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Play Dialing for Dollars With Jerry

I can’t remember offhand how many times I have voted for Jerry Brown, and since I’m heading home to Fresno for Christmas it’s best not to try. Brown is a dangerous topic there. My father detests him, remembering only a wiseass governor who for years stalled completion of a badly needed cross-town freeway. I remember a politician who always seemed smarter, more interesting, than anyone else in the pack. We’ve learned to duck the issue, to pass the potatoes and stick to peaceful topics, like the fog.

It’s that way for Brown all over California. Many people despise him for specific things he did or failed to do, for unfinished freeways, Medflies, Rose Bird. Others took it to heart when Brown said government cannot solve every problem. We lowered our expectations and enjoyed the ride. The strength of his governorship was not how many bills he signed, but how he framed the debate over California’s future--not what he did, but what he had to say.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. Dec. 21, 1991 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday December 21, 1991 Home Edition Part A Page 2 Column 1 National Desk 2 inches; 61 words Type of Material: Correction
Wrong number--Peter H. King’s “On California” column in Friday editions made a satirical reference to the 800 number former Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr. is using to solicit campaign contributions. Brown’s number is not, as King stated, 1-800-MOONMAN. Some readers apparently dialed that number seeking to donate and instead reached an unrelated business concern in Washington state. Brown’s telephone number is 1-800-426-1112.

This Brownian dichotomy now has gone national. At every opportunity, on Larry King, across New Hampshire, at the Presidential Debate on NBC last Sunday night, Brown keeps repeating an 800 number. The number is where people can call to donate $100 or less to his presidential campaign. He won’t accept more, having decided large contributions are a national evil.

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There is no question it is a weird approach, the stuff of “Saturday Night Live”: Dial 1-800-Moonman. Get every political thought ever uttered by Jerry Brown -- and more. Operators are standing by now. You keep expecting Brown to announce Slim Whitman as his running mate.

What Brown is doing bothers people. His behavior has been attacked as impolite, immature, inelegant, political terrorism even--and certainly not presidential. Some of the criticism is confusing. What is politics but the art of self-advertisement? Besides, Brown’s Mad Man Muntz routine is not what is important. What is important is the idea behind it.

Brown, like a lot of people, believes that the nation’s political process, and the style of government created in its wake, have become irrelevant. It’s all flags and fetuses and not much else. He blames the bucks, arguing that the agenda is narrowly drawn to protect the interests of those who finance campaigns. There’s room for debate about money’s culpability, but not about the fundamental notion that American politics no longer matter much. You know it, I know it, Brown knows it. In the last presidential election, almost half the nation didn’t bother to vote.

The insiders dismiss this attitude as apathy, but it’s more like anger, and it runs broad and deep. And the first politician who can connect with this black hole of enlightened disinterest will go a long way. That, clearly, is where Brown is aiming.

Presidential candidates traditionally advertise themselves like Mercedes Benzes--polished, dignified, important. Brown is going the Cal Worthington route. He is out to define and capture a whole different market, to make a connection and tear down the old order. He also wants to be President.

Of course, you can’t credibly set out to dismantle conventional politics by practicing conventional politics. Hence, the 800 number. It allows Brown to solicit contributions directly from people who usually are asked only for their votes. It’s a crucial distinction, in the Brown view. Voters are appreciated, but after Election Day only money-givers are remembered. As with the Home Shopping Club, Brown’s 800 number is intended to bring the store to everyone.

There is nothing new in Brown attacking campaign finances; it was the issue that first got him elected governor. And it certainly isn’t unusual for him to be unconventional. The 800-Candidate, in some ways, is vintage Brown.

Still, some people who have worked closely with Brown before are troubled by the deeper anger, the sour tone they saw Sunday night. They want to hear more ideas and fewer telephone numbers. They worry Brown is edging closer to the line that separates the merely unconventional from the crackpot.

Watching the debate, it seemed to me Brown was awkward in his new role. He is not a fool, and he must understand he comes off a bit like Cal and His Dog Spot. Also, Brown has never struck me as an eyeball-to-eyeball street fighter. He seemed genuinely taken aback when the other candidates told him they didn’t like being called crooks. Insurgency has its unpleasant moments.

Not that Brown could turn back. He once described politics as rowing a canoe, paddle a little on the left, paddle a little on the right. In this campaign, with this approach, he has loaded himself in a missile and lit the fuse. Where and when it lands, who can say. But as always with Brown, it should be an interesting ride.

Now, Dad, what about that fog?


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