Jerry Brown's Political Reboot

In his reprise as governor, he's been as ruthlessly practical as he's been reflective, embracing his inner politician to restore the California dream.
Chris McPherson

The Californian

One Friday morning this spring, I drove to Washington’s Dulles airport at dawn, to catch the first nonstop flight to San Francisco. When I got off the plane six hours later, the morning sun still slanting through the terminal windows, my cellphone began ringing practically as soon as I turned it on.

“Okay, you’re here!” the man on the other end of the call said, cheerily. I’d been trying to arrange a visit to his office for quite a while, and just the previous evening he’d let me know that if I got there in a hurry, he’d have time to talk the next day, as well as over the weekend. As I walked through the airport, he began reeling off turn-by-turn instructions for reaching his office in Oakland in my rental car. “You’ll take the Bay Bridge to the exit for the 580 East and the 24. But don’t go all the way to the 24! That would send you out to Concord. Take the 980 West until the exit for 27th Street, and then …”

It was like a moment from a Saturday Night Live sketch of “The Californians”—­which seemed appropriate, since the man I was talking with was the Californian, Jerry Brown. Brown began his first two terms as governor in 1974, at age 36, following one Republican former actor, Ronald Reagan. He returned to the office at age 72, following another, Arnold Schwarzenegger. In between he ran for president three times and the U.S. Senate once, all of course unsuccessfully; served eight years as Oakland’s mayor and four as California’s attorney general; and lived in both Japan (studying Zen meditation) and India (volunteering for Mother Teresa). He celebrated his 75th birthday the weekend I was in Oakland, which means that if he runs for reelection next year and if he wins, both of which are considered likely—his approval rating this year has been the envy of other politicians in the state—he could still be governor at age 80. “This is certainly a new identity for Brown, so flighty in his first ‘Governor Moonbeam’ period as governor,” Bruce Cain, a political scientist and an expert on California politics at Stanford’s Bill Lane Center for the American West, told me. “Now he is the most trusted, stable, and reliable leader around.” I asked Kevin Starr, of the University of Southern California and the author of the acclaimed Americans and the California Dream series of books, how Brown was seen in his return to office. “He is now liked,” Starr said. “Eccentric, but liked.”

Life and health are provisional, and within the past two years, Brown has undergone radiation treatment for early-stage prostate cancer (while maintaining his normal work schedule) and had a cancerous growth removed from his nose. But he moves, talks, reacts, and laughs like someone who is in no mood, and feels no need, to slow down. He is nearly a decade older than Bill Clinton but comes across as younger and bouncier.

“I love what I am doing,” he told me once I got to his Oakland office. “I love it much more than the first time. Back then I got bored because we didn’t have big problems. Now I am very enthusiastic. Everything’s interesting, and it’s complicated. There is a zest!” He likes to pound the desk or table as he talks, and this passage was punctuated: love (bang) … love (bang) … zest! (bang bang bang!). Anne Gust Brown, a former Gap executive in her mid‑50s, who became his wife eight years ago and is widely regarded as his most influential and practical-minded adviser, arched an eyebrow from the other side of the room, where she was half-listening while working at a computer. “Ed-mund!” she said smilingly, but being sure to get his attention. (His official name is Edmund Gerald Brown Jr., after his father, Edmund G. “Pat” Brown, who was governor for eight years before he lost to Ronald Reagan in 1966.) “Don’t get yourself too worked up!” As a note on nomenclature: apart from his wife’s occasional joking use of Edmund and my own antiquated sense that I should address him as Governor, every other person I heard speak about—or with—him called him Jerry.

The Man

“Jerry to me is still the most interesting American politician,” Nathan Gardels, the editor of New Perspectives Quarterly, in Los Angeles, and a longtime friend of Brown’s, told me. “He is the only one I know who is ruthlessly practical but with a civilizational outlook. Kind of a combination of Erasmus and Machiavelli”—the latter meaning that Brown is highly skilled rather than evilly manipulative.

As a reporter, I have never encountered a politician more willing to talk with, as opposed to talk at, other people than Jerry Brown. “I think as I speak,” he told me early this year, underscoring the obvious, when I met him in Washington. He and his wife were in town for the National Governors Association conference. As I waited for them in the conference-center lobby on a Sunday morning, I saw governors from modest-size states bustle through, each with an earpiece-equipped security detail and a covey of aides. When the Browns arrived, they were alone.

“I find that a lot of people are more invested in position-taking than they are in the inquiry,” he continued. “Generally speaking, I am in the inquiry. I live in the question. People have so many positions, and usually the evidence is not strong enough for them really to be so confident in those conclusions. There are just a lot of things that are not certain.” He rattled off a list of decade-by-decade fads and gimmicks for “saving” America’s struggling school system, most recently No Child Left Behind and the “teacher accountability” movement. “The question you have to ask yourself is, if teacher accountability is really the whole key, how can it be that from Comenius”—a 17th-century European pioneer in education—“through John Dewey and Horace Mann, and going back to the Greeks, every­body missed this secret, and we figured it out just now? I’m skeptical of that—and of you, and Washington, and myself.” This was the “civilizational” outlook Nathan Gardels was referring to. Then, the practicality: “The world is so rich and diverse, and there is this technocratic imperative to impose rules, by small minds.” I realize that on the page this could look airy or pompous. In real conversation, Brown gives a convincing impression of weighing thoughts and evidence as he goes.

“Do you know what ‘metonym’ means?” he asked out of the blue one time. Unfortunately, I didn’t. (To spare you my embarrassment: it’s a name used as a reference for something else, like “K Street” for Washington’s lobbying culture, or “Silicon Valley” for the tech industry.) The surprise, coming from a politician, was that he was actually asking for information rather than testing me or pretending he already knew. “Me neither,” he said after my admission, “but I know it’s very big with the deconstructionists.” I did better when he asked whether I knew where the phrase “no country for old men” had come from. Yes! It’s the first line of Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantium,” which became the title of a novel by Cormac McCarthy, which was in turn the basis for a 2007 movie by the Coen brothers. Brown said that he was wondering because he’d just talked with a Washington media grandee who used the phrase without knowing that it had any history. “Jerry didn’t know there was a movie,” his wife said.

Another time he was telling me that “deracination,” and the loss of local loyalties like the ones he felt as a fourth-­generation Californian, made it hard to create political consensus. “But California was built by deracinated people, who keep on coming here—and America was too,” I broke in, being careful to add “Governor.” “Right, maybe I’m going too far,” he answered, thinking as he spoke. “But …” and he proceeded with a slight revision of his point.

Brown’s State of the State address this year, which he wrote with the help of his wife (he ad-libs most speeches and has no writers or “message people”), included an account of a party of Spanish explorers, led by Gaspar de Portolá, who in 1769 went from Baja California to Monterey Bay. Classing up a speech with historical nuggets is a standard political move. But usually speakers like to imply that the quote from Mark Twain or insight from the Punic Wars is something they’ve known since earliest tutelage rather than something they recently happened across. In speeches and in conversation, Brown emphasizes his ongoing discoveries. “I was just reading about Cicero, and did you know they chopped his head off and put it on a pike—and a lady put a pin through his tongue with a sign saying Enough of his eloquence?,” Brown, who was a classics major at Berkeley, said to me. “I’ve been reading a lot about how screwed-up the Roman Republic was.”

The State

As for the problems Brown and his state are wrestling with, they are America’s problems—but worse. Here we leave the governor for a moment to consider the environment he is working in, which is both emblematic of and surprisingly different from America as a whole.

You can go too far with the idea that California shows how all of America will look a few years from now. The state’s population is already more heavily Hispanic than the U.S. population might ever be: Hispanics, at nearly 40 percent, are about to overtake California’s “non-Hispanic white” percentage to become the largest ethnic group in the state. (Nationwide, Hispanics are about 17 percent of the population.) Relative to the country as a whole, Asians also make up a larger share of California’s population—­roughly 15 percent of the state, versus about 8 percent of the country—while blacks and whites represent smaller shares. (California is about 40 percent white and 6 percent black, versus 63 percent and 12 percent, respectively, for the United States.) Largely because of these demographic shifts, the Republican Party, which a generation ago relied on California as the largest element of its Sunbelt base, now barely bothers to mount statewide races except those self-financed by political-novice millionaires like Meg Whitman, who lost badly to Brown in 2010, and Carly Fiorina, who lost badly to Barbara Boxer for the U.S. Senate that same year. In 2012, Barack Obama beat Mitt Romney by 3 million votes in California—and by only 2 million more in the other 49 states combined. In both houses of the state legislature the Democrats have, for now, a two-thirds “supermajority” that allows them to prevail even against California’s version of the filibuster. “The Republicans appear to have no power,” Jerry Brown told me. “Some of them are nice people, but they aren’t needed for any votes [in the legislature], and they don’t participate.”

In other ways tangible and subjective, California is an outlier. Its median income is much higher than America’s—but so is its unemployment rate. Its prison system is large and fantastically expensive. Two of its sizable cities (Stockton and San Bernardino) have filed for bankruptcy. And it has myriad other problems. Still, California is usefully representative of the country in one very important way. What is good, and bad, about America is better, and worse, in its most populous state.

So, what is strongest about America relative to other societies and economies—its ability to attract and absorb outside talent, its university-based research system, its advantages of scale and natural resources, its acceptance of risk and second-chance-taking, its fecundity in creating new companies, industries, and products—is, across the board, stronger still in California. The state’s brand names and the creativity and wealth they signify—Apple and Intel, Google and Facebook, Disney and Fox, Stanford and Berkeley, Sunkist and Napa/Sonoma, the nuclear technologies of Lawrence Livermore and the biotech centers of San Diego—outshine those of most nations. It is one of the few states whose range of economic strengths, from agriculture to manufacturing to mining to services to education to tourism to medicine and nearly every sub­sector in between, mirrors that of the country.

But what is weakest about America—the squabbling paralysis of the governing structures, the relentless pressure on the middle class, the steady decline of public schools, roads, parks and the simultaneous rise of the public-security state—is weaker and worse in California. Taxes are high, school performance is low, classrooms—and, most glaringly, prisons—are jammed, and the bridges and freeways that, when brand-new, enabled California’s expansion under Pat Brown in the ’50s and ’60s are now crumbling constraints on its potential.

Anyone with ties to California has personal illustrations of this shift, and here is one of mine. As a small-town Southern California schoolchild in the Pat Brown era, I had barely heard of such a thing as a private school, nor an overcrowded road, nor of any reason being in California could be a minus rather than a plus. For my two sons, as they build their businesses and start their families there, “California” has become a metonym for high taxes, rigid bureaucracies, substandard schools and services, and an overall drag on rather than boost for the businesses that nonetheless continue to emerge there. The city government of San Francisco has the manpower to put spray-painted markings around cracked parts of the public sidewalks, and to note which buildings have been tagged with graffiti—but not to fix the problems it identifies. Instead, it sends notices to the owners of homes and buildings saying that they face stiff penalties if they do not repair the sidewalks or remove the graffiti themselves. The kind of urban-dystopia stories I heard from Manhattanites in the 1970s or about Washington, D.C., in the 1980s come from Californians now.

America’s dynamism and ingenuity have kept it ahead of its public-institution paralysis, so far. The same is true, barely, for California. “The idea that people are really going to move their companies to Nevada because of taxes is nonsense,” Paul Saffo, a longtime technology analyst based in Northern California, told me. “Silicon Valley has always been a high-cost place to operate and, like the state, has always been in danger of drowning in the products of its own success.” Jerry Brown told me about a Look magazine cover story from the mid-1960s, which after the Watts riots in Los Angeles and Free Speech Movement upheaval at Berkeley declared California a “failed state.” Since that time Look magazine has disappeared, California’s population has doubled, and its economy has grown larger than those of Brazil and Spain.

Still, California’s challenge is America’s: how to manage public business competently enough—collecting taxes, covering costs, educating children, fostering research, protecting the environment, maintaining order—to allow the creative carnival of its private activities to go on. And this is where Jerry Brown’s accomplishment seems most impressive. Arnold Schwarzenegger left office with a budget deficit of about $27 billion, having covered some of the state’s obligations during his final year in office with IOUs. This year’s budget shows a surplus of at least $500 million. “We are governable!,” Brown told me, emphasizing it because so many people have argued the reverse. “We balanced our budget. Arnold just borrowed money, but we’re paying down our debts. We’re coming back.”

That is what I’ve been going back to my home state to ask about. Is the turnaround real? Has California’s brokenness been fixed? And do the answers, whatever they are, make any difference to the country as a whole?

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

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