• Chuck McFadden, Trailblazer: A Biography of Jerry Brown, University of California Press, 2013, 248 pages, $29.95.
RALEIGH — “A California governor is automatically a potential president,” explains Associated Press reporter Chuck McFadden, and Jerry Brown threw his hat in the ring while still a novice as governor of California. For those unfamiliar with Brown’s three presidential bids, and his many other escapades, McFadden’s Trailblazer will serve as an instructive and entertaining account of this political chameleon.
Jerry’s father was two-term California Gov. Edmund G. “Pat” Brown. Jerry “internalized his father’s ferocious ambition” and traded on his father’s name. Jerry had not passed the bar exam when he “breezed into clerkship” for a state Supreme Court judge. As McFadden explains, “He was, after all, the son of the governor.”
Jerry’s boosters deny he was raised with a silver spoon in his mouth, but Trailblazer confirms that he was, starting in a five-bedroom house in the affluent Forest Hills section of San Francisco. The Yale law grad later bought a house with a swimming pool in the upscale Laurel Canyon neighborhood of Los Angeles. As mayor of Oakland, he “built a $1.8 million live-work loft.”
Brown trained for the priesthood, and in seminary wrapped a wire tightly around his leg, a procedure thought to increase spiritual awareness. His Jesuit training “instilled in him a certain amount of intellectual arrogance, a liking for austerity, and a sense of righteousness that has manifested itself throughout his political career.”
In a 1970 run for secretary of state he was able to tap his “father’s network of supporters for campaign funds.” All his ideas were “styled to receive maximum media attention” but Brown “spent much of his time in Los Angeles running the office from poolside.”
In 1974, Brown beat Republican State Controller Houston Flournoy for governor by a scant 2.9 percentage points and quickly pushed collective bargaining for state employees. He opposed Proposition 13, a property-tax limitation measure that passed in a landslide. Then Brown performed “one of the most dazzling flip-flops in the history of American politics” and proclaimed himself a “born-again tax cutter.” He wasn’t and never would be.
In March 1976, Brown announced his candidacy for president of the United States, “galloping in to clean up politics as usual.” He trounced Jimmy Carter in the Maryland primary, and attracted “enormous and national interest” before fizzling.
His “Moonbeam” tag came from singer Linda Ronstadt, whom he met at the El Adobe Café in Los Angeles, and who at the time was better known than Brown. The two journeyed to Africa in April 1979, while Brown was preparing his second bid for the presidency, and the couple landed on the cover of Newsweek.
In 1980 Brown ran on the platform of “Protect the Earth, serve the people and explore the universe,” giving verisimilitude to the “Moonbeam” concept. Before an eastern campaign swing he told the California legislature, “We must subordinate our own ambitions and our own individual egos to a much larger purpose.” But Brown failed to match his upstart performance in 1976, losing to incumbent Jimmy Carter, who then lost to Ronald Reagan, the actor and union leader who had preceded Brown as California governor.
Brown chose not to seek a third term as governor and lost a 1982 Senate race to Republican Pete Wilson. Wilson used Brown’s opposition to Prop 13 as a sign the governor was a phony conservative, but as mayor of San Diego, Wilson opposed Prop 13 as well.
Brown targeted the Oval Office again in 1992, promising to “take back America from the confederacy of corruption, careerism, and campaign consulting in Washington.” He opposed the North American Free Trade Agreement, called for elimination of the federal department of education, and even advocated a flat tax.
His Jesuit sense of righteousness came to the fore again when he famously accused Bill Clinton of “funneling money to his wife’s law firm for state business.” In a question about federal education policy in the first primary debate, Brown also told the Arkansas governor that it wasn’t the government’s job to do your kid’s homework.
After his 1992 presidential run, Brown brushed up on Zen Buddhism and spent time with Mother Teresa before making a comeback in 1998 as mayor of Oakland. In that office, Brown opened two charter schools, one a military academy that teacher union bosses compared to the Tuskegee experiments.
Brown won a race for state Attorney General in 2007 and in 2010 easily defeated Republican Meg Whitman for governor. McFadden’s lengthy election account is freighted with punditry but short on analysis. And his title is somewhat misleading because the real trailblazer in this story was Jerry’s father, Pat Brown.
For all the fawning press he has received as a champion of the common man, Jerry Brown is a scion of the ruling class. The “born-again tax cutter” now has made California the highest-tax state in the nation. The governor who tried to launch a California-based space program now champions a $68 billion bullet train that may never run on time. Moonbeam Grounded would have been a more appropriate title.