The Brown-Whitman Debate: Blast from the Past

Fearless Jerry Brown campaigns for governor of California, but can he save his state?

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California attorney general and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jerry Brown waves as he leaves the stage following a debate with Republican gubernatorial candidate and former eBay CEO Meg Whitman at UC Davis' Mondavi Center on September 28, 2010 in Davis, California. With just five weeks left before the election, California gubernatorial candidates Meg Whitman, Republican, and Jerry Brown, Democrat, faced off in their first debate as polls show the two candidates are nearly tied.

At the beginning of her campaign for governor of California, Meg Whitman said that a book I'd written, Politics Lost, would be her guide. The book was a plea for greater spontaneity in politics, a screed against the often deadening, risk-averse impact of political consultants on the process. Whitman then proceeded to hire the very best Republican consultant out there, Mike Murphy, and spend no less than $120 million of her own money — she is a former CEO of eBay — on the campaign, mostly on TV ads. Murphy had her perfectly prepped for her first gubernatorial debate, on Sept. 28. Whitman spun her talking points sleekly, personably, though not exactly spontaneously. In any other debate, this might have worked — but Whitman was facing a grand master of calculated weirdness and militant informality.

At the end of my cross-country road trip, there stood Jerry Brown, just as he had at the beginning of my career, a jolly blast from the past. His 1976 presidential campaign was the first I covered, and it was hilarious. His campaign buttons were minimalist — no words, just a color: brown. His slogan was "Protect the earth, serve the people, and explore the universe." He was the newly elected governor of California and famously frugal, far more so than his predecessor Ronald Reagan. He refused to live in the opulent governor's mansion Reagan had built; he lived instead in a rented room, a secular reprise of the Jesuit seminary he had once attended. In a way, he was the Tea Party of his time — but a strange brew, with a touch of Zen and outlandish political ambitions. He ran for President thrice: in 1976, 1980 and 1992.

And now, at the age of 72, he is running for governor again — and his presidential addiction is an issue. He was asked what would stop him from running for President again. "Age," he replied. "Hell, if I was younger, you know I'd be running." He promised to be more assiduous this time around. "I now have a wife," he said. "I come home at night. I don't try to close down the bars in Sacramento like I used to do when I was governor of California. I'm going to spend more time in Sacramento and get it done."

Of course, this was not quite true. He was never the sort to close down the bars. He tried to seem the swinging hipster — dating the singer Linda Ronstadt and all — but he was more likely to be found in his cell late at night, reading the French mystic priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. In fact, Brown's cleverness as governor deflated more than a few of Whitman's talking points. She accused him of being too close to the public-employees' unions. He reminded her that he had vetoed public pay raises twice. She promised "a spine of steel" and reform of the state's bloated pension plan. He reminded her that he'd offered pension reform very similar to hers a generation ago. And then, in a reference to Arnold Schwarzenegger, he added, "We've tried this business of the inexperienced private-sector person coming in with a spine of steel, and they get flummoxed by the shark-infested waters of Sacramento."

It was a bracing debate. Both candidates seemed smart and sane. There were none of the wild claims or scare tactics so prevalent in the rest of the country. But California is a basket case: 12% unemployment, a $19 billion state-budget deficit, a gridlocked government entangled in special interests (on both sides) and stymied by too many conflicting ballot referendums and initiatives. "We have a history of boom and bust," says Dan Schnur, chair of the state's Fair Political Practices Commission. "We spend ourselves crazy, then the economy tanks and we've got a budgetary mess on our hands. In the past, there's always been another boom to bail us out. There was aerospace, then high tech, then construction. Now people are wondering, Who's going to save us next? Is it possible that no one will?"

And that is the great American fear right now. It has been the underlying theme of almost every interview I've conducted during this monthlong road trip. Republicans are more confident in their answers — less government, lower taxes. Those are perennial positions with great appeal. But most people I've talked with are convinced that this is an unprecedented crisis, a slow slide from dominance and prosperity, that demands a new and dramatic approach. Neither Brown nor Whitman offered any striking solutions, but they're not alone; I haven't met a single candidate along the way who has broken through the miasma with something that sounds fresh and plausible. The best, like Brown, convey a restless energy, a love of the game and fearlessness in the face of a monumental challenge. But this year, for this crisis, that clearly isn't enough.