Gavin Newsom, Bill Clinton, Jerry Brown

Gov. Jerry Brown, right, shares the stage with former President Bill Clinton, his nemesis in the 1992 race for the Democratic presidential nomination, and Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom at a 2010 election rally. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times / October 15, 2010)

Let’s not romanticize Jerry Brown’s three tries for the presidency, even as he leaves the door open for a fourth.

He lost, badly, in 1976, 1980 and 1992. In the last one, particularly, he looked on occasion like an ingrate. (That requisite endorsement Bill Clinton might have expected from Brown after the Arkansan won the nomination in 1992? Never happened). Brown thumbed his nose at the profession in which he’s spent his life, railing at politicians as sellouts and worse. He railed at everything, really, a candidate who often seemed to be battling as much against the pinnacle he was seeking as for it. 

Still, voters often saw him as the antithesis of the blow-dried automatons who regularly populate campaigns. In his first two presidential campaigns, Brown was the maverick running against the more establishment Democratic candidates. Throughout the long months of his last try for the presidency, in the spring of 1992, he was a magnet for the dispossessed, as if his anger gave voice to their hopelessness in that bleak economic time.

How they even found Brown was something of a mystery, as his campaign structure — it was a reach to call it that — rarely knew where he was going or how he would get there. Still, they found him.

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In destitute Aliquippa, in the days leading to the 1992 Pennsylvania primary, Brown came to deliver a speech at the place where the jobs had once resided, before the steel mills up and left. He was driven to silence by an elderly steelworker and a devout woman, both screaming in what seemed to be anguish.

"You got too much money against you, Jerry. You ain't got a chance. That's what's wrong with this country. We're finished," the man shouted, pointing to where seven miles of steel mills once stood.

"With God, all things are possible," the woman screamed, as a counterpoint. "It's time to rise up. We're going to rise."

Brown’s campaign was built around the notion, soon to be disabused by reality, that minimal donations from the many could overtake Clinton’s money machine. He sought donations via an 800 number that followers chanted at events, much to the mirth of Brown’s opponents.

They also passed baskets; at the bottom of one, the campaign found someone’s food stamps. Brown himself stammered a bit when asked to explain the connection: "They think I am speaking to their values," he said.

But for all of that — a foreshadowing, were he to run, of the inequality arguments now rising among Democrats? — there were the diversions into loopiness that marked his campaign as an entertaining farce and the candidate as less than serious about winning. He could draw the big crowds, yes, but rarely remembered to ask people to vote for him. Even among Democrats, his angry laments about the “decrepit” state of government and his call to scale the bastions of the Capitol fell before Clinton’s smoother, more mainstream appeal.

It was a different Brown who, after a respite, burrowed his way back into politics, running for Oakland mayor, attorney general and, in 2010, governor. He was less wacky Moonbeam than adept manager — he got that hated nickname in the 1970s, after all, for proposing satellites and computers, things which had become old school by the time a new century rolled around. He still peppered his rhetoric with Latin phrases and words that mere mortals had never before heard, but seemed tempered by both age and experience, even humor.

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His run for governor would end with a victory, in a Republican year, against a well-financed if flawed Republican opponent. His term has coincided with California’s economic recovery, not a bad bragging chip for a campaign. And his argument as he announced his quest for a third gubernatorial term — "We need someone with insider's knowledge and an outsider's mind" — would seem just as well tailored for a fourth run for the presidency.

But then there are sober realities: He is 75 and has had two bouts of cancer. His party seems happily in the pocket of his former nemesis’ wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton. Lean outsider efforts are quaint relics of political history against the billion-dollar juggernauts that are modern-day presidential campaigns.

But it is Jerry Brown, so one never knows. That 800-number from the 1992 campaign? It still works.

“You’ve reached the political office of Gov. Jerry Brown,” the message begins.

cathleen.decker@latimes.com

Twitter: @cathleendecker