Some forty years ago, the late Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., my friend and mentor, asked me what I thought of Jerry Brown, who had just burst upon the national political scene with his first election as Governor of California at age 36.
I was a bit miffed, I said, that Brown had risen meteorically by trading on the name recognition of his father, former Governor Pat Brown. Schlesinger remarked, with a self-effacing chuckle, "I've done that myself", referring to his father and namesake, who had been Chairman of the History Department at Harvard. Today, of course, Arthur's classic books on Andrew Jackson and the brothers Kennedy are still widely-read and admired, while Schlesinger Senior's works are nearly forgotten.
Pat Brown too has faded into history, remembered, if at all, for indecision (to which his son reportedly contributed) in the Caryl Chessman execution and for humorous malapropism ("This is the greatest disaster since my election.") Only half-century political veterans like my college buddy, California State Treasurer Bill Lockyer, remember the first Brown era well enough to remark nostalgically, "He was the last Governor who wanted to do great things."
Maybe that's being unfair to Jerry Brown, whose previous administrations in the 1970s, earned him the sobriquet, Governor Moonbeam. He too wanted to do some great things - who can forget his proposal, no longer far-fetched in retrospect, for sending a Sacramento Sputnik into space? The problem was that his bright ideas often appeared to be driven by innovation for its own sake, without any clear underlying philosophical foundation.
Yesterday, Jerry Brown was elected Governor for the third - and probably the last - time. By the end of his term (may he live long and prosper) he will be 76 years old and it's unlikely that he will run for re-election. Which gives him a fabulous opportunity - the prospect of four years in office without having to look over his shoulder at pollsters with fingers on the pulse of a fickle electorate.
So what will mark the last hurrah of Jerry Brown? He might take a competence-challenged Legislature in hand, reform the budgetary process, administer first aid to a hobbling state economy. All that needs doing. But what California really requires in coming years is something more intangible. It needs another Pat Brown to convince Californians and the rest of the world that the Dream of the Forty-Niners - like the more recent dream realized by the San Francisco Giants - is not dead. Arnold Schwarzenegger tried to do for our state what his hero, Ronald Reagan, once did for post-Carter America, to restore confidence, optimism, pride. He failed.
Pat Brown succeeded, so long ago, because the times were very different, but also because he was a boisterous, avuncular booster who captured the upbeat popular mood of the New Frontier era.
Times have changed and the cerebral Jerry is hardly a political version of the Music Man. Still, he has an energetic, irreverent style of his own which commands attention. And he is his father's son, a master politician. In his own way, he could pull it off. But he will need to find a path not taken, nor even sought, forty years ago.
For inspiration, Brown might consider some imaginative ideas once floated by his State "banker", Bill Lockyer. During Lockyer's own brief flirtation with gubernatorial glory, he launched a "Project California" to examine the state's problems from a unique Future Shock perspective. Having spent his entire adult life in public service, Lockyer was convinced that policy-making in Sacramento was not only too narrowly partisan, but also too short-sighted. He proposed planning for explosive demographic, social, economic and technological change in California by looking decades down the road. This was all just academically interesting, except for the revolutionary premise underlying and justifying this long view:
California, Lockyer suggested, must be thought of as a nation unto itself. This would lead to a whole new way of envisioning our present and future. The supporting rhetoric seemed a little stale - world's eighth largest economy, America's harbinger of social and technological change, blah, blah. As Lockyer's Berkeley roommate, the late great Democratic strategist Bill Cavala used to say, "You've heard it before, sports fans." Media cynics thought so too. The idea attracted no attention. But then it was never delivered from a gubernatorial pulpit.
Jerry Brown could dust off the Lockyer ball and run with it. In his campaign against Republican Meg Whitman, Brown has already laid a foundation by talking airily about creating a half million "green jobs". Green sloganeering is very "in" these days, and as Lockyer's predecessor as State Treasurer, Phil Angelides, once quipped, environmental business projects reminded him of high school sex in his youth, "Everybody's talking about it, but nobody's doing it."
If Governor Brown continues to talk about Green jobs en masse, and even if he floats, in isolation, some practical plan for making them reality, he still risks being shrugged off as a older, kinder, balder version of the Outer Space fantasist.
Unless - unless he takes a page from his father's political script and envelops all his policy proposals in the context of a larger vision, of a new California Dream.
The time is ripe. All of America is again on downers, pessimistic, troubled. As Ms. Whitman's campaign ads intoned, ad nauseum, "These are scary times". We are frightened by the specter of Chinese and Indian economic and technological competition. It took an Al Gore to alert the world to the looming danger of global warming, but it was European industry that first saw the opportunity to profit by filling a novel demand, and the Chinese are rapidly following suit.
The Obama Administration has allocated a Green billion here and there, and we see the desultory results as wind farms start to spring up in the Los Angeles desert (with turbines made in Denmark). But Administration officials have themselves pointed out that America spends more money on potato chips than on Green research and development. No environmental Manhattan Project is in the works in Tea Party-haunted Washington.
Look to the West! For all its political and economic travails, California remains an entrepreneurial powerhouse. Conditions are ripe for the state to become a global center of Green innovation. Not only can we produce on demand a new generation of Hewletts, Packards, Ellisons, Brins and Zuckerbergs. But we also have the supporting will and the enabling money. Cruise down Sand Hill Road and you will find financial wizards champing at the bit to turn big Green ideas into profitable enterprise.