Changing times finally in step with Jerry Brown


When they dug up Zachary Taylor a few months ago, I rated him no better than third to win the Democratic presidential nomination next year.

I know what you're saying: The guy has experience, he is a proven leader, he has been to the White House. So you've got to rate him at least second, even though he is a Whig.

But while I admit that Taylor has some strong qualities, I have to weigh the fact that he has been dead for 141 years. I am not saying this knocks him out of the race. Not against the current Democratic field.

But I still think that when all is said and done, the party will go for a candidate who is still breathing.

And now, with Jerry Brown, the former governor of California, entering the race, I see the nomination up for grabs.

I covered Jerry Brown when he ran for president in 1976; I covered him when he ran in 1980 and I'm telling you: This guy has a chance.

It's not so much that Brown has changed, but that the times have changed around him. I'm serious when I say that in some ways America has caught up with Jerry Brown.

He used to sound weird. "We are all on Spaceship Earth," he told me one afternoon when I thought we were on a campaign bus in southern California. "The dialectic process between co-equal branches takes unpredictable turns. This is all part of the discipline of the process. We cannot accept verbal cellophane for policy."

Because of talk like this, columnist Mike Royko hung the label "Gov. Moonbeam" on him and it stuck. (Less noticed was the fact that Royko renounced the label in 1980, after Brown made a bright and inspiring speech to the Democratic Convention.)

Brown was a New Wave politician before the phrase was coined. His campaign platform was: "Protect the Earth, serve the people, explore the universe." He was the candidate of new, unconventional ideas. (Gary Hart later became Jerry Brown when Jerry Brown didn't want to be him any more.)

Brown won five primaries in 1976 and four years later ran again. I caught up with him in New Hampshire. His pitch was simpler this time: Vote for Jerry Brown -- or die.

"The prospects are bleak. We are looking down the road to depression and world war. The chickens are coming home to roost. We are an island of affluence, sinking in a rising sea of despair," he said to about 75 Sears employees in the Mall of New Hampshire outside Manchester.

"Draft registration is just a way of getting kids to die to make oil companies richer," he continued. "Nuclear power is grossly immoral. It can destroy our gene pool, irradiate our food chain, and the people making the decisions don't care. Have you got your iodine for your thyroid cancer yet?"

That pretty much tore it. The crowd began edging away. Down the street, Ronald Reagan was preaching the politics of joy, while Brown was talking about thyroid cancer.

Brown didn't care. He stood there lean and hungry-looking (he was on the Pritikin diet) in his conservative gray suit, his digital watch still set on California time, lobbing these hand grenades into the crowd.

"There is a deterioration of human, technical and environmental assets," he said. "We face increasing social tension, the unraveling of the social fabric and our economy is out of control."

And while this shocked people in 1980 -- he didn't win any primaries at all -- it wouldn't shock people today. Today, it sounds almost mainstream. Even his stock line from 1980, which has been stolen by a half-dozen politicians since, is right in step with current times: "Let us look at all we have not as something we inherit from our parents, but rather as something we borrow from our children."

After his speech at the mall, I asked him how he could possibly beat both Jimmy Carter and Ted Kennedy for the nomination, considering they had much better financed campaigns.

"I'm lean and frugal and low to the ground," Brown said. "I'm broke and in trouble. And that is why I am just like America."

You could put that on a poster today.

I admit that I liked Jerry Brown. Though he didn't often reveal it, he had a sense of humor.

He once spent a terrible, mind-numbing ceremonial afternoon reviewing the California National Guard on a patch of desert, watching tank after tank rumble by.

And when all the troops had assembled before him and the clouds of choking dust had settled, he leaned into the microphone and said: "I just got an idea. Let's invade Nevada."

He also had a practical side. In 1976, his plan was to beat Jimmy Carter on the third ballot at the Democratic Convention. But in order to do this, wouldn't he need to wheel and deal and horse trade votes and do all those things that a "Gov. Moonbeam" couldn't possibly do?

Would he, for instance, actually call a party boss like Richard J. Daley of Chicago, and bargain for his delegate votes? I asked him.

"Well, that depends," Brown said.

On what? I asked.

"On how fast I can get to a telephone," he said.

So don't count Jerry Brown out. He is tough and smart and his message is no longer out of step with the times.

And in a field like the current Democratic field, he could win this thing.

Unless, of course, they dig up Andrew Jackson.

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