Could There Be Another Jerry Brown?

"In the world but not of it"

Thumbnail image for BrownOakland.jpg

In case you missed it on my previous 20 mentions, my story about Jerry Brown, the past-present-and-future governor of our largest state, is now on line. But of course it looks better in the magazine (subscribe!).

I am mentioning it so often because, first, Brown is a genuinely interesting public figure, and, second, because I really threw myself into this story as a way of reckoning with the changes in California from the time of my childhood, in the small-town Southern California of the Pat Brown era, and my sons' experience now as they begin their families in San Francisco and LA. I don't always feel, on finishing a story, that I've made all the points I hoped to, but in this case I think I've had my say about California-and-America, and on what a lifelong pol can teach us about the importance and limits of professional politicians.

Several reader points. First, about whether there is any prospect of replicating the life-long store of political/policy knowledge that Jerry Brown brings to his second stint in the governorship. A reader writes:

I moved to CA in 1983 and saw the transition from a highly functional state under the previous Brown administration, to the social Darwinism and utter sleaze of the Deukmejian/ Wilson era ("welcome aboard the Decline & Fall Express!").  I met Jerry and we hung out briefly in his nest of geniuses in Oakland when he was out of politics: what struck me immediately was his intellectual and ethical rigor, and his uncompromising objectivity and critical outlook toward himself, similar to the attitude of a working scientist toward his subject matter.

He was also the most capable Mayor of Oakland in the 30 years I've been here: he turned the city around, though since that time it's slid backward in a number of ways (FBI's "Robbery Capital of America").  And he's the most capable Governor we've had since the last time he was Governor.

Key questions:  Is there anyone you see as having a similar combination of intellect, ethics, principles, and practicality, who could continue on the path forward after Jerry retires from public service (presumably in his mid 90s;-)?  Did you see any indication that Jerry was training a younger generation of possible successors?  What do you think are the most critical steps to maintain forward momentum in the next generation?

Short answer: No. But this is an interesting question that I hadn't thought about, and will.

Next, from a non-American who has been living in LA:

Regardless what one thinks of him, Jerry Brown truly is an extraordinary figure. Part of what makes him so is, as you say, "that he has spent his life studying its machinery". California politics and the rules which govern them are in his DNA. He has spent an entire lifetime building upon a genetic predilection.

I wonder, though, if there isn't another factor that is just as critical to his great leadership. (I realize that you stop short of calling him a great leader but it seems that you believe it.) This other dimension, to borrow a Biblical phrase, is that Brown "is in the world but not of it".

The article refers repeatedly to Brown's deep passion for reading, especially for understanding the lessons of history. At the end of the article, though, summarizing why "California's broken government is still functioning", you refer to the unique quality of Brown's leadership, but only one aspect of it: that he "is in the (political) world" more than any other politician of his generation.

I wonder whether Brown doesn't draw his ability to lead from being the embodiment of the Biblical paradox - he is well and truly immersed in the grittiest details of the political world AND well and truly detached from them. This detachment may have its origins in an intellectual pursuit. But it has been thoroughly integrated into Brown's emotional and psychic state.

Snapshot above by me, when visiting Brown at his Oakland office just before his 75th birthday in early April.

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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.

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.

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