At dinner with Jerry Brown the other night I was reminded that three years ago I called him the most interesting political figure in the country. For once I don't have to eat my words.
The California governor remains - for me, anyhow - the most interesting politician in the country. The more so because, whether or not he runs against the President in the primaries, Brown almost unconsciously incarnates the leader of serious opposition to Jimmy Carter.
The dinner took place at Lucy's Cafe el Adobe, a good Mexican restaurant that - food-wise, as they say out here - was several cuts above the macrobiotic restaurant where I last broke bread with Brown. The governor was recognized by everybody, including some visitors from Connecticut and, in contrast with the last time, seemed at ease with his fame and his fans.
I asked him first about a poll taken by Mervyn Field that showed Brown, three years after being elected, still had about the same high, positive rating - roughly 80 per cent approval - that he had two years ago. But 51 per cent of those questioned agreed that "he hasn't really accomplished anything important." I asked Brown to explain the combination of high support with the feeling he handn't done anything.
"That's what people want," he replied. "They like to be left alone. They don't want some big, fascist bureaucratic state pushing them around." I asked if he weren't vulnerable to an opposition candidate who took the line that Brown was a nice guy, deep into Zen and clapping with one hand, but that California needed something better - a governor who did things and solved problems. Brown then reeled off a whole list of things accomplished by his administration, ranging from mandatory sentencing for drug offenses to prevention of redlining in mortgages.
Brown said he was de-emphasizing the record between now and the election for governor next year. I asked how come people didn't yet know about his accomplishments in office. The governor thought for a moment and came back with a reply that - though he didn't once mention the name - sounded as though he were teaching Politics 1 to Jimmy Carter.
"I don't strive to achieve everything myself," he said. "If I serve up a long list of programs, the legislature will knock them down. So I wait to see what they want, and then I try to help a little bit from time to time. I let them take the credit. Signing the bill is enough for me. That's one of the hardest lessons in politics, but I think I've learned it."
We moved on to a hot, current issue in California - the case of Mario Obledo, a Chicano named by Brown as health and welfare commissioner, who has been charged with consorting with criminals. Brown indicated that nothing has been proved against Obledo, but that if anything were, Obledo would be out. The governor made it seem that the issue was up to the law enforcement officials - that is to say, State Attorney General Evelle Younger, who is his most likely Republican opponent in the gubernatorial race, and Ed Davis, police chief of Los Angeles, his next most likely Republican opponent.
The question of the University of California came up, particularly a vote by Brown and all the regents he had appointed against the university plan for slightly raising admissions standards. Brown started off with his usual charge about the top-heavy, elitist bureaucracy at the university. I insisted that, whether elitist or not, the university was trying to signal the high schools to improve teaching of basic subjects.
Brown conceded the point, and said the decision was "a close call." Then he handed Carter lesson No. 2 in politics. He said: "I looked at the people who were for the university's proposals, and they were mainly people who had been against me. I looked at those who were against the university proposal, and they were mainly liberals, blacks and Chicanos. People who supported me. I lined up with my friends. I don't walk away from my base."