Brown's Periscope Rises


San Francisco. -- Jerry Brown, whose future is supposed to be behind him, announced last week that he was giving up the U.S. Senate candidacy he had not announced to concentrate on preparing to announce that he is running for president.

Then no one could find him. Instead of five seconds on television to explain himself, he chose to send out a 10-page, 5,000-word letter to a few thousand of his closest friends. He must think the presidency is pretty important -- this is, after all, the third time he's run for it in 15 years.

Some will laugh at the third coming of Governor Moonbeam. But he was running ahead in early Senate polls -- he had 25-percent voter support, which was 25 percent more than most other Democratic candidates -- and he has always had something to say, though sometimes it's been hard to follow. "Does that make sense?" he once asked me, the only politician who ever did. "Or am I just stringing words together?"

Where has he been? Oh, the usual places -- Calcutta, Kyoto, thinking about poverty and Zen some. He showed up at our apartment in Paris one night a couple of years ago, when we had a few people over. Afterward another American, a businessman, asked, "Who was that young guy standing over in the corner?"

"Jerry Brown," I said.

"You're kidding," he said. "The governor of California? C'mon, what was he then, a teen-ager? Where's he been?"

Well, most recently at that time, he had been working with Mother Teresa in Calcutta, washing babies and things like that. And he was a pretty young governor, 37 years old, elected partly on the good name of his father, former Gov. Edmund G. (Pat) Brown, to the first of two terms in 1974. Two years later, with no preparation and less organization, he ran for president the first time. He won six straight Democratic primary elections, most of them after Jimmy Carter had the nomination more or less locked up.

In 1980, against all common sense, with the same amount of preparation, he tried again, losing every time out. Two years after that he ran for the U.S. Senate, losing to Pete Wilson, who was then the mayor of San Diego and is now back in California as governor.

Mr. Brown came back, too, becoming, of all things, chairman of the California Democratic Party after what he described in the letter as "my seven-year sabbatical of self-renewal and study."

In his withdrawal-renewal-announcement letter, he attacks his business, politics, as "decrepit," saying:

"If one judged from how our elected representatives spend their time, you would conclude that government had become a cover story for political fund-raising. The system sorts out candidates by how much money they raise and 'spend' on the public airwaves. In California, for example, it costs $18 million to run for the United States Senate, which translates into $10,000 for each working day during a six-year term. . . . Our democratic system has been the object of a hostile takeover, engineered by a confederacy of corruption, careerism and campaign consulting."

He writes that we have broken American allegiance to "a fundamental, immutable, moral command." That is, he says, bequeathing our children "a greater America -- its freedom enhanced, its opportunities enriched, and its purposes ennobled."

Then talking about ever-declining voter participation, with a drum roll he says: "The crisis that confronted Lincoln and would lead to our bloody Civil War was triggered by the secession of one-third of the states. Today, one-half of our people have 'seceded' from the political democracy."

There may be some word-stringing there, but it is worth talking and arguing about those perceptions. And talking and arguing with Jerry Brown is usually worth the trouble. He may be no Abe Lincoln, but maybe he's a political Jimmy Connors with more than a little excitement left in him yet. I hope so.

4*Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

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