The Pap Politics of Jerry Brown

It was 33 years ago today that Newsweek famously put Jerry Brown and then-girlfriend Linda Ronstadt — who were en route to Africa — on its cover. The headline: “The Pop Politics of Jerry Brown.” Let’s look at what Newsweek wrote back then about the once and future gov and feel sorry for ourselves. Jerry circa 1979 was a quirky and different politician. Jerry circa 2012 is just a quirky spokesman for a failed status quo. Bring back old Jerry!

The 3,800-word piece started with this Brown quote: “The first rule of politics is to be different.”

That was then. CTA is now.

Or was Jerry that different back then? While touting Jerry’s 1980 presidential prospects, Newsweek also mentioned that Brown …

… was publicly charged with stacking California’s racetrack commission to favor a union friendly to him. …

This also sounds familiar:

His quiescent bad-for-business reputation was abruptly reawakened when Sohio folded plans to spend $1 billion on a tanker terminal and a California-to-Texas pipeline, blaming Brown tape.

But then there was this:

His zealotry since [Prop. 13's passage, in favor of smaller government and a federal constitutional amendment requiring a balanced budget], however earnestly meant, has offended practically every Democratic interest group, miffed some of his own upstaged allies in the cause and fed the suspicion of the established press and political community that he is an opportunist or worse. “He’s the Muhammad Ali of politics,” says former California Democratic chairman Bert Coffey. “He’s got the fastest shuffle in the game, and he swings equally well from left to right.”

But Brown cares little for conventional judgments, and conventional judges have learned by hard experience never to underestimate him. He may be America’s first authentically existentialist national politician – a go-with-the-flow skeptic who lives in the present tense, finds his issues in the morning headlines and discards them as easily as yesterday’s papers.

Groan. I, for one, don’t miss the era of Time/Newsweek shiny-slick writing dominating political journalism. But it’s still funny to see Brown described in this fashion even as he emerges as the most able salesman for the indescribably retrograde idea that California’s government doesn’t need fundamental change, just higher taxes. That is not “authentically existentialist.”

He describes himself unabashedly as a “stimulus-response politician,” unbound by history, ideology or rigid principle – and he has made it work.

When it comes to the bullet train, Brown is unbound by history, ideology, rigid principle, rationality, common sense or arithmetic.

Then there was this delicious tidbit about Gray Davis, related to the heat Brown was taking for heading to Africa for a tour with Ronstadt:

[Democrats'] squirming has to do with that Dionysiac side of Brown that sent him tripping off to Africa with a rock princess; he simply does not play the game by the settled rules. There was, as it happens, a measure of political calculation in his choice of where to go. He had offended black leaders with his budget-balancing penury, and, as his chief of staff, Gray Davis, put it at one late-night strategy session, he needed “a metaphor to encompass black concerns.” Africa fit that bill, and was pleasingly off the beaten political track as well.

If Jerry’s looking for a trip as metaphor nowadays, I suggest Greece.

Back to Newsweek, to a part that left me groaning:

Politics is Jerry Brown’s real home now, and his theater as well. He got mixed notices for substance in his first term, pushing some liberal reforms, putting health and education programs on subspartan budgets, peopling the Statehouse with women and minorities, moving paper and making decisions at his own quirkily slow pace. It was instead his gift for gesture that put his name in lights. He rejected a new $1.3 million governor’s mansion – “the Taj Mahal,” he snickered – and took a $275-a-month walk-to-work flat instead. He grounded Ronald Reagan’s leased Cessna and traded his limousine for a cramped Plymouth. He put his staff on short pay. He canceled free state-issue briefcases for bureaucrats. He questioned everything, sometimes in Zen riddles. And California loved it all; his 178,000-vote squeak-in of 1974 exploded into a million-vote landslide in 1978.

It was en route to that landslide that Brown discovered what one operative calls “the issue he intends to ride to the White House” – the welling burghers’ revolt against the tax-and-spend liberalism of nearly half a century. Until the night Prop 13 passed last June, Brown had been a close but not penurious spender, his budgets had grown at double the annual rate of the Reagan years, and he fought the massive tax-cutting initiative almost down to election eve as a “mirage,” a “ripoff” and a “consumer fraud.” But that night, he did a breath-stopping 180-degree pirouette, embracing Prop 13 as his own, orchestrating the divvying-up of what revenue was left, and volunteering billions more in state-tax and budget cuts of his own. “The concept that we’re in an Era of Limits has been ratified by 65 per cent of the people,” he proclaimed-and before the month was out, nearly half the state’s voters believed he had been behind Prop 13 all along.

The resulting bravos may have tempted Brown to his next and more perilous step out on the high wire: his call for a balanced budget amended into the Constitution. His political people warned him almost unanimously against the idea, and it very nearly sank like a stone at a tryout before the national governors conference last August. But Brown reheated it for his second-term inaugural speech, wrapped in apocalyptic language about big spenders-”These false prophets can no longer distinguish the white horse of victory from the pale horse of death”-and accompanied by a fresh round of budget bleeding, tax cuts, payroll purges and downholds on welfare.

Wow. Who’s the guy who now can’t “distinguish the white horse of victory from the pale horse of death”?

I give Brown credit on pension reform; his plan is much bolder than I expected. But in the big picture, he had the chance to be California’s Gorbachev, the guy who pointed out the insanity of sustaining a huge government workforce during a productivity revolution and the idiocy of paying teachers based on years on the job and meaningless graduate coursework instead of on their performance.

Instead, he settled for being the guy who did whatever it took to keep our “pale horse of death” from being dragged to the glue factory.

The guy who once proclaimed himself the prophet of the “era of limits” is now the tax collector for the public employee state.

One thought on “The Pap Politics of Jerry Brown

  1. Anyone SERIOUS about Pension reform in CA would be testing the BIG ONE ….. significantly reducing (by 50%) the rate of pension accrual for FUTURE service for CURRENT workers.

    Without THAT, little else will matter … as it will only be WHEN CA’s pension’s fail, not IF.

    And P.S. Further growth in retiree heanthcare subsidies should end for ALL Current workers. Nobody in the Private Sector gets this any longer. What makes Civil Servants so “special” ?

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