Dan Walters

Dan Walters: Brown dons rose-tinted glasses for his look backward

Dan Walters
Dan Walters

Those entering old age – psychologically, not necessarily chronologically – often embrace rose-tinted nostalgia, a yearning for times past when, they believe, life was better.

Jerry Brown, at 76 California’s oldest-ever governor and seeking a fourth term, revealed that tendency in an interview with Bloomberg News as he recounted his efforts to establish a military-oriented charter school as mayor of Oakland.

“I wanted discipline,” he told reporter Michael Marois. “I wanted the Army in the classroom, uniforms, marching, yes sir. I wanted to re-create the Catholic school of the 1950s. When I went to school at St. Ignatius High School, Eisenhower was president and Pius XII was the pope and we had a Republican, Elmer Robinson, as the mayor of San Francisco. This was a world that worked and it worked well.”

Say what?

It may have worked well for the pampered son of a prominent political family whose father, Pat Brown, was attorney general and soon to become governor.

But it didn’t work well for black Americans suffering the indignities and violence of segregation in the American South, for their cousins under apartheid in South Africa, for the hundreds of millions under repressive communist regimes in Asia and Eastern Europe, for low-caste Indians or for peons in Mexico.

It didn’t work well for gay and lesbian Americans who were jailed for their sexual orientations, for women in abusive marriages or who sought birth control or for migrant farmworkers in California.

How about Pope Pius XII, whom Brown sees as part of that better world? His Holy See included World War II, and while he certainly was not a Nazi sympathizer, scholars are still debating why he maintained a public silence as Adolf Hitler’s regime systematically murdered 6 million Jews.

According to one historic account, in 1941, just prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor, a high-ranking American diplomat assigned to the Vatican, Harold Tittman, asked Pope Pius XII to condemn the slaughter of Jews, but was told that the church wanted to remain neutral due to the pope’s concern about the effect on Catholics were he to intercede.

Brown has a valid point about Dwight Eisenhower’s presidency, which was widely dismissed by Brown’s fellow Democrats at the time but has come to be respected by historians.

Ironically, however, one of Eisenhower’s most lasting achievements was building freeways that Brown, as governor, has neglected and even recently disparaged in promoting his pet bullet train project.

He also has a point about Elmer Robinson’s mayoralty of San Francisco, which by all accounts was progressive and concentrated on improving basic municipal services and facilities, including the San Francisco International Airport.

Isn’t it odd, however, that the two politicians Democrat Brown singles out in his rosy soliloquy were Republicans?