"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 15 June 1998. Updated every WEEKDAY.
Brown Bag


[pretty good:   rebecca gates at the make-out room]

Sometimes writers help us to

understand the world we live in

by developing careful,

thoughtful observations into

coherent, factual narratives.

And then there's Joe Klein.


Okay, okay, cheap shot. Klein's

recent take on Jerry Brown's

campaign to become the next mayor

of Oakland - a race Brown won

after Klein's piece in The New

Yorker had gone to press, but

before the magazine actually

arrived on newsstands, more

about which later - read quite a

bit like many of the news

stories that the former

California governor inspires

these days: Casually dismissive,

smarmily amused, and terribly,

massively misinformed. Klein

should stick to lying about

fiction, probably, but where

does that leave all those other

professional broadcasters of

conventional wisdom?


Brown's old, deliberately

insulting nickname, used widely

enough to make its origin

irrelevant, is "Governor

Moonbeam," and the identity the

moniker conveys has followed him

around like a doppelgänger

for literally decades. Brown, in

the Moonbeam myth, is a kind of

amusing but impotent nut case

who wanders around the town

square, muttering darkly under

his breath and collecting soda

cans for the nickel redemption;

certainly, chuckle chuckle, not

the kind of guy who can really

do anything, and no possible

threat to the burghers in their

warm hillside houses. "These

days," Klein writes, "he is

harmless and worthy, in a

biodegradable sort of way."


In case he hasn't

quite proved that

he doesn't understand the person

he's writing about, Klein later

describes the whole of Brown's

last shot at the presidency in a

couple of fully clueless

half-paragraphs: "If

respectability was never a

comfortable fit for Brown," goes

the second of these, "insurgency

never quite worked for him,

either. In 1992, he pestered

Bill Clinton for a time as the

avatar of the reactionary left,

but he ran on a weird platform

that included the worst ideas of

Steve Forbes (the flat tax) and

Ralph Nader (protectionism)."


He pestered Bill Clinton for a

time? The Los Angeles Times, 18

February, 1992: "In the last

days before the New Hampshire

primary, former California

Governor Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown

Jr. couldn't be taking much

harder shots at his competitors

if he was using a shotgun

instead of a microphone." And

did this have the effect of

"pestering" Bill Clinton?

Something like that: Brown beat

Clinton in New Hampshire, taking

second in the primary behind

Paul Tsongas - a performance

that would be repeated, very

soon after, in Maine, where 30

percent of Democratic voters

backed Tsongas, 29 percent

backed Brown, and Clinton limped

in with the also-rans. A few

days more, and police officers

are forced to close streets in

Colorado as massive crowds turn

out to watch Brown speak; the

Moonbeam candidate wins the

primary in the generally

conservative, highly rural

state. Then he wins the

Democratic caucuses in Nevada,

and other candidates begin to

drop out of the race, including

Tsongas. A few days after

Tsongas quits, Brown takes

another primary, in Connecticut.


[guitar shopping]

Prior to one of the most

important primaries in the

country, the primary in Brown's

home state, the Democratic

Party's mainstream cranks up the

attack machine, handing in one

Jerry-Brown-is-the-devil Op-Ed

piece after another to

California newspapers; just for

fun, sort through the anti-Brown

opinion pieces in the Times

archives, paying special

attention to the bylines, and

see how many former Mondale

campaign staffers you can

identify. Meanwhile, Ron Brown,

the chairman of the Democratic

National Committee and Clinton's

future Commerce Secretary (it's

called "baksheesh"), grants

interviews across the country to

explain, in calm and patient

terms, that Jerry Brown will

steer the earth directly into

the sun if he somehow manages to

beat the DNC's Chosen One. And

Clinton, bristling in response

to Brown's repeated questions

about his personal and political

ethics, announces that his only

remaining Democratic opponent -

who has outlasted three guys

named Tsongas, Kerrey, and

Harkin while accepting no

contributions larger than US$100

- "isn't fit to stand on the

same stage as my wife." An angry

jibe during one debate, Clinton

snapping at Brown to "chill

out," turns out to draw very

little blood after reporters

learn that the line was planned

and scripted, in advance, to

look spontaneous.


So, yes, he kind of did pester

Clinton. Just a bit. Winning all

those darn primaries and

caucuses and what have you - and

necessitating more personal

attacks than Upton Sinclair

picked up back in '34, or so it

seems. And he did something far

more interesting. Those


contributions? Judging by calls

to his much-touted +1-800

number, Brown received somewhere

in the neighborhood of 120,000

of them, all from individuals,

raising far less money

altogether than the other major

candidates but surviving down to

the wire with a paid staff of

ten - ten - and a traveling

entourage of three, often

sleeping on the couch in

supporters' homes. A Times

reporter, interviewing a man who

handed Brown a check for $50 on

the street in Las Vegas, learned

that the contributor was an

unemployed paralegal who

considered Brown an

honest-to-god last/best chance

for a deeply corrupt political

culture. And the demand for

ballots - polling places in

Colorado and Maine literally ran

out of them on election day -

demonstrated that people who had

given up on voting were turning

out to cast ballots for Brown.

All just a little light

pestering, right?


Oh, and one other thing before

we leave 1992. After the Rev.

Jesse Jackson wrote a Times

op-ed piece, in February,

lamenting the failure of

presidential candidates to

address the US policy on Haiti,

a reader sent in a letter

describing a political rally

he'd recently attended; Jerry

Brown, the letter explained, had

spoken "with intelligence and

compassion" on the issue,

forcefully expressing his

"disgust" with the course taken

by the US government. This kind

of habitual frankness, and the

persistent failure to follow the

same Morning in America/It's the

Economy, Stupid script that most

serious political contenders

stick to like the Bible, wins

Brown a funny caricaturing in

The New Yorker and elsewhere:

He's just like that amusingly

"honest" Bulworth guy, from the

movies! (Cue elbow to ribs.)


[dog crushes]

It wouldn't be hard to use up an

entire column on Brown's odd

ideas and arguable failures. And

it would be kind of fun to use

up an entire column on his

cranky-tortoise persona (one

Times reporter gleefully

described Brown as a "badger")

and withering diatribes that

arrive, unannounced, from an

unidentifiable part of the man's

highly unusual mind. (See for

example the dressing-down he

delivers to a classroom full of

college students, captured in

the wonderful documentary Feed,

after they admit that they've

never even heard of Marshall



But it's also hard to overlook

the fact that "Governor

Moonbeam" earned his nickname

during not one but two

consecutive terms in his state's

highest office, terms that

followed his service as

California's elected Secretary

of State; so he was, you

understand, silly, crazy,

ineffective, embarrassing, and

repeatedly embraced by a

majority of the voters -

including, in 1978, the majority

of the voters in conservative-


conservative-strongholds, Orange

County, which includes the home

district of former US

Representative Bob "B-1" Dornan.

Makes all the sense in the world

- and explains why leftie writer

Alexander Cockburn once wrote

that Brown "has one of the most

consistently decent, innovative

records in US politics," the

full exploration of which would

take even more columns than the

cranky-tortoise stuff. Note also

that Brown built up a budget

surplus while earning those

plaudits from the political

left, explaining this

interesting fact to reporters

with two words: "I'm cheap."


[avoiding muni]

Brown has been underestimated by

some preternaturally shrewd

political opponents, so it's

probably no surprise that he

fooled the New Yorker, too. You

run a story on a political

campaign that 1) goes to press

before election day and 2) hits

the newsstands after election

day only because you know that

the campaign isn't over if no

one gets more than 50 percent of the

vote; with a total of eleven

people in the running for the

same office, then, you assume

that your story will simply

appear after the primary, a few

days into the run-off. Except

that Jerry Brown, a white

politician running for office in

a majority-minority town that

hasn't elected a white mayor in

20 years, took a very

comfortable 57 percent of the

vote during the first round of

balloting, winning the mayor's

seat without that run-off - and

proving, again, that he had been



And proving, once again - with a

little help from Joe Klein and

his colleagues - that we tend to

diminish that which threatens

our comfort the most. Not an

uninteresting lesson for a

writer to offer, even if he

didn't do it on purpose.

courtesy of Ambrose Beers