Dan Walters: New biography of Jerry Brown is but a primer

04/01/2013 12:00 AM

04/01/2013 6:40 AM

During Jerry Brown's first stint as governor three-plus decades ago, a number of books were written about him – some laudatory, some critical and some analytical.

Brown has been back in the governorship for two years and that brief second act has already spawned one new book.

Chuck McFadden, a retired wire service reporter who worked in Sacramento, wrote "Trailblazer" for the University of California Press and the relatively slender volume takes a terse, journalistic approach that is both a plus and a minus.

Someone who is unfamiliar with Brown's first governorship – that's just about anyone under the age of 50 – has a primer on his long and unusual political career that is neither critical nor admiring. But Brown is a mass of contradictions who wallows in his lack of consistency, as McFadden acknowledges but cannot explain.

He ran for the White House in 1976, scarcely a year into his first term as governor, and won the Maryland primary with help from the state's notoriously corrupt political machine headed by Gov. Marvin Mandel. A few months later, another corrupt politician, Louisiana Gov. Edwin Edwards, delivered a Brown nominating speech.

Why would a politician who ran for governor as a post-Watergate political reformer align himself with such sleaze?

Two years later, Brown denounced Proposition 13's property tax cut as "a rip-off (and) a legal morass" before its passage, but quickly embraced it afterward, describing himself as a "born-again tax cutter."

Brown then quickly signed a state tax cut while raising spending, spawning an operating deficit that plagued the state for decades – but ran for president a second time as a balanced-budget advocate. And finally, in his second stint as governor, he raised taxes to close that deficit.

"Brown is a man capable of attending a Zen retreat and on the return trip home plotting a campaign that involves the brutal ending of another politician's hopes and dreams," McFadden writes, adding that Brown "has seemed undisturbed by these seemingly contradictory themes running through his life and in fact has given every appearance of enjoying their interplay."

It's that confounding aspect, rather than Brown's superficial career milestones, that demands more detail and in-depth analysis, especially since his shiftiness was a major reason why voters rejected a 1982 bid for the U.S. Senate that could have propelled him into serious presidential contention.

Does it merely reflect a superior intellect, as Brown himself has implied, citing Ralph Waldo Emerson's aphorism that "a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds," or does it reveal a lack of principle – a cynical politician's way of ducking accountability?

Perhaps his definitive biography requires a psychologist, not a journalist.

Call The Bee's Dan Walters, (916) 321-1195. Back columns, www.sacbee.com/walters. Follow him on Twitter @WaltersBee.

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