Jerry Brown: From 'Governor Moonbeam' to Earthly Avenger


When Jerry Brown ran for president in 1980, his slogan was cosmic: "Protect the earth. Serve the people. Explore the universe."

He has scaled down his ambitions and toughened up his message since then. In his latest transmogrification, the man mocked as Governor Moonbeam has become an earthly avenger, bent on ridding the political system of corruption, "money-changers" and the likes of Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton. To a surprising extent, the strategy is working. Mr. Brown's narrow victory in the Connecticut primary gave him new-found credibility as Mr. Clinton's only remaining challenger for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Few think Mr. Brown can win the nomination: The logistics of amassing a majority of delegates are dauntingly against him. But he could conceivably deny that nomination to Mr. Clinton.

Moreover, the former California governor's emergence from what calls the "media black hole of nonexistence" might have serious repercussions that could last until November.

Mr. Brown's most likely impact will be to continue to raise doubts about Mr. Clinton's character and integrity. He has mercilessly attacked the Arkansas governor for "a scandal a week" -- everything from his environmental record to cozy dealings between his state administration and key business interests, including those connected to his lawyer wife, Hillary. And Mr. Brown deftly tailors his attacks to each state.

In New York, which holds its primary Tuesday, he is appealing to disgruntled members of organized labor by labeling Mr. Clinton a "union-buster" because Arkansas has a right-to-work law. If Mr. Clinton stumbles in New York, which is crucial to any Democrat's victory in November, it would be a serious blow to his argument that he can defeat George Bush. Pressure would then mount to deny Mr. Clinton a first-ballot nomination and perhaps turn the contest toward a party heavyweight like Texas Sen. Lloyd Bentsen or New York Gov. Mario Cuomo. If nothing else, his challenge delays any Democratic opportunity to focus on President Bush rather than continue the internecine warfare.

Now comes what Mr. Brown says he has wanted all along: bigger crowds, more television coverage -- and far more scrutiny of his own ideas and character. It will not be a pretty sight. Not only does Mr. Brown react harshly to criticism, but his political and personal course has been marked over the years by abrupt, often overtly opportunistic shifts in every direction. Among his flip-flops:

* Mr. Brown raised an estimated $20 million while he was Democratic Party chairman in California and during his previous campaigns, much of it in large contributions from special interests. Now, he adamantly opposes such donations.

* In the early months of the presidential campaign, Mr. Brown railed against special-interest domination of politics and government and attacked Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin for accepting )) contributions from labor unions. But after Mr. Harkin dropped out of the race -- leaving his big labor support up for grabs -- union jackets suddenly became part of the Brown campaign wardrobe, and pro-labor rhetoric part of his regular spiel.

* As California party boss in 1990, Mr. Brown vigorously opposed term limitations for members of Congress. Now he supports them with equal passion.

* After advocating free-trade agreements with Canada and Mexico throughout the 1980s, he now opposes such pacts.

* During eight years as California governor, he failed to produce a single major civil rights bill. Now he says he offers the best hope to minorities.

Mr. Brown is trying to sell himself as the champion of the little guy against big money and power. Yet Mr. Clinton and many economists argue persuasively that Mr. Brown's proposals for a flat tax of 13 percent combined with a national value-added tax of 13 percent would actually hurt middle-income and poor taxpayers and help the wealthy -- while adding greatly to the deficit.

His critics see Mr. Brown as an unabashed hypocrite, willing to bend in any direction for political gain. "Jerry Brown's campaign technique is to grab onto some issue he's shown no previous sign of caring about and then to condemn with self-righteous wrath everyone else who fails to join him immediately in his newfound faith," wrote columnist Michael Kinsley. "In Brown's way of thinking, you are hopelessly corrupt if you still think as Mr. Brown thought until the day before yesterday." Today, the critics argue, the ultimate insider is just trying to capitalize on voter wrath by pretending to be a crusading reformer.

Yet some longtime associates in California argue that Mr. Brown's current anti-Establishment persona is actually a return to his roots. As a young man, he rebelled against the go-along, get-along style of his father, former California Gov. Pat Brown. In the 1978 book "Brown," Orville Schell quotes Mr. Brown as saying: "I was attracted and repelled by what I saw of politics in my father's house. Attracted by the adventure and opportunity and repelled by the grasping, the artificiality, the obvious manipulation, role-playing and repetition of emotions."

As the 32-year-old California secretary of state, Mr. Brown promoted campaign reform. And he was elected governor in 1974 at age 36, after promising a vague "New Spirit" for state government. He rejected the trappings of office, refused to live in the governor's mansion in favor of a $250-a-month apartment and, as a lifelong bachelor, added to his mystique by dating pop singer Linda Ronstadt.

His early policies led to a bloated state surplus while property taxes in California soared, spawning Proposition 13 in 1978, the initiative that limited property taxes and has hamstrung government ever since. Mr. Brown also earned popular enmity for appointing Rose Bird as chief justice of the California Supreme Court in 1977. Her liberal views -- especially those denying imposition of the death penalty -- prompted voters to remove her from office in 1986.

Mr. Brown's unsuccessful runs for president in 1976 and 1980, friends say, were part of his ceaseless, existential quest to find something. After losing the 1982 Senate race in California to now-Gov. Pete Wilson, Mr. Brown, a former Jesuit seminarian, resumed his spiritual journey, visiting a Zen monastery in Japan and working with Mother Teresa among India's poor.

Yet when he returned to California in 1989, he ran for the most crassly political of posts, chairman of the state Democratic Party. He won. And he raised millions of dollars from big donors. But he was a weak administrator and alienated many members of his party's hierarchy.

"His is a politics of self-indulgence," says Mr. Brown's 1976 presidential campaign manager, Mickey Kantor, now a key adviser to Mr. Clinton. "How many times can we allow Jerry Brown to reinvent himself?"

Mr. Brown once justified his frequent changes of course by comparing politics with paddling a canoe. To get ahead, he said, you paddle on the left, paddle on the right, and you ultimately follow a straight line.

"It's total situational ethics," says Dan Walters, a longtime Sacramento reporter who has covered Mr. Brown since 1975. "He's the kid who never quite grew up -- a Peter Pan, basically. But what's irreverent at 35 is weird at 53."

However, focusing on Mr. Brown as an individual may miss the fundamental point of his role in the 1992 campaign. He is simply the latest in a string of politicians -- including Democrat Paul Tsongas and Republican Patrick Buchanan -- who have tried to capture the vast protest vote rising across America. Eight out of 10 voters think the country is on the wrong track, and most are unhappy with their choices for president. Millions think Mr. Bush is hopelessly out of touch with their lives, and they don't quite trust Mr. Clinton.

"The electorate is willing to look at more options than I've ever seen before," says Richard Wirthlin, longtime pollster for Ronald Reagan. "The fact that Brown has gone as far as he has reflects not only anger but more of a hunger for specificity than I've ever seen."

Mr. Brown's flat tax, Mr. Wirthlin says, seems appealingly simple. And if Mr. Brown falters, the next likely iconoclast voters embrace may be billionaire Texas businessman H. Ross Perot, a potential independent candidate for president.

Meanwhile, the beneficiary of Mr. Brown's candidacy is George Bush. He tells friends it's been a "screwy year" so far, but with Mr. Buchanan's campaign ebbing and the Democrats picking each other apart, he is newly confident. Bush advisers say they will emphasize moderate change in the coming months -- reforming education, health care and Congress -- while they let the economy work its way out of recession. The White House clearly has eased back into laissez-faire management of national affairs, hoping for the best while the Democrats eat each other alive.

Kenneth T. Walsh wrote this for U.S. News & World Report, with additional reporting by Mike Tharp, Monika Guttman and Lynn Adkins.

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