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THE LAST HURRAH OF JERRY BROWN

By       Message R.H. Smith     Permalink
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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Smith is an historian and public policy consultant.


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