Illustration by Gracia Lam
I smile whenever I see our 72-year-old mostly bald governor. He is still indefatigable, still talks fast, though there is a later-in-life ease to him—a tendency to a self-deprecating joke—that was obvious during the recent campaign and not as apparent the first time he headed the state in the mid-’70s and early ’80s. Watching him is like looking in the mirror—or certainly staring down one’s bell-bottom past. He seemed emblematic of the era: full of big visions, with longish hair and a rock star girlfriend on his arm. The state had a kind of counterculture swagger then. Everything seemed possible. Ahead loomed a shiny future. How could it be any other way? We had mountains and deserts and a coastline that could stop your heart. We had a thriving agricultural industry and plenty of water and a first-rate system of higher education. The rest of the country could deride us for our kooky notions and our young leader, aka Governor Moonbeam, but we didn’t care. We were on a California roll.
The Moonbeam nickname was far off the mark, a clever put-down dreamed up by Chicago columnist Mike Royko (one of those skewering sobriquets that catches on and sticks, no matter its inaccuracy). The truth is, there was nothing remotely flaky about Jerry Brown. I met him then and have known him since, both in my professional capacity as a writer and in a personal one (his sister became a close friend). The state was smaller in many aspects. If you were a journalist, you knew everybody who was anybody: the actors, the politicians. There were no handlers—or not the multilayered, protective phalanxes in place now. As a reporter you had access. People would talk to you, even on the record. Jerry Brown was immensely focused, with an odd, almost driven manner. His mind bounced around, seemingly in search of something. He was a seeker, yes, but there was a Jesuitical discipline about him. He was aspiring to the priesthood when he detoured into the family business of politics, though he had none of his father’s natural Irish pol warmth (I knew Pat Brown, too). Not for Jerry the schmoozing, the back slapping. He would engage, but in an intellectual, bantering style. Books, power, Machiavelli—you name it, he would discourse on it, dominating dinner parties with his disquisitions and inquisitions. He was difficult to pin down, but it didn’t feel phony or political, as if he were weaseling around trying to hit the right tone. He also seemed to be having fun with a kind of frantic determination.
I was traveling a lot for work in those years, mostly back and forth between the coasts, and how the easterners loved to sneer at our young governor. I ran into that attitude everywhere I turned, at dinner parties and during interviews. Everybody had an opinion. Yes, Jerry Brown was willing to toss around crazy ideas (he suggested that California launch its own satellite), but he was at bottom a pragmatist. Having resisted Proposition 13, he embraced it when it passed. An opponent of the death penalty, he vowed to enforce it—and did. Hardly the caricatured free-spending liberal (the charge Meg Whitman tried to tag him with), he cut taxes and accumulated large budget surpluses. He was abstemious in his personal life as well. He refused to live in the Governor’s Mansion and drove a secondhand car. In short, he is perhaps a perfect repeater in a state with a budget crisis that is almost beyond comprehension.
Nowadays it is hard for us natives not to feel—what?—both hopeful and contrite, maybe even shamed, a very un-California stance. Gone are the golden days. We have made a mess of things, with our endless denial and our myriad propositions. Our state government is dysfunctional to the max, riven by the partisan rancor that characterizes Washington. Tuition at the colleges and universities has shot up, keeping those with few means from the classrooms. We haven’t reckoned well or honestly with water policy or immigration or the out-of-whack public pensions. We have, in effect, been scamming ourselves for years. Obviously we got caught in the national downturn: housing bubbles and default swaps, the shift of jobs to other countries, the ever-widening gap between the haves and the have-nots. If the 20th century was known as the American century, it feels to me as if it could also be known as the California century, a time when we dreamed big and could afford those dreams. I am a child of that period, as in many ways is Jerry Brown. He returns to lead at a far more sobering point in history. But—if I permit myself a positive moment, and I do—he is even more suited temperamentally to the current climate than he was to that of the exuberant 1970s. Ascetic by nature, he can guide us along the path of frugality. Also, as this will probably be his last major public, elected job (though one should never count Jerry Brown out, which he has just demonstrated), he can be a truth seeker and a truth teller. That seems to be his intent. Right out of the gate, he has gone straight at the mess, announcing that the deficits are more massive than he realized and that we, the citizens, have tough decisions coming. No more ducking; no more passing the buck. Either we face severe cuts or an increase in taxes. Take your pick.
But in the midst of the fierce reality check that we are undergoing, there is a bright spot—at least to me: the ascension of a first lady who is a full-fledged, unapologetic partner to her husband. Anne Gust Brown says her main goal is to “help him,” that she doesn’t have a separate agenda. This vow is refreshing. Maria Shriver was a force, but she orbited in her own circle with her huge annual women’s conference. As a Democrat, she couldn’t be viewed as her husband’s adviser. The preceding gubernatorial wives—Gloria Deukmejian and Sharon Davis and Gayle Wilson—didn’t leave a decisive impression, though all had causes: the “safe” kind, such as childhood obesity, one that Michelle Obama has chosen (a bit of a waste, if you ask me). But Anne Gust Brown, 20 years her husband’s junior, will be by his side night and day, as she was during the campaign. In some ways she is like Michelle: fit and smart and self-confident, a high achiever with a law degree and an impressive résumé, including a stint as the Gap’s chief administrative officer.
But she is free in ways the first lady of the land is not. To see the governor and his wife together is fun: They are talkers. Anne is feisty and funny and direct; she keeps her husband on track, everyone says, and that is easy to believe while watching them. They have a natural, deep camaraderie, with none of that old-school buried tension that characterized the Clinton marriage. I met them early, too, the Clintons. Clearly they were going to help each other get to the top—and did—but there were fault lines underneath, secrets and ambitions that were shared and separate. With the Browns, one feels they are rowing in the same direction. She says she doesn’t need or want a fancy title—or a salary. Yet she will have an office near her husband’s, and they will be chatting constantly, hashing out strategy, figuring out how to get from here to there. The arrangement is in the open, and Anne is aware she could be personally targeted if things go awry.
Jerry Brown was returned to office on a tide of optimistic pessimism or—if you prefer—pessimistic optimism. He’s a lifer when such experience usually dooms a politician to the electoral guillotine. As anti-incumbent, throw-out-the-bastards fever swept the country, it didn’t hit us here. There was little of the Tea Party acrimony. The voters didn’t want the billionaire boss come to save us (not another Schwarzenegger, please—no more high-flying rhetoric about California being the land of opportunity); the rescue scenario doesn’t play anymore. Instead we have elected a savvy postpartisan (one might also say prepartisan, because Brown was never into the left-right paradigm), nuts-and-bolts guy, a career public servant. We do always seem to go our own way, to tack against the current.
The Jerry Brown of today is not unlike the man I was first introduced to 35 years ago. He looks you dead in the eye; he remembers when you last met. He isn’t cozy, though there is more of a twinkle now that is reminiscent of his father. Yes, he is calmer, as we all are with age. But he still moves quickly, and you can lose the thread as he makes his conversational way. There is about him a palpable excitement. He likes having won even as he knows that in the months ahead, he is likely to become unpopular fast as he makes—or forces us to make—tough choices. A recent poll shows a fairly disenchanted electorate, but young voters and minorities (precisely the people who have suffered the most during the recession) are the most hopeful. California retains its allure.
I look up, and a man I knew at the start of my career is running my state again: It’s a full circle of sorts. His tenures have bookended my adult life. I wish him well. I hope he can talk some sense into us.