Jerry Brown's oratorical train chugs from Genesis to Yeats

01/25/2013 12:00 AM

02/12/2013 6:15 AM

Gov. Jerry Brown had hardly left the rostrum when Kevin Eckery, a Republican consultant analyzing Brown's State of the State address for KCRA, told television viewers, "I think half the Legislature is looking up the references on Google."

Among Brown's mentions were William Butler Yeats, Michel de Montaigne and King Charles III of Spain. There were lessons to be learned from the book of Genesis, Oliver Wendell Holmes and, in a moment of extemporaneity, "The Little Engine That Could."

That engine overcame adversity, the third-term governor said.

So, too, did California's early explorers – though they were "forced to eat the flesh of emaciated pack mules."

"I thought it was a fantastic speech, delivered in the governor's inimitable style," Dave Jones, the state insurance commissioner, said afterward on the Assembly floor.

He was chuckling, and he provided an accounting.

"It managed to quote three philosophers and a children's story – the 'Little Train That Could' – and the Bible, too," Jones said. "So you couldn't have a better speech."

The speech was more laden with historical and literary references than Brown offered in his last two State of the State addresses. But hardly was it uncharacteristic for Brown.

The former seminarian is both a storyteller and a connoisseur of history and literature. The biblical account of Joseph and the Pharaoh's dream of seven cows – a cautionary lesson about saving resources in abundant years for times of famine – was one Brown has retold before.

"The people have given us seven years of extra taxes," Brown said, referring to passage of his November ballot initiative to raise taxes. "Let us follow the wisdom of Joseph, pay down our debts and store up reserves against the leaner times that will surely follow."

Brown went on to urge lawmakers to accept French writer Michel de Montaigne's view that fewer laws are better than more, and that the "the most desirable laws are those that are the rarest, simplest and most general."

He quoted Yeats, and he employed President Franklin Roosevelt's assessment of a generation's "rendezvous with destiny," suggesting California is similarly situated.

Brown's historical references, political analyst Barbara O'Connor said, were meant to lend credibility to that claim.

"The mantra of the speech is that the California Dream is again doable," she said. "Historic references and current study references document it."

O'Connor called the speech "vintage Brown."

Brown prepared it that way. He writes his own speeches, and he rarely strayed far from his text.

Near the end, however, he did stray, in a defense of California's $68 billion high-speed rail project.

"We all know the story of the Little Engine That Could," Brown said.

"I think I can, I think I can, I think I can," he said in what might be a little engine's voice. "And over the mountain the little engine went. We're going to get over that mountain."

The Legislature – and presumably any 5-year-old watching – broke out in applause.

For everyone else, it was off to their history books and their Bibles. Or Google.

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