Brown Happened

Since stepping down in 2018, California’s recurring governor Jerry Brown has kept on the quiet side. That changed on January 29 in an interview with Jack Ohman, the Sacramento Bee’s longest serving editorial cartoonist and now deputy California opinion editor. 

“Brown was a four-term governor and a presidential candidate who was a central figure at the outset of my journalism career,” Ohman explains. “Brown was also a 1970s icon who is still relevant nearly a half-century after California voters first elected him governor in 1974.” 

Readers may be unaware that in 1976, 1980 and 1992, Jerry Brown mounted presidential bids “all of which fell short of making him a true contender for the White House,” as former Sacramento Bee pundit Dan Walters explains. Maybe it was Brown’s “penchant for buzzwords and symbolic gestures” that led to the three failures. 

Asked about his loss in 1976, Brown said “you know, I can’t remember,” but “I thought I could win.” When asked about the other presidential bids, the three-time loser “seemed slightly annoyed,” as he does most of the time. In 1982, Brown also lost a Senate bid to Republican Pete Wilson, but Ohman doesn’t dwell on the losses.

“It’s the power of Brown’s stern intellect that completes the intimidating picture of him in my mind,” Ohman writes. “He is as smart as he is tough and Brown would lap any current politico in any and all competitions of knowledge, insight and ruthlessness” (emphasis added). It is as though a veteran NFL quarterback who never won a Super Bowl, with a losing playoff record, was suddenly proclaimed the greatest of all time. 

Unlike Jerry Brown, Donald Trump was not the son of a two-term state governor. Was Trump one of those politicos Brown would easily lap? 

“There is a fringe element of the Republican Party,” Brown said. “But with Trump, he brings the fringe into the mainstream. So that’s been his contribution.” Ohman asks for Brown’s take on Biden. 

“I think he’s a good guy. I voted for him. He’s got staying power, and he’s been around stuff,” said Brown. Biden made presidential runs in 1988 and 2008 and, in 2015, Brown said Biden should give “very serious consideration” to another run for the White House. So Brown’s approval of Biden might be a case of vicarious experience. 

Ohman is not eager to discuss Biden’s plagiarism, deteriorating mental condition, the Afghanistan bugout, soaring inflation and such. But the Bee editor wonders about Brown’s take on Kamala Harris. 

“She’d probably like to be doing better,” says Brown, who never showed interest in being vice president. He failed three times to gain the White House, but readers might wonder about his current residence, some 70 miles north of Sacramento in Colusa County. 

“His house is not modest, but also not overwhelming, maybe 3,500 square feet,” Ohman explains. “It has a cathedral window facing east, with spectacularly high ceilings. An older guest house sits to the left of the main house, surrounded by blue oaks and brush.” Brown’s ranch property “is scenic in its own way at 2,500 acres,” nearly four square miles. There’s a backstory here that escapes notice. 

In 1974, Jerry Brown denounced the sprawling new governor’s residence as a wasteful “Taj Mahal.” Governor Brown refused to live there and instead moved into a sparsely furnished, two-bedroom apartment on N Street, not far from the state Capitol. Ohman is not curious about Brown’s transition to a 3,500-square-foot mansion on 2,500 acres, nor what the house and property might have cost. A 2,607 acre Colusa County spread, without a house, is currently listed for $2,950,000

With an estimated net worth of $10 million, Jerry Brown clearly has done well for himself, but he doesn’t look it. He came to the interview in jeans and a plaid wool shirt. Ohman asks Brown what role faith now plays in his life. 

“That’s not a word I use,” Brown says. “Faith is a very Christian idea.” On the other hand, “My wife thinks I’m extremely Catholic. I think of myself not in a box and . . . not tied down to these propositional descriptions of the big matters in life.” Here, too, a backstory beckons. 

Brown graduated from St. Ignatius High School in 1955 and in 1956 enrolled in Sacred Heart Novitiate, a Jesuit seminary. Brown in 1958 took vows as a clergyman but in 1960 moved on to U.C. Berkeley, followed by law school at Yale, the elevator to a career in politics. Is it possible that Brown’s seminary stint was a way to dodge military conscription? The “extremely Catholic” Brown is not in the mood for confession, and Ohman wants to focus on his Latin skills. 

“There are five declensions,” Brown says. “There are five cases. Nominative. The genitive. Dative . . . there is also ablative. Vocative, more rare. So then you have the plural. Right?” Ohman, who says he took Latin in high school, concedes defeat. 

Brown’s ability to quote Latin tags led reporters to regard him as a man of vast erudition. Like Biden and current Governor Gavin Newsom, Jerry Brown shows little familiarity with works by economists such as Nobel laureate F.A. Hayek and Thomas Sowell of the Hoover Institution. Great Catholic writers such as Michael Novak and Richard John Neuhaus also seem to have escaped his attention. 

With Jerry Brown it’s tough to find a statement that, as Ray Bradbury said in his afterword to Farenheit 451, would not “make a sub-moron’s mouth twitch.” Brown did say that politics is like a canoe; sometimes you paddle on the left, sometimes on the right. Recent years rendered other possibilities. 

For the new span of the Bay Bridge, California rejected federal money, which would have required the use of American steel, and picked a Chinese company that had no experience building bridges. The bridge came in 10 years late, $5 billion over budget, and riddled with safety problems. Abolhassan Astaneh-Asl, professor of structural engineering at U.C. Berkeley, believes the bridge is unsafe and declines to use it. 

When Brown got word of the corrosion, brittle steel, cracked welds and such, he said, “I mean, look, shit happens.” That non-Latin quip had mouths twitching all over the state.

Ohman asked Brown about his favorite moment in elective politics which turned out to be Brown’s 1969 election to the Los Angeles junior college board, when “I came out number one.” For his favorite moment in governance Brown said, “I’d have to think about that,” and he recalls accomplishments of his father, such as aqueducts and opening a University of California campus in Irvine. On Brown’s least favorite moments, Ohman fails to pop the question.

Proposition 13 in 1978 limited the amount property taxes could be raised. Governor Brown called it a rip-off, even though the measure required no new government spending or hiring. When it passed in a landslide, Brown proclaimed himself a “born-again tax cutter,” which was never true. 

Brown’s choice for chief justice of the state supreme court was his former campaign chauffeur Rose Bird. She was 40-years-old and without judicial experience, but, like Brown, she had a soft spot for convicted murderers. In 1986, California voters booted Bird and two of Brown’s other state supreme court picks, Joseph Grodin and Cruz Reynoso, who also held their personal views above the law. From this 63-37 defeat at the hands of the people, Brown learned nothing. 

Toward the end of his final term, Brown signed Senate Bill 1391. Under this measure, anyone in California under the age of 16 can murder any number of people, be prosecuted only in juvenile court, and gain release at the age of 25. In his signing message, Brown said the concerns of crime victims “weighed on me.” A ballpark figure for how much would be zero

The sanctuary state of California deploys a motor voter program that automatically registers illegals to vote when they get a driver’s license, “potentially adding millions of new registered voters to California’s voter rolls.” Does the recurring governor know how many of the potential millions of new voters actually voted? 

Jerry Brown wasn’t saying and Ohman wasn’t asking. The Sacramento Bee’s deputy California opinion editor had no tough questions of any sort. Openly partisan newspapers are nothing new, but this interview marks a slide into outright hagiography. 

The establishment media now function like the British publications that cover the royals, their wealth, wardrobe, mansions, and even their pets. As Ohman writes, “Anne Gust Brown, the former First Lady, was returning from a walk with their dogs, Cali, a bordoodle, and Colusa, a corgi. Cali jumped up on me, and Anne apologized. ‘He’s not well-trained, but Jerry likes it when he jumps up.’” 

Perhaps that was because “Brown didn’t have a dog as a kid,” implying that Jerry was raised in poverty, when he was silver-spoon all the way. Ruling class and upper class tend to be the same people. 

As Edward Gibbon noted, hereditary rule tends to be the most risible. Jerry Brown is right that “shit happens,” and now it happens mostly in the streets of major cities like San Francisco. Californians are moving out and for the first time ever the Golden State lost a congressional seat. This exodus is not due to natural causes. 

High-taxes, pro-crime policies, and bloated bureaucracy surely played a role. All that, and a lot more, finds origin with hereditary governor and failed presidential candidate Jerry Brown.

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About Lloyd Billingsley

Lloyd Billingsley is the author of Hollywood Party and other books including Bill of Writes and Barack ‘em Up: A Literary Investigation. His journalism has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the Spectator (London) and many other publications. Billingsley serves as a policy fellow with the Independent Institute.

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