The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The prescient politics and policies of Jerry Brown

Jerry Brown in Sacramento in December 2018, as his fourth and last term as California’s governor was coming to an end. (Photo by Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

Jerry Brown is arguably the most prominent American politician who has not occupied the Oval Office in the past half-century. He is also one of the most colorful, compelling and consequential, as Jim Newton shows in “Man of Tomorrow,” his vivid and admiring biography of Brown.

First elected California governor in 1974, Brown was reelected in 1978 and then won two more terms in 2010 and 2014. In between, he served as mayor of Oakland (1999-2007) and attorney general of California (2007-2011), while mounting failed bids for the presidency (1976, 1980 and 1992) and the U.S. Senate (1982). Had Brown been a bit younger, it’s not hard to imagine that the fourth time might have been the charm in 2020, given the widespread acclaim with which he left office in 2019 and the striking, but no less combative, contrast he poses to the current occupant of the White House — from moral temperament to intellectual curiosity to fiscal responsibility to environmental stewardship.

That’s quite a distance to have traveled in the 40 years since Chicago Sun-Times columnist Mike Royko dubbed Brown “Governor Moonbeam.” Though Royko would later retract it, the sobriquet stuck. Newton’s biography, however, seeks to bury it — to move Governor Moonbeam from the flaky fringe to the “man of tomorrow” cutting edge.

Brown’s sprawling political life — some of which Newton covered as a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist for the Los Angeles Times
— provides ample evidence with which to make that case. In addition, Newton draws upon more than a dozen dialogues with Brown, who has a reputation as a tough interview. These sparring sessions, however, proved well worth it, providing rich firsthand perspective and churlish zingers (“Taxes are not popular. This is Politics 101!”) to punctuate the lively narrative.

Newton threads three major themes. First is Brown’s relationship with his father, Pat, a two-term California governor (1959-1967) before being unseated by Ronald Reagan. On first blush, that relationship could be characterized as Oedipal, a quest by the son to step out from the long shadow cast by the father. Not only was Pat a celebrated governor who built college campuses and water projects and promoted civil rights, but he also tapped his connections to find a benefactor to pay for Jerry’s Yale Law School education, secure his California Supreme Court clerkship, land his first law office job and acquire his first political position (in Eugene McCarthy’s 1968 campaign for president).

More salient, though, are the very different historical contexts in which father and son governed. “The times set the agenda,” Jerry once quipped. Underwritten by robust post-World War II economic growth, Pat’s gubernatorial terms marked a high-water moment for New Deal-style liberalism in California — the culmination of the New Deal era for politics nationally. By contrast, Jerry followed Reagan, not Pat. His election, according to 1960s New Left student leader Tom Hayden, signaled a “turn for the Democratic Party” in response to the “floundering of government” associated with Vietnam, Watergate and “New Deal fiscal and monetary policies” that were “no longer . . . able to prevent recession and inflation.”

This suggests Newton’s second theme: Jerry Brown’s brand of post-New Deal Democratic ideology. With his religiosity — part Catholic seminary, part Buddhist monastery — as his lodestar, Brown, according to Newton, sought to fuse “fiscal restraint” and “activist government.” Brown announced the arrival of what he called the “era of limits” in his first State of the State address. He traded the governor’s mansion for a modest apartment and the governor’s limousine for a Plymouth. This “devotion to frugality,” Newton observes, would “characterize the Brown years” and distinguish him from “most of his Democratic peers.”

It did not, however, render him a Democratic Reagan. Unlike Reagan, Brown’s fiscal conservatism was more religiously rooted than politically motivated, more existential than ideological, more a statement about human fallibility — and what that meant for how much government could accomplish, citizens could expect and the Earth could sustain — than about government incompetence. Unlike Reagan, too, Brown’s fiscal restraint did not preclude his pursuit of activist government. His priestly parsimony came with a social gospel. Not for nothing did one of Brown’s friends describe him as “torn between wanting to be a monk and wanting to be president.”

Newton’s third and final theme is the “far-flung and significant” policies, practices and positions that Brown presciently pursued. Though Brown’s fiscal frugality and post-New Deal years in office did not yield the kind of capital projects of his father’s New Deal liberalism, he was, among other things, an early and successful promoter of campaign finance reform; a champion of extending collective-bargaining rights to agricultural workers and state employees; an advocate of diversifying the state’s workforce and judiciary; a supporter of same-sex marriage; a booster for Silicon Valley and the consumer technology revolution it launched in the 1970s; a sponsor of criminal justice reform; an opponent of nuclear proliferation; and, above all, as Newton puts it, the “nation’s foremost force in addressing air pollution and later climate change.”

When he entered his second act as governor in 2010, Brown confronted a $27 billion Great Recession deficit. In 2018, as he prepared to retire, he bequeathed a roughly $15 billion surplus. He cautioned, “What’s out there is darkness, uncertainty, decline and recession.” For all the prescience Newton attributes to him, Brown probably did not have a global-pandemic-triggered economic depression in mind. His admonition, however, bore an eerie resemblance to a warning issued in an obscure 1982 Brown administration report. “The most serious threat” for “California’s Technological Future,” as the report was titled, was “great wealth and luxury alongside great deprivation and poverty . . . the information-haves versus the information have-nots.”

This gloomy prediction anticipated California’s paradoxical present: It is the nation’s “richest and poorest” state, as current governor Gavin Newsom described it, even as it is the nation’s bluest. In his conclusion, Newton touches upon California’s “glaring inequality,” which has been made all the more so by the disparate impact of the coronavirus. He flags this inequality — along with the enduring legacy of the tax revolt triggered by Proposition 13 in 1978 — as among the leading “problems unsolved” by Brown.

One only wishes Newton had delved deeper into the matter. What might Brown, with his passion for “living in the inquiry,” have to say about the roots of this curious confluence of high-tech innovation and affluence, income disparity and Democratic Party dominance, all of which took hold during his political lifetime? How might Newton explain why the man of tomorrow — for all his foresight and despite the booming economy, budget surplus and Democratic supermajority he had at his disposal in his final years in office — did so little to redress today’s most pressing state and national problem?

The Relentless Life of Jerry Brown

By Jim Newton

Little, Brown. 433 pp. $30