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.”