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March 15, 2013
Peter Schrag: New book parses the Jerry Brown enigma

(March 15 -- Special to The Bee)

Maybe the most surprising thing about Jerry Brown is that it's been more than 30 years since somebody's written a book about him.

He's run for almost every public office in the land - community college board, secretary of state, attorney general, mayor, governor (three times so far), U.S. Senate, president - and won all but the last two.

He's the son of a governor, an ex-Jesuit seminarian, once known as "Junior," a dabbler in Zen, a former radio talk-show host. He was "Jerry Jarvis," the supposed liberal become the self-styled "born-again tax cutter," and California's preacher of limits, smallness and lowered expectations.

He was a Democrat, then an independent, then a Democrat again. He is, or was, "Governor Moonbeam." He likes to be the smartest guy in the room, and usually is.

Thirty years ago, after he returned from a stint with Mother Teresa in Calcutta, he said he'd learned to serve suffering humanity and therefore was ready to become chairman of the California Democratic Party. He got that job, too, but wasn't very good at it.

Still, by any standard, he's the most interesting politician of his time.

Now somebody has written the book, due out from the University of California Press next month. Like Brown's political career, it has to be a work in progress, but it's as thoughtful and concise an assessment of this enigma as we're likely to get for a long time.

The author is Chuck McFadden, an old Sacramento hand, as an Associated Press reporter and press spokesman for former state schools chief Wilson Riles and later for the California Hospital Association. The title is simply "Trailblazer: A Biography of Jerry Brown."

There's little that's new in the book. Brown, as usual, wasn't talking, and McFadden has to rely a lot on the rest of us. But in the face of two generations of punditry (including my own) including a lot of armchair psychoanalysis, McFadden's generally sympathetic treatment makes for a persuasive and coherent story of Brown's "canoe politics" - to stay on course, Brown sometimes said, you paddle on the left, then on the right.

McFadden is impressed by Brown's latter-day political victories - first the hefty margin in his election as governor in 2010 over Meg Whitman, who spent four or five times as much as he did. Then his success in 2012 in winning passage of Proposition 30, the increase in the state sales tax and the marginal tax on high incomes. That was one he could have easily lost.

McFadden suggests, as have others, that Brown's strong support for California's costly high-speed rail project, and to a lesser degree, the plan to build tunnels to move water around the Delta to the Central Valley and Southern California are his bids for a "legacy." It may also be an attempt to make amends for the period during his first terms in the office when he could barely disguise his disdain for his governor-father's big-government projects.

Perhaps it's even an attempt to take his place beside his father - builder of waterworks, freeways, university campuses and all the other big things that "Junior" spurned in his first terms in the office. McFadden has it right, I think, in his portrayal of Brown as a man who has tempered his admiration for anti-institutional thinkers like the late Ivan Illich and E.F. ("Small Is Beautiful") Schumacher with a strong streak of political pragmatism.

What McFadden may be making too little of in his description of the fiscal and governmental problems California faced when Brown began his third term in 2011 is that much of it was Brown's own responsibility.

Brown himself later acknowledged his lack of attention when Howard Jarvis and Paul Gann were collecting signatures in 1977-78 for what became Proposition 13. And it was Proposition 13 that, as much as anything, opened the door to the endless string of voter initiatives that have tied government into knots ever since.

It was Brown who was sitting on the state's "obscene surplus," money that might have been used to ease the rising property taxes that fueled the tax revolt. It was Brown who helped lay the political groundwork in his attacks, echoing the student radicals of that era, on the University of California and the self-serving attitudes of its administrators and faculty.

McFadden accurately notes Brown's current (and somewhat similar) lack of interest in fundamental governmental reform. But he may be making too much of Brown's latter-day victories. They helped restore the state's morale (and raised Brown's standing in the polls). And the Proposition 30 victory did avert some of the calamities that Brown warned about.

But California's problems - the governmental paralysis, the looming pension and retiree health care obligations, the still-inadequate funding of the state's schools and colleges - aren't behind us. Although you can't blame all of them on Brown, anyone who held public office for some 40 years necessarily gets his share. But when McFadden calls Jerry Brown a "political phenomenon the likes of which Californians are unlikely to ever see again," who can argue?

Peter Schrag is a former editorial page editor of The Bee.

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