You've heard of Rose Kennedy, pencil-thin and black-haired at 89, slightly quavery aristocratic voice, often described as "matriarch." You've heard of Lillian Carter, 81 and white-haired, southern accent, sometimes called "outspoken."
Now meet Bernice Brown, 71 and proud of it, as professional a campaigner as any of them, making her 1979 debut on the campaign trail. "Since Rose Kennedy is compaigning for Teddy and Lillian Carter is campaigning for Jimmy I think Jerry's mom ought to campaign for Jerry," she said firmly.
If the Brown campaign managers have any smarts they will work Bernice into the ground. She is plainspoken without being rude, easy to talk to, laughs a lot, knows her answers and loves to say nice things about her son.
"Have you heard him speak?" she asked. "He's so impressive. There's kind of a missionary quality about him. A friend of ours heard him speak once in San Francisco and actually had tears in his eyes."
She hasn't campaigned since Jerry's last campaign for governor, last year. "It's like playing the piano, you get a little rusty," she said. But she already knows a few basic tricks of the trade, such as making sure to bring two outfits -- "as soon as you don't that'll be the day someone spills coffee all over you on the plane" -- and how to shake hands to protect her arthritic finger.
"Some of these knuckle-crushers can have me writhing on the floor in pain."
Yesterday, she and Jerry's father, former California governor Edmund G. Brown Sr., had a breakfast with some Brown supporters, then she went off to be interviewed and he went to Baltimore to talk to some other supporters. She was to fly to New Hampshire last night for a day of interviews and teas, and back to Washington for a Gridiron candidates' dinner Saturday."He raises money and she takes care of the touchy-feely," explained one Brown worker.
Her role in the low-budget Brown campaign is still uncertain. First mothers are, when as professional as the current crop, useful emissaries. They can travel around being charming and gracious, and humanize their candidate sons without getting attacked. Who could cricize a mother for supporting her son?
"People ask me what Jerry got from me," said Bernice Brown, who is about to celebrate her 49th wedding anniversary. "Fiscal frugality is what he got from me. I was brought up to believe you never wasted anything. I still clip coupons, though my arthritis makes it hard. I hate myself for doing it but I really resent it if I feel I'm being cheated, don't you?" f
Not only does she clip coupons, she saved a half-fare airline coupon that she used to fly to Washington. "That should appeal to Jerry," she says.
She is also very neat and meticulous, the sort of person who weeds her garden after the gardener. "My husbands the exact opposite; I don't know how we've stayed married for so long."
It certainly couldn't have been easy. Pat Brown started running for public office when their children were still young. "It wasn't so bad when he was running in San Francisco, she said. "At least he got home every night. But when he ran for attorney general (in 1946) he was all over the state. I was at home with four kids and I felt it put too much of a problem on me. When they're babies you can call the pediatrician, but when they're teenagers you have to make decisions, and I didn't like having to make them alone."
Of course, she takes care to add, her husband built the Democratic Party in California; before him the state had been dominated by Republicans for years and years.
She doesn't think her son's unmarried status is a disadvantage. "People think if they see a picture of a man smiling, with his wife and kids around him, that somehow you have more confidence in him. But it's both an asset and a liability. Jerry devotes all his time to his work."
Would she be her son's hostess if he were elected president? "Hmm, I don't know, I'll ask him," she said. "He has three sisters, you know."
Jerry Brown, she said, "does things differently." He is, according to his mother, "the candidate of the '80s, not the '60s and '70s, like Kennedy and Carter.
"He's always ahead of his time. When he first talked about alternate sources of energy, they laughed at him. Now everyone's talking about windmills and solar energy."
The main problem for the Brown campaign, of course, is that despite whatever genetic frugality it may possess, it does not possess much cash. "If he can get matching funds, he'll have a chance," Bernice Brown said. "I think he's in the same position now that Jimmy Carter was in the December before the last election."
She recalls one tea party while campaigning for her husband in 1958 in Pasadena. A woman wearing a name tag ("that was in the days when I could still read name tags,") covered it up and said if Bernice Brown couldn't remember her name from having been introduced four years previously, the woman would not vote for Brown.
"I guess most political wives would have said something nice like 'your face is familiar.' But I thought that was so unbelievably rude of her that I said, 'Well, I guess that's one vote we've lost,' and turned away. I mean, don't you think she did one of the rudest, dumbest things you ever heard of?"
She has 10 grandchildren -- "I'm so glad you asked" -- and loves to garden and play golf, a game at which she always beat her husband.
"Pat has horrible form," she said. "He doesn't pivot. He says, 'I pivoted, I pivoted,' but he doesn't, he just bends his knees a little. He'll never be a good golfer."
She is not at all uncomfortable with her son's support of gay rights, expressed here at a fund-raiser for the cause this week. "I think his position is that people should not be discriminated against; he's for inclusion, not exclusion. I think that's true. . . ."
Meanwhile, a photographer trying to take her picture is told that there is one thing she hates, and that's having her picture taken with her mouth open. She said that during the 1962 campaign for governor of California, Brown versus Nixon, a picture of both candidates and their wives taken while they were talking made her look as if she had been sticking her tongue out at Nixon.
"That picture ran everywhere and it was terribly embarrasing," she said, giving the slit in her skirt a firm yank shut. Running for first mother is not a game for amateurs.