Had Jerry Brown, after a 28-year interval, not been elected to a third and then a fourth term as governor, his legacy would be vastly different from the one he is now attempting to carve out for himself.
During his first two terms, he seemed more intent on upsetting the political apple cart than establishing a record of accomplishment. He worked at being controversial. He made frivolous appointments, one of the worst being his choice of an untested Rose Bird as chief justice of the state Supreme Court.
Only a year into his first term, as if on a whim, he jumped into the 1976 presidential race, and early into his second term, he tried again, both times being sent home with little or nothing to show for his efforts.
In those years, he had a decidedly complicated relationship with his father, ex-Gov. Edmund G. “Pat” Brown Sr. He was indifferent to his father at best, contemptuous at worst, and seemed to be oblivious to the fact that his famous name had been largely responsible for putting him in office in the first place.
Pat was proud of his son, at the time one of the youngest governors in California history; Jerry was embarrassed by his father, whose old-school political personality was at odds with Jerry’s effort to portray himself as the iconoclastic nonpolitician.
That’s why it is so interesting now to see the junior Brown suddenly embracing his father’s record and setting out to leave a legacy equal to if not greater than the senior Brown.
In his inaugural address last week, Jerry Brown said California faces similar problems today as it did in 1959, the year Pat Brown was inaugurated for the first of two terms. “That was 56 years ago, yet the issues my father raised at his inauguration bear eerie resemblance to those we will grapple with today,” he said. Water policy, air pollution, education, discrimination, prisons and transportation are all on his agenda, just as they were on his father’s.
Not only does he no longer avoid mentioning the senior Brown, he invokes his name with no little touch of pride.
In his book, “Jerry Brown, the Philosopher Prince,” author Robert Pack wrote in 1978 that Frank Mesple, Pat Brown’s former legislative secretary, told him that “a lot of Pat Brown’s old friends are very negative toward Jerry because he’s not his dad. He’s not the gregarious guy who says to a hundred people, ‘If it weren’t for you, I wouldn’t be governor. By God, I really appreciate it.’”
Mesple went on to say that Pat Brown had much more sympathy for other people. He hypothesized that if both men were to stumble upon a drunk lying in the gutter, “I think Jerry would step over him, and his dad would sit there and kind of commiserate with him.”
The late and respected Legislative Analyst Alan Post, who knew both Browns well, once said that Jerry Brown “has reacted against his upbringing. There’s no question about it. He is an intellectual, and a great deal of what one finds in the political world is not intellectually gratifying.”
But Jerry Brown’s youthful rebellion against established political practices and mores has now seemed to morph into a more accepting acknowledgment that intellect alone – and thinking you are the smartest person in the room – might not be the best way to govern.
Pat Brown was a man of big ideas and a bold vision that produced the State Water Project, growth of the state freeway network, a master plan for higher education, and an expansion of the University of California system, as well as the addition of new state college (now university) campuses.
Now Jerry Brown is emulating his father in proposing massive projects that also will endure long after he is gone.
He broke ground last week on a controversial high-speed rail project that he sees as an alternative to the state’s overcrowded freeways and growing population. He wants to build water-delivery tunnels through the Delta to transfer water to the San Joaquin Valley, another highly controversial effort.
At 76 years of age, and with another presidential campaign no longer an option for him, he also seems intent on leaving the state in better shape than he found it, fighting climate change and making more responsible appointments to the state Supreme Court than he did the first time around.
In post-election comments last November, Brown, apparently with his father in mind and with a sense of history, said, “I have a lot of live up to, and I’m going to make sure that during these four years I maximize that opportunity.”
It’s likely that analysts will still be trying to figure out Jerry Brown long after his fourth and final term is over, but for now he seems anxious to embrace his heritage and come to terms at last with who he is and from whence he came.
William Endicott is a former deputy managing editor of The Sacramento Bee.