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Jerry Brown: Nothing To Prove, Nothing To Promise

Hillel Aron |
September 2, 2010 | 10:35 p.m. PDT


Former governors Gray Davis, George Deukmejian, and Jerry Brown
Former governors Gray Davis, George Deukmejian, and Jerry Brown
Jerry Brown is a lot shorter than I imagined him, if you'll pardon the cliche. Shorter and more intimidating.

He was in Los Angeles on Thursday for a reception at the Biltmore Hotel honoring the California Conservation Corps, essentially a peace corps but for the environment and natural disasters and such. Brown created the corps when he was governor the first time around, lo these many years ago.

"Why haven’t you started campaigning?" I asked him.

"Tuesday," he said, his voice deep and gruff like a gym coach. "Start Tuesday. Don’t you know anything?"

So much for moonbeam, I thought, following him into the Gold Room, so named for its gold cast-plaster ceiling, where the event was to be held. Everywhere he went, someone took his picture or introduced himself.

"What are you planning on doing about the public university crisis?" I asked, more than a little awkwardly. 

"I’m going to get together with the legislature," he said, grabbing a slice of prosciutto from the hors d'ouvres table. "Sit down, and work as Californians, not as partisan zealots."

"But doesn’t it require a certain amount of vision?" I asked.

"Yes but… let me… just chew," he said, chewing. "I haven’t eaten all day."

There was a giant bowl filled with six different kinds of meat. I picked up one, a little pink cube.

"What’s this?" I asked him.

"You don’t know?" he asked. "You’re a journalist and you don’t know what that is?"

"Uh… no."

"It’s ham," he said flatly. I was getting the distinct impression that he didn’t like me.

Brown was recently quoted as saying, "At this stage of my life, I don’t have anything to prove." Indeed. Brown doesn’t feel the need to prove anything, or promise anything, or make campaign appearances or give any indication at all of what he would do to get California out of the monumental mess it's in. His one plan seems to be to end partisanship and deadlock. But aren’t politicians supposed to have policy proposals? Or at least vague ideas of what should happen? Of what the government should be about?

I ate the ham, and some prosciutto, and some cheese and crackers. Then I went over to the other table and had some sort of quiche that looked like a pizza, and a meatball on a fork that was so delicious I had to have another. 

Channel 9 was interviewing Brown. He did that thing with his right hand that all politicians do, where it looks like they’re holding a baton.

"There’s too much divisiveness," he said. "Too much finger pointing, too much me, me, me."

Former California Governor Gray Davis had arrived, and was drinking a cranberry juice. He told me that he will campaign for Brown and that he does expect Brown to win, despite it being a Republican year and all that.

"At the end of the day, people will want to bring someone who made us a triple-A rated state," he said, sounding like Al Gore if Al Gore had a stuffy nose. 

The speech-making part of the evening began. Davis and Brown took seats on either side of Governor George Deukmejian, the Republican who succeeded Brown in 1979 after defeating LA Mayor Tom Bradley, giving rise to the notion of the Bradley effect.

Davis and Deukmejian looked at ease. Brown looked serious, focused, as if he was ready to fight someone.

In his speech, Brown told the story of how the California Conservation Corps got started. Its first head was a Buddhist, who was completely ineffectual. So Brown got rid of him. 

"The second guy was LeRoy Chatfield," he said. "Who was very tough."

But Chatfield never talked to the state lawmakers about anything, so Brown had to fire him too.

"The third guy was B.T. Collins," he said, "Who smoked, drank and had a hook for an arm, cause he was in Vietnam. Best of all, he was a Republican. He made friends with the legislators, and he saved the Conservation Corps. And he changed it from a touchy-feely environmental thing that I’d envisioned. He said it was 'low pay, hard work, and miserable working conditions.'"

Brown paused, admiring those seven words.

"What a way to solve the budget crisis!"

The crowd laughed.

"Where is B.T. Collins when we need him?"

(B.T. Collins, who died in 1993, is perhaps best remembered for a 1981 press conference where he chugged a beaker of malathion, then used as a pesticide to combat fruit flies, in order to prove it wasn’t harmful to humans.)

Brown ended his speech and quickly marched out of the Gold Room, chest puffed out, arms like a toy soldier’s. Someone patted him on the back. He turned to say hello, but he didn’t stop, he barely even broke his stride.


Reach editor-at-large Hillel Aron here.



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