Edmund G. “Jerry” Brown Jr.—the once and possibly future governor of California—has reinvented himself so many times he’s giving Madonna a run for her money. His act involves fewer costume changes, but it’s at least as enduring.
At once spiritual and cynical, worldly and ascetic, personally ambitious and altruistic, and cerebral to the point of abstraction—an attribute that long ago earned him the nickname “Governor Moonbeam”—he is a public figure of quirky charisma, the stylistic opposite of his late father.
Edmund G. “Pat” Brown Sr., California’s governor from 1959 to 1967—when Ronald Reagan rudely ended his reign—was a back-slapping extrovert who was proud to call himself a “professional politician.” Jerry Brown, who succeeded his dad’s nemesis in 1975 and served two four-year terms, was certainly not that. Yet he remains, at nearly 72, the most intriguing politician in America.
“I think I’m going to enjoy being governor,” Brown says, “but there’s a high risk of failure in this undertaking.”
“You’d find a lot of people who would disagree with you,” Brown tells me when I venture this opinion, although clearly he’s not among them. “I’m not trying to be my father, but certainly I’ve learned many of the things that he knew. It was 1970 when I started running for secretary of state, so I’ve had a lot of experience, and not just in government. I haven’t been in the senate for 40 years, but I’ve spent six months in Japan, I’ve spent several months in Mexico, I’ve traveled as a private citizen to Russia and China, Italy and Europe. I’ve worked with Mother Teresa. I was in seminary. So I’ve seen a lot of the world. I have a very unique perspective. I have an insider’s knowledge with an outsider’s mind.”
Today Brown is hoping to reclaim the throne after 27 years of wandering in and out of the political wilderness, a hiatus during which he explored the frontiers of downward mobility. He studied Buddhism in Japan, tended lepers in Calcutta, campaigned unsuccessfully for senator and president, chaired the California Democratic Party before quitting abruptly in the middle of his term, toiled for eight years as mayor of Oakland and, in 2006, finally got himself elected to his first statewide office in nearly three decades, that of California’s attorney general.
Now he aspires to fix a bureaucracy that, under its latest movie-star governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, has been an unmanageable mess. Why would Brown want to revert to his own personal Groundhog Day?
“I think that’s a very good question, and one I’ve reflected on probably not long enough,” he tells me as he rides to another fundraiser in Los Angeles. (The presumptive Democratic nominee, Brown has around $14 million in the bank, a pittance compared to the $45 million that the Republican frontrunner, eBay mogul Meg Whitman, has already spent.) “But my short answer is, the state is in breakdown. I feel that my preparation and skill and knowledge would help me turn it into a breakthrough. And I don't kid myself that it will be easy, or that it’s certain, but I enjoy this line of work. I find it intellectually stimulating.”
How would Jerry Brown 2.0 be different from the original?
“I think the difference,” Brown answers, “is best encapsulated by something my chief of staff, B.T. Collins, the Green Beret who lost his arm and a leg in Vietnam [and died of a heart attack in 1993 at age 52], once said: ‘If you want to understand politics, it’s all personalities, it’s not ideas.’ Well, that was his point of view, and I do think ideas are very, very important. But this time around, I think the personality of every single legislator, all 120, is extremely important. Being able to get the requisite number of Republicans and Democrats to sign on to a budget that takes a two-thirds vote means a very serious engagement with the world view, the political life, of each of these legislators in a very extended set of meetings and exchanges, such that I can build camaraderie, mutual understanding and the kind of working together that existed to a much greater degree when I was governor and to even a far greater degree when my father was governor.”
It’s a bracing notion: the onetime lone wolf as the cruise director of a legislative Love Boat. Brown concedes that when he entered the family business 40 years ago, after studying to become a Jesuit priest and struggling with the bar exam, he “found politics rather distasteful. But, for whatever reason, it stimulates some of my best thinking. I also see California as somewhat of a microcosm of the country, and I think it’s more manageable. Our deficit is probably 1.8 percent of our state GNP. The United States' is about 11 percent, and Greece's is 12 percent. So even though people allege that California is a failed state, we’re doing a helluva lot better than many other important entities, including the United States. So I’m willing to do what I can, get in, knock heads together, and stay the course as we work our way through this deficit and poisonous partisan breakdown to a more effective-functioning California.”
A voracious reader, and a ravenous consumer of all media, Brown has always been able to talk a good game. He is, after all, the epigrammatic leader who popularized the phrase, “Small is beautiful,” the mantra of limited-government neoliberalism of the ‘70s and ‘80s. Rare among politicians, he is perfectly comfortable thinking on his feet and unsheathing his sharp sense of irony; he seldom gives the impression of a political hack addicted to his own spin. Curious about the world around him, he listens and absorbs (indeed, during our conversation, he peppers me with questions about The Daily Beast and the journalism biz in general). But at this late stage, can he actually deliver?
"No one is better qualified than Jerry Brown to straighten out the mess in Sacramento," says another former chief of staff, Gray Davis, whose own unhappy governorship, years later, was cut short by a recall election and the Terminator. “Jerry has the maturity to call a spade a spade, and he doesn’t see the governorship as a springboard to a national political office.” Another big change, Davis says, is Brown’s marriage five years ago to his longtime girlfriend, former corporate lawyer Anne Gust. “Anne helps organize him and keeps him on track,” Davis says. “Because of her, Jerry is more linear than he was in the ‘70s. He was always very cerebral, but many people faulted him for not following through. Now there’s much more follow-through.”
Brown—who, before settling down with Gust, enjoyed the bachelor lifestyle of a wonky Warren Beatty, at one point living in Malibu with pop star Linda Ronstadt—affects to be mystified by Davis’ observation. “I’m not sure I understand ‘linear’ and ‘nonlinear.’ I’ll leave that to you and Gray,” he says. “People like to be able to peg an interpretation on some obvious fact, and getting married for the first time at age 67 is a rather obvious fact—so you can peg a fair amount of conclusions on that.”
Yet he acknowledges that marriage has changed his life for the better. “First of all, I enjoy it. I should’ve done it earlier,” Brown says. “It’s just wonderful to have somebody who is fun to be with, who is extremely intelligent, who is caring, and has a very good mind and not a lot of ego to go with it. So that’s a very unusual person and we enjoy each others’ company and we work together amazingly well, given our rather different styles of thinking and approaching problems.”
The 52-year-old Gust, who ran Brown’s attorney general’s campaign, is playing a key role in this one. “She’s very organized, she’s very quick, she cuts to the chase, she’s not given to sidebar diversions,” Brown enthuses. “She’s a good manager, delegator, a good reader of résumés… We’ve lived in three different places—two lofts and now a very spectacular home high above Oakland in the hills. So we share some aesthetic taste and that’s always good.”
As Brown’s closest confidante, Gust has displaced the colorful Frenchman Jacques Barzaghi, a controversial figure who was inseparable from Brown from 1971, when they first met at a party, until he was dismissed from the Oakland mayor’s office in 2004. Barzaghi was bullet-headed and dressed entirely in black, his torso tattooed with Buddhist symbols and Tibetan mandalas, and he functioned for three decades as Brown’s closest aide. A tough bureaucratic infighter with a puckish wit and a fondness for New Age buzz-phrases, Barzaghi was every bit a part of the Brown mystique as the mattress Brown slept on instead of living in the governor’s mansion and the 1975 Plymouth he used to drive himself to work. Their falling out seems painfully final. “I haven’t talked to him in several years—since he left Oakland,” Brown tells me. “He left and, I think, went to Morocco.”
Brown is still preaching the gospel of limits. “The legislature, responding to pressure, basically has no limits,” he says. “There are no limits because the demand and the needs are endless. What they say in Zen Buddhism is, ‘Desires are endless, I vow to cut down.’ But in the legislative process, you could say, ‘Desires are endless and I vow to satisfy them.’ So there’s something very imbalanced, and there’s no agreed limit or enough of a principle of ‘enoughness.’ The only enoughness is when you don't have enough money. And in the last decade or two, people have learned to borrow—whereas before they waited until they collected revenue, today they just create new instruments of indebtedness, and just power on more and more spending.”
Brown hopes to apply the same principles to his campaign, especially if his opponent is Whitman, a political novice who is ready to spend mass quantities. “It’s formidable, but as King Midas found out, it can be a mixed blessing. She has an unlimited bank account with an unlimited commitment to spend. That’s unique in American politics… Bloomberg [in his last mayoral campaign] spent roughly $110 million, didn’t he? She could spend upward of $200 million. This will be the most expensive statewide campaign in American history.’
Beyond that, Brown is reluctant to engage with Whitman, who has just had a rocky week on the campaign trail, receiving oodles of bad publicity for staging a camera-ready “press event” and refusing to take questions. “I’m not going to try and critique her performance,” Brown says. “That’s the Republican electorate and they’ll fight it out between now and June”—the month of the primary. “We’ll have a lot of time to offer commentary, and I’ll be willing to do it at that point.”
By the way, Brown is eager to dispel a myth about that old Plymouth and some other misconceptions that might make him seem exotic and eccentric. “It wasn’t a beat-up car, it was a very well-maintained car,” he insists. “It was a modest car, a car-pool car, and it was not the bulletproof limousine that Reagan drove around in… One of the things I promoted at the 1992 convention”—when presidential candidate Brown arrived with nearly 600 delegates, second only to Bill Clinton’s count—“was something that I called the ‘Humility Agenda.’ But I look at politics from a lot of different angles,” Brown muses. “I’m not just satisfied with the political world. I’m very interested in other things in life—in philosophy and reading and friends and a good dinner with my close associates. But I do like to campaign. I wouldn’t do it, at my age, if I didn’t enjoy it. I think I’m going to enjoy being governor, but there’s a high risk of failure in this undertaking. I’m aware of it—but I may not be totally aware of it.”
Lloyd Grove is editor at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a frequent contributor to New York magazine and was a contributing editor for Condé Nast Portfolio. He wrote a gossip column for the New York Daily News from 2003 to 2006. Prior to that, he wrote the Reliable Source column for the Washington Post, where he spent 23 years covering politics, the media, and other subjects.