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.”
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