Nancy Reagan had had built for Ronnie, preferring to sleep on a mattress on the floor of an apartment. In 1976 when the unknown former Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter appeared unstoppably headed toward the Democratic nomination, Brown entered and swept five primaries in a row. He was using and was used by larger forces—the regulars within the party who mistrusted the outsider, his father's allies. Brown continued his ascent with re-election in 1978 by the biggest margin in California history. His avowal of an "era of limits" in a state that enshrines abundance without end could be taken as an ecological affirmation. But the "era of limits" and "small is beautiful" (Brown's "buzzwords," as he called them) were also the smart version of "malaise."

In 1980 Brown again ran against Carter. But he could not fit himself between the president and his main challenger, Edward Kennedy. "Serve the people, protect the earth, explore the universe" was his slogan. His main issues were opposition to nuclear power and a constitutional convention to pass a balanced budget amendment. On the steps of the state capitol in Madison, Wisconsin, Brown visually melted down in a thirty-minute television ad produced by Francis Ford Coppola, titled "The Shape of Things to Come." The special effects went haywire: Brown's face turned green, the capitol dome appeared on his head, and sections of his face turned into gaping black holes. When he materialized again in California, he was even more remote. Californians blamed him for their unresolved problems. In 1982 he ran for the Senate, but lost. Afterward, he drifted to Mexico to learn Spanish, to Japan to study Buddhism in a monastery, and to India to work with Mother Teresa.

Upon his return from his spiritual sojourn, he announced that he wished to be California's chief party apparatchik. As the state's Democratic chairman, he raised millions for an ambitious program to register new voters. An intricate operation was set up by Marshall Ganz, the former farm workers' union field organizer, who had worked on several past Brown campaigns. Yet as soon as Ganz had everything primed to go, needing only funding to make the gears turn, Brown fired him and canceled the project. Brown was tired of raising money. "Once he decided to scuttle the program, he seemed to abandon the leadership of the state party," said Ganz. "Jerry shifted into a passive mode…. Old-style leaders had to master dealing with people. Jerry never had to go through that."

Brown decided to run for the Senate again. But he raised few funds and appeared a certain loser, even if he won a nomination based on name recognition. Suddenly, another path was revealed by Patrick Caddell, Carter's coruscating political consultant self-exiled to L.A. Caddell wanted to lay siege to the capital, and Brown was the weapon at hand. Brown soon attracted Jude Wanniski, the excitable promoter of supply-side economics, disillusioned with the Bush administration. But when Wanniski arranged a meeting between the candidate and Wall Street financiers, Brown neglected to show up.

"Our democratic system has been the object of a hostile takeover, engineered by a confederacy of corruption, careerism, and campaign consulting," declared Brown in his announcement speech. "And money has been the lubricant greasing the deal." Much of what he said, in fact, was plagiarized, word for word, from a manifesto-in-progress written by Richard Goodwin, the former speechwriter for Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. But Goodwin separates himself from Brown's flattery. "He stuck to one note, corruption, and didn't bring out the economic concerns," said Goodwin. "I think it goes back to his father." His single-minded message, moreover, has failed to resonate. After his appearance on the first televised debate, Brown's standing, driven mostly by name recognition, plummeted. In New Hampshire he rests at the bottom, in the low single digits, nearing his base.

In the 1970s Brown's petulance seemed to express something larger than the impulses of his own psyche—a broader skepticism. But over the decades his personae have not accumulated and deepened. There is a jarringly a historical quality to him, as though he is immune to experience. He is a false existentialist. "There is a sense of unreality here," says Brown, over and over, as he campaigns in a white turtleneck, like a defrocked priest. His message about the system: just disconnect. Perhaps his moribund condition proves his point. If, as Brown claims, politics is dead, it should hardly be a surprise that his campaign is, too.

By calling the Brown office in Santa Monica, one can hear a number of taped messages: "This is Jerry Brown. Thanks for calling. And please do everything you can to assist and be an active member in the insurgent campaign to take back America." Then another voice comes on the line: "To speak to a live human being, dial zero."