‘Man of Tomorrow’ chronicles life of Jerry Brown, California’s longest-serving governor

When Jerry Brown took office for his second go-around as California’s governor, he inherited a $27 billion budget deficit. When he left office eight years later, that was erased, and the state was in one of the longest economic recoveries in modern history. 

But famously-frugal Brown warned when he unveiled his final budget proposal: “As Isaac Newton once observed, what goes up must come down. This is a time to save for our future, not to make pricey promises we can’t keep. I said it before and I’ll say it again — let’s not blow it now.”

Brown left California with more than $13 billion in its rainy day fund. His  legacy was about his fiscal conservatism and his tendency to quote philosophers and obscure Latin expressions in his State of the State addresses.

Journalist Jim Newton has written a comprehensive biography of California’s longest-serving governor. It’s called “Man of Tomorrow: The Relentless Life of Jerry Brown.” 

KCRW: Most of that rainy day fund is gone, or about to be gone. What has Jerry Brown made of the current situation? 

Jim Newton: “I think he is, like everyone, startled by how quickly the economy and the country have unraveled. He's angry at Donald Trump for having failed to act on some early warning signs. He hasn't said this, but I suspect he takes some satisfaction out of the fact that he left a surplus  (that granted, the state has chewed through pretty quick). When we talked about a rainy day, no one thought about it being quite this rainy. But at least it has helped temper some of what is going to be a really bad time ahead.” 

He was famously frugal. Where did he get that from?

“People used to say that it was a sign that he was a conservative, or had a sense of a conservative fiscal responsibility. The fact is he's just cheap. I think it goes back to his growing up. He spent time in the seminary, took vows of poverty. I think it's very much part of his makeup. His mom was a coupon cutter. He likes to save money. Meg Whitman, once during their campaign, accused him of being a tax and spend liberal. And rarely has a more false statement been made about him. If anything, he's a tax and save liberal. But he's not a spender, that's for sure.” 

He would fly coach, rarely carried money, and would often ask other people to pick up the tab. You say he grew up like that, although his father, former California Governor Pat Brown, wasn't like that.

“People often say that Jerry resembles his mother more than his father. In some respects, that's true physically, he looks more like his mom. He's bookish in the way that his mom was, and he's frugal in the way that his mom was. 

There are other ways in which he’s more like his dad. He's obviously compared to his dad often because they were both governors. But his dad was more of an old-style, New Deal, tax-and-spend liberal. Jerry is not.”

Journalist Jim Newton’s comprehensive biography of California’s longest-serving governor is called “Man of Tomorrow: The Relentless Life of Jerry Brown.” Photo courtesy of Little, Brown and Company.

Pat Brown was known for remaking California. He created the famous California higher education system. How did Jerry see his father, and how did he try to carve out a different path from him as governor?

“I think his feelings toward his father have changed a lot over the years. … In one sense, he very much honored, respected, and appreciated his father. Followed in his footsteps obviously into politics, and became governor. I think in the early terms, because he was so young, because his father was so well known and still alive, he balked at the idea that he was considered just there because of his father. …  I think that led to … an arm's length relationship between them. 

Jerry really did not want to be seen as just Pat's son. That has diminished some over time. … He's served much longer than his father. … He has his own set of accomplishments and achievements that are really independent of his father. Whatever resentments or difficulties there were in the early governorship — are long past them now.”

It wasn't always clear that he would follow in his father's footsteps. He went to Jesuit school and wanted to go into the priesthood. How did he decide to shun the sacred for the secular?

“Initially, I think, in an act of some rebellion, [he] moved in what he viewed at the time as the exact opposite direction of politics. If politics was ephemeral and in the moment, faith in God, and the pursuit of the priesthood was something much larger, much deeper. 

… Even while he was at the novitiate, he was in close touch with his father. There’s a great letter that he wrote [to] his father, urging his father not to run for governor, but to run for the Senate instead. It was full of political advice, not taken notably by his father. 

He was never completely removed from the world of politics or the world at large, even in the seminary. But at some point … the seminary wore him out. He became interested in returning to a more secular political world, and did. ... That experience of having aspired to the priesthood, and studied with the Jesuits, that’s informed his decision making the rest of his life. But that was a dramatic turn in the future that he saw for himself.” 

How did he use Jesuit thinking and what he learned in the seminary in politics? 

“I think a continual search for deeper meaning, an unwillingness to accept conventional wisdom, a real skepticism, a desire to probe questions. … In his first and second terms, people would describe waiting for hours and hours for a meeting. Some people describe bringing a sleeping bag to wait in the hall because it would take so long to get in to see him. Because he would just grind questions down and down and down. 

… That desire to get to the bottom of things — very much part of Jesuit tradition — could be distracting in terms of decision making as a political figure. 

But it also connects him to a search for higher truths. His lifelong belief in environmental protection, and his third and fourth term commitments to addressing climate change have a lot to do with a sense of humility, a sense of humanity as part of a larger construct. … His Zen Buddhism also contributes to that sensibility. 

On a very tactical level, he granted more clemency petitions, which is to say pardons and commutations, than every governor between his father and himself combined. That is very much a tradition of searching for mercy, and thinking about the human capacity for error and redemption. So in all those ways, I think his Jesuit training impressed itself on his governorships.”

He is a man of contradictions. As you note, he is very interested in protecting the environment. He negotiated treaties with China, and led the nation in a lot of environmental rules and regulations. On the other hand, he opened California to more drilling and fracking. How did he square that? 

“He is a person of contradictions. He is a person who is both in search of higher spiritual meaning in life, and also very grounded in the art of the possible, and in politics. And sometimes disappointing people in either camp. 

One of his longtime associates, Nathan Gardels, told me that from his perspective, that Jerry Brown, part of him has always wanted to be president of the United States, and part of him has always wanted to be a monk. In Gardels’ view, that's why being mayor of Oakland was such a nice fit for Brown. Because that's, in some ways, like being a parish priest, in terms of that metaphor. 

… He accepted money, sometimes from oil interests. He was accepting of fracking in California. [He] did not oppose it when he could have, and yet was more aggressive than any elected official in the country in pursuing ways to address climate change in terms of development of alternative energies, electric cars, and whatnot.

So there is some contradiction there. I think the only way to really square it, for him anyway, is to say it's about aspiring to greater things within the limits of politics. Sometimes he draws those limits in ways differently than I would or that others might. But that's the tension. I think that's at work there.” 

In the 70s, he famously hung out in the Laurel Canyon music scene, and was seen as kind of an oddball. When was he able to shed the moniker “Governor Moonbeam,” which his detractors called him for many years? Was it during his second term as governor?

“I think few people think of him that way. Although every time I talk about him, people bring it up. So he hasn't shed it entirely. But it does speak to a kind of aura … around Brown at the period. I think it also is part of the way California was seen by much of the rest of the country in the late 70s and 80s. California seemed sort of fringe and out there and spacey, a kind of place where strange things happened. 

Brown to many people seemed a part of that. Some of it was based on things like advocacy of solar energy, and smart buildings, and electrified vehicles. [They] seemed outlandish at the time, [but] now seems prescient. 

By the time Brown returned to the governorship in 2011, most people who were voting for governor didn't even know him from the 1970s. In that sense, I think it's really a new Brown. By the time Brown returns to the governorship, he's been mayor of Oakland. He'd been Attorney General. He was married. He’s much older, 28 years older. So in all those respects ... I think he's a very different and … fully realized person and political figure than he was in the 70s and 80s.”

What was it like having lots of one-on-one time with Jerry Brown? Did he let down his guard? Did he show a different side of himself to you?

“I think so. Certainly it could be challenging. A lot of arguments. Jerry Brown can and likes to argue about almost anything. I once had a long argument with him about whether it was appropriate for me to ask him, ‘How are you doing?’ 

I had an advantage here that I didn't have as a reporter. In the times that I would talk to him in that capacity … which is that if you have a limited amount of time with him, and you have a specific question that you need answered, he can be a very frustrating interview. He will talk about whatever he is interested in talking about. If that happens to be the thing that you're interested in talking about, then you got lucky. 

Now what I had is the luxury of being able to interview him … 19 or 20 times over the course of four or five years, and sometimes talking for four or five hours. If I didn't get my question answered in the first hour or two, that wasn't a problem for me. 

With those parameters, he's fascinating to talk to, to argue with, to discuss literature or philosophy with. I can't tell you the number of things I had to read to sort of keep up with him.

… But he can be cranky. We got into an argument one time about Martin Buber, where at one point he said, ‘Have you read Buber?’ I said, ‘Why? A little bit, but not really.’ And he goes, ‘Where did you go to school?’ I said, ‘I went to public school in California when you were the governor, so maybe it's your fault that I didn’t read Buber.’ ... He liked arguing about that. 

… It's just sort of testing ideas. I think that people who really get bent out of shape around him are people who take that personally, or think that he's being insulting. I took it more as just the enjoyment of disagreement. ... I think it's part of talking to him and getting to know him.”

—Written by Erin Senne and Amy Ta, produced by Sarah Sweeney

Two Californias

          The San Francisco of Jerry Brown’s childhood was normal. Sort of. Few cities have defined themselves more enthusiastically around change—migration, disaster, boom and bust, sleaze and glamour—and the war years were typical in a city where tumult was the norm. On the day of Edmund G. Brown Jr.’s birth, April 7, 1938, the local papers carried news of strikers commandeering a sugar plant, Hitler gaining influence in Ger- many and strengthening his hold on Austria, and a local nurse stabbing a woman—a crime blamed on the nurse’s use of “mad weed.”
          Brown was born in a city that had been turned into a battlefield in a country on the cusp of war. In 1934, a general strike, the largest in Ameri- can history, brought labor and law enforcement into fierce San Francisco combat after a confrontation that left two dead and scores wounded. The state called in troops to force open docks; labor mounted barricades and tossed bombs to shut them down. Struggling to recover and with an eye toward the grand, city leaders set out to hold an international exposition and plunged into the task of building a man-made island in the middle of San Francisco Bay. Its name: Treasure Island. The Golden Gate International Exposition opened on that whimsical piece of landfill in February of 1939, but sputtered, closed, then reopened in 1940, when exhibits such as Sally Rand’s Nude Ranch, featuring half-naked women playing sports, did the trick.
It was a city of grand gestures and discreet enclaves. Lofty homes in Pacific Heights peered down through the fog into the military base at the Presidio—and the Golden Gate beyond. The Tenderloin teemed with vagrants, their desperation leaking into the nearby Financial District, still reeling from the collapse of the stock market and its slow recovery. City Lights bookstore attracted the early glimmerings of the beatniks, soon to take root in North Beach beneath the city’s tribute to its fire- fighters, Coit Tower. Newly constructed bridges linked San Francisco to Marin County (via the Golden Gate Bridge) and to Oakland (via the Bay Bridge). As the 1940s opened, the Bay Area was bustling and busy, worried about war but removed from the troubles of Europe and Asia.
          That changed on December 7, 1941. Bombs fell on Hawaii, and Americans recoiled at the duplicity of Japan’s surprise attack. Frank- lin Delano Roosevelt declared war against Japan the following day. Germany followed by declaring war on the United States. The America First Committee, the leading isolationist group of the period, folded its opposition and retreated into what would prove a protracted state of remission. States of emergency were declared in most American cities. Schools closed along the West Coast. Military recruiting limits were lifted, and recruitment centers stayed open twenty-four hours a day to keep pace with enlistments. The Customs Service blocked departures of all vessels attempting to leave the United States. Authorities called for the distribution of one million gas masks, then asked for more.
Racial tensions moved up the dial. “Jap town is under strict surveillance,” San Francisco police announced.5 In Washington, the Justice Department announced that it had “seized” 2,303 “enemy aliens,” including 1,291 Japanese. In Tokyo, Japan’s Home Ministry announced that it had taken 1,270 American and British nationals into custody. In defiance of those actions, some sounded a call for unity. “We are fighting,” the Oakland Tribune declared in a front-page editorial. “We must now put to one side all of the petty differences among us. We must mobilize every last resource.” Pleas for unit, and common sense would soon become vanishingly rare.
As America plunged into war—two wars, really, on opposite sides of the planet—San Francisco became the operations center of the Pacific theater and, along with San Diego, emerged as one of two major disembarkation points for sailors, soldiers, marines, and airmen headed into combat against Japan. The Bay Area was anchored by the army’s Presidio but also included major air corps installations in Marin County and San Francisco. Fort Mason bordered the Presidio, and the East Bay included major facilities in Oakland and to the north, where Mare Island trained sailors and pumped out vessels. One million soldiers were processed through Camp Stoneman, a little-known base northeast of San Francisco, where as many as thirty thousand men lived at any given time.
The navy ruled Southern California, though it had a major presence in the north as well. Treasure Island, in fact, served as the navy’s western command. To the south, the hastily built Camp Pendleton, with its main entrance at Oceanside, straddled an enormous stretch of the Pacific coast between Orange and San Diego Counties. A few miles north, Marine Corps Air Station El Toro shuttled troops and equipment, while to the south, the San Diego harbor hummed with America’s growing fleet of carriers, battleships, destroyers and submarines.
California would never be known for its calm, and war only exacerbated the state’s tendency to flail and blame. More than 110,000 Japanese and Japanese American men and women lived along the West Coast of the United States, and though two-thirds were American citizens—many having never even seen Japan—their loyalty came into question. No less a champion of fairness than California attorney general Earl Warren surveyed Japanese landholdings and imagined suspicious patterns— farms near rail yards and airports and other sensitive installations. Maps prepared by Warren’s office became some of the most convincing, and absurdist, evidence of sinister intent. “Such a distribution of the Japanese population appears to manifest something more than a coinci- dence,” Warren testified before the US House of Representatives’ Tolan Committee on February 21, 1942.  Never mind that Japanese people owned those parcels because they were cheap and because the owners were prevented by racial discrimination from acquiring more desirable property: in the dim light of fear, Warren saw subversion. It was not his best moment.