The Faces of Mr Brown

Editorial Page: 7B

By Tom McEnery

Tom McEnery is a Presidential Fellow at Santa Clara University. He served as mayor of San Jose from 1983 to 1990.


JERRY BROWN’S quadrennial yearning for attention has come again to the American political scene. It is too much to hope that it ended with his third place finish in New York. No such luck! To those of us in the Golden State, living with his legacy, we find others’ flirtation with this phoenix-like chameleon quite difficult to fathom. Quite frankly, it confuses us. His once promising career in public life has been reduced to a cynical caricature, as the charge of the lemmings continues westward to the cliff.

I understand that much of Brown’s appeal reflects the powerful current licking at the encrusted oligarchies of incumbent power and perkdom; I endorse that impulse. It is nonetheless surprising that such a flawed and faltering messenger has any currency at all. Remember the Old Testament admonition about the prophet in his own land having no honor; often it is there that the people know him well and dislike him for good reason. I served as mayor of San Jose, the capital of Silicon Valley, for most of the 1980’s. In California, familiarity has bred strong feelings. I knew Gov. Jerry Brown. I was not his friend, but I voted for him and even trusted him. As one Hollywood wag said of Doris Day, “I knew her before she was a virgin.” Et tu, Jerry. In Silicon Valley, many believed Brown an original and truly creative reformer. We were very fortunate to survive him.

America, faced with the failures of the current crop of Demopublicans, the national Incumbent Party, always has a soft spot for the rebel and the iconoclast. The family event is always enlivened by the slightly goofy uncle with the white socks and the cowlick, and a pocket full of articles on the Dalai Lama and the fourth gunman in Dealey Plaza. It’s typically American, but beware! Mom never let that guy cook the turkey.

The former governor may wrap himself in a convenient mantle from time to time, and in good Zen tradition see the quest more important than the goal. Yet his past always catches up with him. It is prudent to see it as a road map to the future.

The late 1970’s and 1980’s should have been a truly productive period for California, but we were buffeted by cruel winds, the winds of hubris and insensitivity. While people in San Jose begged for the state highways so long promised, to get from one side of the city to another, our governor talked of space exploration and magic trains to whisk us from San Francisco to San Diego in a smaller, more beautiful world. His cabal of futurists and purported experts came and left with all our problems in education and inner cities intact.

Later, when we implored the state to revamp its discredited parole system that placed violent felons among the gentle citizens of San Jose and other urban communities, our governor wrapped himself in a mantle half humanitarian, half obscurantist. He permitted the unthinkable to continue. I know; I saw the results of some of these experiments reflected in the broken bodies of victims and anguished faces of relatives. His hand-picked chief justice, Rose Bird, conducted an ineffectual Star Chamber, cavalierly discounting the common sense of millions and the safety of all. In the process she became the fodder for every right-wing diatribe and hit piece – she helped make liberalism a four-letter word. Somehow this record of error and elitism must not be erased. Jerry Brown’s ideas hurt people.

Recently, the berated Rasputin of the Brown campaign, Jacques Barzaghi, commented that they were not disorganized. “We just have a kind of organization that transcends understanding.” What a mouthful! In the distant past of 1990, I was the California chair of the campaign to limit terms in office, cap the amount of money in campaigns, and institute real political reform, Proposition 131. It was endorsed by Common Cause, the Sierra Club, Ralph Nader, and opposed by the power structure of both parties, and all the lobbyists and political action committees. Oh, they had one other ally in their successful attempt to submerge us with money and distortion: the chairman of the Democratic Party, Jerry Brown. Now that transcends understanding as well as ethics.

Some see Jerry Brown as the Howard Beale character in “Network,” the angry prophet of the airwaves, calling for change. I think the Tony Randall cult film “The Seven Faces of Dr. Lao” comes much closer to the truth. The good doctor had the ability to metamorphose and enchant. Talleyrand was once asked about two contemporaries, Robespierre and Voltaire, and said, “When I think of one, I prefer the other.” As a person who once thought Brown represented something positive and decent, I see one face and prefer the other. When I see the other, it evokes only disdain and an odd pity.


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