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?

The Comeback—or the Reprieve

The easiest question to answer is how California has pulled its way out of its budgetary disaster. Three things have happened since Jerry Brown replaced Arnold Schwarzenegger: the overall economy got better, so more people paid more taxes; state spending went down, largely at Brown’s insistence; and California’s voters approved a significant tax increase, mostly on annual incomes higher than $1 million.

Each of these has its fine points. California depends more on income tax, especially from rich taxpayers (even before the new increase) than it used to. This makes its revenues notoriously volatile. They fall very fast when the state economy is contracting—Brown had 10 percent less money to work with in his first year than Schwarzenegger had had in his last—but also rise quickly when conditions improve, as they have begun to do. One other aspect of the state’s tax structure compounds its problems. The fastest-growing parts of its economy are those classified as “services,” from entertainment and health care to infotech and finance. But most of these are untaxed. In the words of a recent report on the state’s finances, “California’s tax code is so outdated that nearly $1 trillion—that is, roughly half—of the state’s economic output is not taxed.” And this despite the state’s image as being overtaxed.

The budget cuts have been substantial, and came at Brown’s insistence to an often skeptical Democratic-dominated legis­lature. This may be the place to note a difference between state and national budgets. During economic slowdowns, national governments do and should run budget deficits, to keep un­employment from getting worse. Otherwise public-sector layoffs intensify, rather than offset, what is already happening in the private economy. It is different for state governments. Many, though not California’s, have constitutions forbidding deficit spending. And not even California can view deficits as a state-level stimulus program, since so much of the spending sloshes out beyond state borders.

During Brown’s first stretch as governor, details of his austere personal life—unglamorous Plymouth, sparsely furnished apartment, mattress on the floor instead of a bed—seemed merely part of his oddball ex-seminarian image. (Brown entered a Jesuit seminary at age 18 and spent several years there. He frequently quotes lines from his Jesuit training about learning to limit one’s demands and thus be happy with less.) His main working office is in a third-story loft in an old Sears, Roebuck building in the “uptown” area of Oakland, the revival of which was one of his projects during his years as mayor. (Many modern governors have maintained only a token presence in Sacramento; through most of his eight years in office, Arnold Schwarzenegger commuted from his home in Los Angeles rather than spend the night in what is still an out-of-the-way town.) The most luxurious aspect of Brown’s current life is the house he and his wife bought six years ago in the Oakland Hills, which is valued at about $1.8 million.

One longtime friend says the governor is “a combination of Erasmus and Machiavelli.”

Brown has also inherited a share of what was once his great-grandfather’s 2,700‑acre ranch in Colusa County, in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. This forebear, his father’s maternal grand­father, August Schuckman, was born in Westphalia but left after the revolutions of 1848 and made his way across North America by wagon train during the California Gold Rush. “He’d lend money to people, and when they couldn’t pay, he’d get their land instead,” Brown told me. “That’s how he put together this big spread.” Brown said that when he was a boy, his father, then an aspiring politician headed toward the governor­ship, would take the family up to see the property. “I never cared about it then. It was too hot. Too many rattlesnakes. Now, as I get older, I go more and more and think about what it took my great-­grandfather to get there.”

“By the time he returned as governor, he still had an image as an ascetic person,” Bruce Cain told me. “That image was consistent with his message that he would be careful with your money.” Brown’s current role as the Democrat who is cutting budgets brings up the inevitable “Nixon goes to China” analogy, but I think the more important comparison is to an earlier Republican president, Dwight Eisenhower. The most admirable part of Eisenhower’s policy, in retrospect, was his effort to push big infrastructure and national-greatness efforts—the interstate highway system, more money for schools and basic research, much of it of course with a Cold War rationale—while holding the line on other spending, including the Pentagon’s. I’m oversimplifying the story of the ’50s to make the point that the Jerry Brown of 2010 comes closer to that part of Ike’s balance than anyone else I’m aware of.

“For me to get the budget cuts these past two years, I had to go to the legislature and say ‘Please, please, please!’ ” he told me. “The Democrats”—who control the legislature—“didn’t like it, but they agreed as part of getting the tax increase.” In California, the governor has line-item-veto authority—one more indication of the legislature’s feebleness—and Brown says he will use his veto power to resist spending increases. “The budget is more or less balanced,” he told me. “To un­balance things now, they have to come through me. That is a real shift in power.” Meanwhile, Brown’s reduced and balanced budget includes more spending for what he considers the big challenges of the future: clean-energy initiatives, an expensive (and controversial) north-to-south high-speed-rail project, new canals and aqueducts, even California-based medical-research projects beyond those sponsored by the National Institutes of Health.

For students of California politics, Brown’s most surprising achievement was persuading the legislature to eliminate urban “redevelopment agencies” against the bitter opposition of nearly every big-city mayor in the state, most of them Democrats. “Redevelopment agencies” were a stratagem that one San Francisco analyst has described as “the California equivalent of the national military-industrial complex.” Without getting into the details, their effect was to channel a certain share of tax money into a special fund that mayors and local officials could use to finance housing projects, malls, and similar efforts. In theory this was a step toward wholesome decentralization, but in practice the agencies were often wasteful and occasionally corrupt. “This was Brown’s really interesting move,” Joe Mathews, of the Los Angeles–based civic group Zócalo Public Square, told me. “These had turned into a racket, and he understood that and was able to unplug it.” Most state legislators had no idea why these agencies mattered, or how much money was involved. Brown, a two-term mayor, knew just what was at stake.

“I think the root of his transformation was his being mayor of Oakland,” Lou Cannon, a longtime reporter for The Washington Post and the author of several books about Ronald Reagan, told me in Los Angeles. During the 1970s and ’80s, Cannon had often criticized Brown’s performance as governor. “He did a very good job as mayor, and obviously has learned a lot about the realities of government.” Brown has tried to cut spending so much that the main complaints about him are from the left, and budget-related—­especially about his resistance to federal court orders to spend more on California’s enormous and overcrowded prison system. “Fiscal discipline is not the enemy of our good intentions but the basis for realizing them,” he said in this year’s State of the State speech, justifying a hard line against letting spending increases sop up new revenues. “It is cruel to lead people on by expanding good programs, only to cut them back when the funding disappears.”

“This time Brown has been on the sensible side of every fiscal issue,” Lou Cannon told me. “There are people who will want to spend like crazy, and Brown will use his line-item-veto power to resist.”

The third and most publicized part of the California budget turnaround was Brown’s success last fall in winning passage of Proposition 30, which (among other things) raised high-end tax rates for several years, with a commitment to use the money to avoid cuts in school funding and to pay down the state debt. Everyone I asked said that Brown’s personal stumping for the measure made the difference in its relatively easy win (by a 55–45 margin), and that the extra money it is expected to bring in—$6 billion or more a year—will make a difference in the budget. The higher rates will last for seven years, and Brown in his speeches told the biblical story of Joseph, Pharaoh, and the seven fat years and seven lean years. “The people have given us seven years of extra taxes,” he said in his State of the State speech. “Let us follow the wisdom of Joseph, pay down our debts, and store up reserves against the leaner times that will surely come.” I cannot think of another prominent Democrat who would put it just that way, especially the final few words.

Jerry Brown takes the oath of office as secretary of state of California in 1971. (AP)

The Impossibility

I was living in China at the time of Barack Obama’s election. People there would ask me how much it mattered that America had chosen its first nonwhite president. I would say that it mattered a lot—and only a little, since it left so much of America’s racial snarl untangled. After talking with people about Jerry Brown, I realized that I was hearing a similar answer about his effect on California. His successes matter a lot, and only a little. As Joe Mathews put it: “I think he has done as good a job as anyone could of managing a broken system.”

What does it mean to call a democratic system broken? For England before the voting reforms of the 1830s, it meant the parliamentary dominance of “rotten boroughs,” the depopulated shires whose representatives wielded power far greater than that of their urban counterparts. For American national government in the 2010s, it mainly means the dominance of money and the paralysis of the Senate, as the filibuster has gone from an exceptional safety-valve protection to a routine obstructionist technique. These problems have in common what Francis Fukuyama has called “vetocracy”—the structural over-weighting of some citizens’ views relative to others. The details of the problem are different in California, but the results are similar, and instructive for the nation as a whole.

Liberals outside California tend to assume that the state’s problems ultimately stem from the passage of Proposition 13 back in 1978. It sharply limited property-tax rates and thus changed California’s schools from among the best-funded in the country to among the worst-funded. When I was in public school, we were frequently told that California’s per capita school spending was No. 2 in the nation, behind Connecticut. Now, depending on how you count, it is somewhere in the 40s. Spending isn’t everything, but it’s something. Meanwhile, conservatives outside California tend to assume that the problems come from unionized public workers, a lavish pension plan, and liberal excess in general.

Imagine getting to relive, as a vigorous and lucid 70-something, many of the choices and challenges you faced in your 30s. That's Jerry Brown in his return to office.

You can find evidence for both of these views. But really—as I heard time and again—California’s problems are all symptoms of a disorder deeper and worse than the blue-red divides we usually consider so intractable. Its root is the unique nature of California’s rules of governance, a sharper variance from national norms than Nebraska’s unicameral legislature or even Louisiana’s European-based civil code. Scholarly articles, popular books, and think-tank projects are devoted to exploring this peculiarity. Of the latter, the most prominent is the Think Long Committee, which is part of the Berggruen Institute on Governance, in Los Angeles; the most accessible recent book is California Crackup, by Joe Mathews and Mark Paul.

The main oddity of California’s system is that any measure that passes by initiative, even by a single vote, can change the state constitution or enact policy beyond the legislature’s power to amend. It would be like the national electorate getting a crack at the First Amendment—­or the Second, or the Fifth—when it went to the polls. “The initiative process in California is a radical form of direct democracy that is absolutely unique,” Carlyle Hall, a prominent public-­interest lawyer with Akin Gump, told me. “In other states, the public shares power with the legislature, through the initiative. In California, with each successive measure, the public takes power for itself and away from the legislature.”

In other states, the legislature can undo or adjust the results of referenda. In California, that is very hard. Thus each proposition becomes part of permanent law, as Prop 13 has—unless it has a sunset provision, as Brown’s new Prop 30 does; or is overturned by another ballot measure, which is rare; or is thrown out by the courts as unconstitutional, which is rarer still but is the basis of the challenge to Prop 8, the anti-gay-marriage measure narrowly approved in 2008.

As every California schoolchild is supposed to learn, these tools of direct democracy were the gift of Governor Hiram Johnson a century ago. He thought they gave ordinary citizens the best hope of offsetting the power of entrenched interests, the most entrenched of which was Southern Pacific. In fact they’ve had the opposite effect, and worse, in a vicious cycle that Mathews and Paul explain and that boils down to this:

  • The legislature is uniquely weak in California, so it doesn’t solve many problems. Because legislators can’t solve many problems, voters punish them by imposing term limits and throwing the bums out.
  • Because of term limits and rapid turnover, the legislature has no institutional memory (in 2004, the then-speaker of the California State Assembly was a freshman—serving under a governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, who was also entirely new to politics).
  • Because legislators don’t know what they’re doing, they’re more under the control of the permanent influence structure of lobbyists and bureaucrats.
  • Because the public grows steadily less satisfied with what it’s getting from the state government, it turns even more to propositions and initiatives.
  • Because there are so many initiatives, and the provisions are so confusing, and voters are so busy, initiatives have increasingly been sponsored by well-financed interests—­today’s counterparts to Southern Pacific. Even Jerry Brown’s Prop 30 relied on large-scale financing from unions and businesses that wanted to stay on Brown’s good side. “It’s a big state with a lot of voters,” Carlyle Hall told me. “You have to get signatures of at least 5 percent of the voters to get an initiative onto the ballot, and normally the only way to do that is to hire these expensive professionalized firms. So to get your stuff on the ballot, you need money. Who has the money? Usually the very vested interests who were controlling the legislature 100 years ago.”

Thus the cycle of unintended consequences is complete: the rules designed to limit special interests ultimately empower them, while hobbling normal government. “Over thirty years voters slowly squeezed the life out of their legislature but never stopped complaining that it didn’t work,” Mathews and Paul conclude in their book.

There are further twists to the California governing pathology, including a nightmarishly extended version of the filibuster abuse that now paralyzes the U.S. Senate. Along with permanently lowering property-tax rates, Proposition 13 also rewrote the constitution to require a two-thirds legislative vote to raise taxes; a previous proposition required two-thirds to approve a budget. The state had to adopt a budget; a one-third minority, which in practice today means the Republicans, could keep that from taking place. So for the past generation (until the two-thirds requirement for budget passage was removed, by initiative, in 2010), all budget battles in California have resembled the U.S. House Republicans’ threat not to raise the federal debt ceiling two years ago. “In California we separated winning elections from having power,” Bruce Cain, of Stanford, told me. “When you sever the connection between political power and winning elections, you get irresponsible behavior.”

All of this Jerry Brown knows, of course. But he has chosen not to take on California’s structural dysfunctions directly. When I asked him whether, instead of sponsoring Prop 30 to close the budget gap, he had considered challenging the entire destructive proposition system, he wasn’t interested in even talking about it. “That’d be tough,” he said. “You work in the real world.”

The Politician

Another way to describe what has happened in California is to say that the situation has been stabilized—but only in circumstances that can hardly be believed outside a movie script, let alone counted on to produce a long-term solution. Jerry Brown’s return to office is implausible enough in human terms: imagine getting a chance to relive, as a vigorous and lucid 70‑something, many of the choices and challenges you faced in your 30s, but with the benefit of all you’ve learned in the intervening years. It’s like the Freaky Friday–style fantasy of going back to high school and understanding everything you’d been confused about then. As a bonus, while you know much more about what you’re doing, most of your opponents, rivals, and critics know less than their earlier counterparts did, given the systematic amateurization of the California political scene in the interim. The closest comparison in business life would be Steve Jobs’s chance to return to Apple 12 years after he was forced out. The closest political comparison is imaginary: it is as if a wiser Bill Clinton came back to the White House (“careful with the interns”)—and he had grown up as LBJ’s son, approximating the early immersion in politics Brown received as the son of Pat Brown.

“He wasn’t really a politician the first time,” Bruce Cain told me. “He could be standoffish to legislators, who in those days were formidable figures with real knowledge and expertise. Now the legislature is full of itinerant politicians, and he is far more experienced than before, and than any of them now.”

When I asked Brown to compare the earlier and later versions of himself as governor, he seemed uninterested in (rather than annoyed by) the question, and didn’t really engage. But in themes that ran through several conversations, he ended up characterizing the difference in three main ways.

First, by the time he returned to office in 2011, he’d had many years to think—to “live in the question,” to watch things work and fail, to expand and refine his network of contacts. I first met him, briefly, 25 years ago, when I was living in and writing about Japan and he, as an ex-governor, was studying culture and religion there. At the time, he was reading about Japan’s industrial policy and its implications for America—­and he has kept reading and asking since then. “What do we think about Chalmers Johnson now?” he asked, right off the bat, when I had my first meeting with him this year. “And Lester Thurow? And how does this fit China?” In each of the policy areas that now has his attention, from water to clean energy to school reform, he draws on discussions and readings from the 1970s onward.

Second, he has raised his EQ score—for Emotional Quotient, or ability to read other people and understand how he is coming across. What the Washington establishment said of Barack Obama during his first term—high IQ, low EQ—was the verdict about the early Brown as well, and one that he seems to share about his earlier self.

“I didn’t have the ear to hear a lot of things, before,” Brown said, referring to his first time as governor. “Now I can hear things I might have missed, before. And because of how I look, and my age, people think I’ve learned.” Kevin Starr, who grew up in San Francisco at about the same time as Brown, said that as governor, Brown “has developed emotional intelligence of a very high order, exceeded only by his wife.” One indication of this new sensibility, Starr says, is that Brown has under- rather than overplayed his presence in the media and the demands he makes of the public’s attention. Since at least Bill Clinton’s time, U.S. presidents have served as highly visible mourners in chief after tragedies, and national emcees after major news of any sort. Some governors take on a similar public role during state crises; Brown has held back.

“Jerry’s reputation rises with everything he chooses not to say,” Starr told me. “He understands the fatigue with politics at the state level.” I asked Brown whether this was right. “If you’re in the news all the time, you can be associated with bad news,” he said. “People don’t need to hear from me all the time.”

Third, the older Jerry Brown seems to have embraced all aspects of the family heritage that the younger Jerry Brown appeared to be struggling against. In the 1970s, anything Brown said about frugality or “limits” was read by the political press in Freudian psychological terms. The dominant father, Pat Brown, had left his mark on the state with his openhanded spending projects. The rebellious and intro­verted son would bring the state into a new age with his more austere approach. I didn’t directly ask Brown about any of these father-and-son questions, but allusions to the subject kept cropping up.

To begin with, he said comparisons between him and his father were difficult because the two men were products of such different eras. “My father couldn’t go to college, because he didn’t have any money,” Brown told me. “His own father [Brown’s grand­father, who ran a poker club in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco] died flat broke—and he always put it that way: Flat. Broke.” Brown’s father went straight from high school to night law school, which in those days was possible without a college degree. He paid his way by, among other jobs, reading to a blind lawyer as they rode on a trolley car. In contrast, by the time Jerry Brown was a teenager, his father was a popular statewide figure as attorney general. “There were always people around the house, the phone was always ringing—the number was listed—I was always hearing them talk politics. I thought I had a ‘purer’ view and was above politics. But here’s the truth: It’s like a little duck who learns to swim by following the mother duck. Obviously I was imprinted early with these skills and propensities.”

Brown said that his father never told him to be a politician. “It was more: ‘Son, you have to get a job!’ ” But the imprinting was deep enough that by the time Jerry Brown was 32—with Jesuit seminary, college, Yale Law School, and a clerkship behind him—he decided to run for election as California’s secretary of state.

“My dad said, ‘Don’t do that, it’s a silly job,’ ” Brown told me—until then, secretaries of state had performed purely administrative roles. “And I said, ‘No, Dad, it’s a title! Edmund G. Brown Jr., secretary of state!’ ” He ran, and won; four years later he was governor; and since then his life has been policy and politics. “This is really all I do,” he told me. “I’ve been doing it for 40 years.”

You might expect, at this point in a political profile, that a quote like this last one would be the setup for a dismissive judgment. This person is only about politics, which means the only thing that matters is the greasy pole. Or, this person is only about policy, which means that we’re dealing with a drudge. In fact, I’m setting up the opposite argument: that Brown’s obsessive involvement in politics and policy is not simply the key to his recent effectiveness in California but also the reason his example deserves attention elsewhere.

Americans admire “leaders” and “statesmen” rather than compromisers or people who say they are aiming for a “lifetime committed to politics.” I can think of dozens of candidates whose promise has been to “rise above” politics—­and if that is not possible, to save the republic from the ignoble workings of politics by instituting rules the politicians must obey. The so-called sequester is the most recent example on the national scale: since we can’t trust our representatives to be sensible, we’ll substitute a formula to make sure the job gets done. This is one more step on the path blazed in the 1970s with Prop 13—we can’t trust our elected representatives with our money, so make sure the money never gets into their hands—and whose origins trace to the “direct democracy” measures Hiram Johnson brought to California a century ago.

The truth is that a reliance on rules and a mistrust of mere politicians have come close to ruining public life in California. “When given a choice between human judgments and formulas, we’ve always chosen the formulas,” Joe Mathews says. He is critical of Brown in many ways, and yet he says, “I would rather let the Jerry Browns of the world make decisions for me than some crazy set of rules someone thought would help.”

California has once more led the way for the nation: through the past generation in showing the damage that disdain for politics can do, and in the past three years in its demonstration of the all-fronts embrace of politics needed to repair the damage. That California’s broken government is still functioning is largely because Jerry Brown has spent his life studying its machinery. In California, new governors are expected to propose detailed budgets within weeks of their election. Brown had the advantage of having already been through eight budget cycles. From his years as mayor, he knew the budget tricks that cities try to pull on the state, for instance the redevelopment-agency con. From the many campaigns he had won, and lost, he had learned the difference between fights that were tough but winnable, like the push to pass Proposition 30, and those that mean certain defeat, like challenging California’s direct-democracy system. With the perspective of 30 years, he has seen which of his early programs have proved to be farsighted and effective, notably his environmental and clean-energy initiatives; and which have gone nowhere, notably his fascination with colonizing space.

From his earliest days, the mother tongue Jerry Brown heard spoken around him was that of politics. California is an exceptional state, and his career in politics is not likely to be duplicated. But a country conditioned to dismiss the skills of deal making, persuasion, and sheer immersion in politics can learn a great deal from what he has achieved.

Presented by

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.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

The Best 71-Second Animation You'll Watch Today

A rock monster tries to save a village from destruction.

Video

The Best 71-Second Animation You'll Watch Today

A rock monster tries to save a village from destruction.

Video

The Case for Napping at Work

Most Americans don't get enough sleep. More and more employers are trying to help address that.

Video

A Four-Dimensional Tour of Boston

In this groundbreaking video, time moves at multiple speeds within a single frame.

Video

Who Made Pop Music So Repetitive? You Did.

If pop music is too homogenous, that's because listeners want it that way.

Video

Stunning GoPro Footage of a Wildfire

In the field with America’s elite Native American firefighting crew

More in Politics

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In