An extensive interview with Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr. leaves a visitor with two overwhelming impressions.
The first is that this youthful governor of a state habitually first in America with fresh ideas, from the brilliant to the zany, is more creative in his thinking - often far ahead of his times - than any other public official in the nation today.
But like California itself, Brown doesn't place much value on orderly, consistent thinking. Which leads to a second impression: Brown is a pragmatic politician. He may have made his mark talking about an era of limits, but now he's bending to the political winds, stressing a better business climate as Californians worry increasingly about their economic future.
Brown does have an uncanny ability to identify people's concerns before they can fully express them themselves. He understands, for instance, the mounting resentment against specialists - as he puts it, the lawyers, doctors, highway engineers and educators who are making "many of the important human decisions that 100 years ago were made in the family or neighborhood." Big, dictatorial governments and extensive technologies, he says, are part of that problem.
Brown would promote more modest, human-scale approaches. In fact he has set up the first state government office in America, an Office of Appropriate Technology, to explore and test such concepts as environmental and climatically designed buildings, including wind power and solar heating, bioconversion (using wastes to produce energy), and home organic farming to increase people's self-sufficiency.
Jerry Brown is also without peer in portraying Americans' profoundly contradictory feelings as they protest big government and high taxes, yet load more and more social responsibilities onto government as they enjoy their lives of unfettered mobility and anonymity.
Immediate California problems are now bringing the purely expedient side of Brown to the fore. In the face of the state's severe drought, for instance, he has dropped his opposition to big dams and come out strongly for water development. That includes - providing it can be proven safe from earthquake dangers - the controversial Auburn Dam that President Carter first sought to kill because it would inundate 10,000 acres of wildlife habitat and eliminate 43 miles of freeflowing river.
When Brown's transportation secretary, Adriana Gianturco, came out for stiff curbs on auto use, including restricted freeway lanes for buses and carpooling commuters, Brown failed to back her up.
Critics such as Paul Priolo, the state assembly Republican leader, say such conservative moves are designed to bolster Brown's position for re-election next year. Priolo points out that "Jerry Brown grew up in the household of Pat Brown," his father and the former governor, "and he's a political animal - he acts like an amateur, but he's a total political pro."
But Brown isn't bothered by inconsistencies. In one moment, he criticizes American industry for being "very dependent on obsolescence, depleting non-renewable resources, polluting the air and inflicting health hazards on human beings." In the next, he defends industry for producing "tremendous prosperity, mobility and affluence," and attacks some environmentalists for advocating job-destroying measures from their "glades of relative amenity" such as Beverly Hills and Marin County.
Brown hasn't bent totally to expediency. He continues to back expansion of the redwoods park area, for instance, despite heavy unemployment in northern California's forestry industry. He recently told building units that "to think that the era of unending highway construction will never stop is unrealistic."
Brown's most refreshing quality is that he doesn't claim to have all the answers. He seems to view himself as a prophet and teacher "to clarify ideas, separate out the wheat from the chaff and create a climate that leads people in the right path."
After generating debate, Brown has started a number of small-bore experiments that bear watching:
Appointment of unprecedented numbers of women, minorities and consumer advocates to California's regulatory commissions. The idea, he claims, is to challenge the narrow guild perceptions of regulatory boards that "often mask privilege under the name of professionalism." Citizen control, he hopes, will assure that the "occupations and professions serve the people, not just themselves."
The Office of Appropriate Technology to demonstrate it's possible to have "more individualism, more self-independence, being able to survive in smaller communities, being less dependent on the central switch." Continuing his fight with specialists, Brown would like to discover "ways to re-equip human beings with the tools and skills by which they can enjoy the exercise of their own powers," whether it be in childbirth (he's for reintroduction of the midwife system), the care and skill and joy of work that goes into true craftsmanship or developing self-sufficient environmental systems for small communities.
Jerry Brown is for all that - but only on a voluntary basis. During my interview, he also defended the virtues of spread suburban housing and long-distance commuting, for those who want it. (Suburbanites are, after all, a major vote bloc.)
The California Conservation Corps, which will eventually have 18 centers open to young Californians to work on environmental projects. Why a CCC? "Some schools are just programs for the teachers or administrators," Brown says. That system, he argues, doesn't "give kids the values and skills by which they can enter society in a way that we think is decent and good."
Volunteers in state mental hospitals and detoxification centers for alcoholics. Every kind of social service today, from caring for grandparents to mental health, "is being dumped into the public sector," Brown says. People want mobility, freedom from personal responsibility, anonymity. Volunteers, he hopes, can help curb spiraling social-service costs and give citizens a feeling of self-esteem and community service.
Brown admits he doesn't know if his seeds of small economies, and human and community values will bloom or not. "I throw out a lot of thoughts and ideas, and some of them don't go anywhere, and some of them gather their own momentum."
The irony is that this prophet of the unconventional seems willing to be guided finally by what's politically palatable.