COLUMN ONE : Brown an Enigmatic Insurgent : He has won support blasting the system, but some voters wonder how he’d implement his ideas. Politicians have learned not to take him too lightly--or too seriously.


Across the length and breadth of medieval Russia, there wandered from time to time men who were yurodivy --”fools in Christ.” In the service of God, they undertook the role of fool, to free themselves to speak plain truths to the princes of the land. They wore humble clothes, they ate poor food, and they spoke their harsh verities in warnings and parables.

Across the length and breadth of modern America wanders Jerry Brown--once a Jesuit seminarian, twice governor of California, three times a presidential candidate, a perpetual spiritual pilgrim. To skeptics and critics, who certainly credit the “fool” part, Brown is just an astute career politician reduced to hollering an amateurishly simple, alarmist message, an adroit insider who once raised fat-cat millions and now operates a piously hand-to-mouth campaign, a Yale lawyer crassly playing down-market in turtlenecks and plaid shirts, a dangerous spoiler with no clear goal beyond the spoiling.

But to the volunteer cadres who labor for this ascetic-looking son of privilege, and to the voters who have turned out for him in numbers no one expected, he is not the wayward Californian whose political quiddities and inner questings have filled speculative books about his style and soul.


What they see and hear is a mirror and an echo of their own anger and frustrated yearnings. Here is one who tells them he has been to the depths and repented his ways. Here is one who, like the yurodivy , flails at the mighty, Republicans and Democrats alike, in the glossary of the apocalypse: “rotten . . . corrupt . . . poisoned.”

Jane Mackowiac drove 10 miles over iced-up northern Michigan roads to see Brown; the candidate stood on a bentwood chair in front of a wall of laminated documents from America’s Revolutionary past, and when he talked, it was like he was reading her mind. “We need somebody,” she said, “to pull the rug out from under all this and start over.”

Edmund G. Brown Jr. is a populist ill at ease with people; when two fat men leaped up to pound his back and grab his hand at an important union meeting, he flinched, momentarily but visibly. He plugs his 800 number and $100 campaign donation limit self-righteously, but he is so self-absorbed that he can pocket a high school kid’s $10 contribution without even a glance of thanks.

He is a cerebral man trying to deliver a visceral message. Sometimes he sounds like a prissy Berkeley grad student at an open mike--he advised a student questioner in Kalamazoo, Mich., “Always move to the highest level of abstraction”--and at other times he drops feelingly into working-man cadences, to speak to working-man worries: “Howd’ja like that ?”

Jerry Brown can stick the knife into the system that helped to get him here, mocking political fund-raisers as “dinner with three wines . . . and you have sherbet in between and you call it sorbet. “ The same Jerry Brown, rummaging for late-night leftovers at volunteer Arlene Mohler’s house outside Denver, can ask for bread and say--with equal disdain--”White bread! Don’t you have any brown bread?”

After 20 years, there are really only two things his fellow politicians have learned for certain about this intuitive master of a craft he says he despises: There is a risk in taking Jerry Brown too seriously. And there is a risk in not taking him seriously enough.

Bob Boehm bought the book a year ago--”Why Americans Hate Politics,” by Washington Post political writer E.J. Dionne--and saved it to read during the election campaign. And now, standing in front of him, knocking the snow off his shoes at an airport outside Detroit, was Jerry Brown, the guy grounding his whole campaign in hating politics.

“I appreciate what you’re doing to shake up politics,” Boehm said. “Will you autograph this for me?” Brown signed the book’s flyleaf and demanded, “Will you vote for me?” Boehm is a Chicago Republican; he said politely that he would think about it.


Afterward, Boehm said: “Bush--let’s be frank, the guy is so totally politically oriented he can’t see reality any more. Unfortunately, that’s the way politics is played. It’s time they woke up and started talking about what people care about, instead of just what people want to hear. (Brown) is going about it in a different way, saying the system isn’t correct.”

There it is, and from a Republican: People are sick of the whole mess. It may be more emotion than policy, but it has won Brown the Colorado primary and Nevada caucuses and earned him second-place showings in a half-dozen other states. Tom Harkin was outdated, Bob Kerrey was out-messaged, Paul E. Tsongas was outspent. Brown, the insurgent, trudges on.

“Someone made a very apt analogy,” Brown said recently. “He said during the Civil War, there were soldiers standing against a tree, and you thought they were alive, but their guts had been shot out, and a strong wind blew them over. I don’t know whether that applies to Clinton. He’s standing against a tree and he looks like he’s going forward, but a good strong wind, either out of the press or Bush or the Democrats, may blow him right over.”

Some think it is Brown who is still on his feet, dead but not admitting it. What, then, is propping him up?

Just as the national catharsis after Watergate in 1974 helped to make Brown the youngest California governor in modern times, national disgust in 1992--from congressional rubber checks to “read my lips” flip-flops and S & L scandals--is bolstering him now. Even the bleeding economy becomes, in Brown’s construct, a symptom, not the disease.

“We’re being ripped off, lied to, shined on,” he shouts at stop after stop. And his audiences relish it. Linda Peake, married to a United Auto Workers man, came to Saginaw to hear a man whose rhetorical hot-buttons, like “worker genocide,” had already captivated her. “Make the rich pay, that’s my favorite message,” she said, her face eager.


Yet Brown’s fury can twirl off into kamikaze excess. “I think he’s angry and maybe rightfully so,” said another woman at the same Saginaw stop. “But it doesn’t come across in a fashion I’d like.”

She decided she would vote for Clinton.

People who vote for him, Brown says, are those who feel that “the country is in profound crisis, being ripped apart internally, and the leadership in Washington don’t get it.”

Paul Tully is in Washington, and he thinks he gets it. He is political director of the Democratic National Committee, the party whose soul Brown has pledged to save.

“Twenty percent of America angry is a lot of people,” Tully says. He can respect that. “But it ain’t 50%. You’ve got to deal with how to make majorities here.” Anger isn’t enough. “If people think the country’s broken, who’s going to fix it? They really want to know the details of the fix and they want to take the measure of who wants to get it done.”

The pros are not the only ones asking. In the noonday winter light, Brooke Mayer sat cross-legged on the floor of a meeting hall at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, a dozen feet from where Brown was talking.

“He’s a good speaker,” the political-science major allowed. “I feel like everything he’s saying I agree with. But I don’t know how he’ll do it. I sit here and think all these things, too. But how do you make it happen?”


How, indeed? Brown has his programs--a 13% flat tax, stopping the inept greed of the management class, bettering health care, the environment, energy efficiency--but the mechanics seem to stimulate him less than the ideas. Those who have known him say Brown always enjoys the dialectic more than the resolution, the creation more than the administration.

Donald E. Burns is also a former Jesuit seminarian, a law school classmate of Brown’s, and was California secretary of business and transportation in Brown’s first term. They have talked at length about Brown’s shortcomings, the need to manage, to delegate. “He’s always thought of himself as more of a prophet than a manager,” Burns says.

Brown will turn 54 next month. The first time he ran for President, he was 37, a Democratic wunderkind. He was put forward in part to derail a Southern governor’s victory train--Jimmy Carter’s. He came close in 1976, failed abysmally in 1980. Some pin their hopes on him now as a way to derail another Southern governor--Clinton.

If he fails, he will not run as an independent, but that is all he will commit to. “We’re not going to stop this Tuesday or the Tuesday after that, or at the convention or in November.” Which means everyone must ask the question they have always asked of this aloof, fascinating casuist: What does Jerry want?

On a flight to Chicago, across the aisle from an aide who offered him some unsalted almonds (“I already scored some peanuts,” Brown said, showing a fistful of airline goobers), he laid out what he wants--a communitarian vision--in pop-culture imagery familiar to anyone who watches TV at Christmastime.

In the three weeks he spent with Mother Teresa, he was struck by “the difference of being around a group of people in Calcutta who were there to serve, and being around a political meeting where everyone’s cutting deals.” He shook out a few more peanuts. “I believe (in) a community based on service--I mean, it works.”


Is that really what America wants? Freewheeling, brass-ring America?

“It’s exactly what every American wants. You ever see the movie ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’? Well, that’s where it was. That guy--that’s service. And that generosity built that community. We don’t want to turn into a . . . Pottersville. That’s exactly what we’re trying to avoid.”

Let’s deal with it--the kooky stuff.

Brown does. He works hard to turn it into ancient history and to his advantage. The Governor Moonbeam tag--you’ve heard that? he asks. And about going to Africa with Linda Ronstadt? Some of the guys in the hall at UAW Local 157 whistled lewdly.

On a shivery-cold afternoon in Grand Rapids, 30-year-old Chris Anstett took a day off from making exhaust manifolds for GM to show up at a Brown rally at the Jordan Energy Institute with a $100 check in his pocket.

None of that tabloid stuff bothers Anstett. “His reputation makes me think he’s even more sincere. He worked in Calcutta with Mother Teresa, he did something with Zen. He’s an intellectual. I’m glad he thinks about what he says, instead of just saying things that please people.”

Is Brown laughing all the way to the retreat? Is he, as Clinton declared, reinventing himself every year or two--an opportunist with an abstruse shtick?

In the years since he left elected office, Brown may have given himself over to meditation and self-study, but he didn’t throw away his Rolodex. He is one of the smartest thinkers in public life, but as any new college graduate can attest, smart doesn’t get you work. In 1989, Brown ran for and won the job of California Democratic Party chairman--ill-advisedly, as it turned out. In 1991, he abandoned the post, leaving rancor in his wake for supposedly muffing the handling of the state’s 1990 campaigns.


He chose not to run in the rigorous California Senate races this year. Instead, he essayed the presidential trail again. In the 12 years since he last tried it, a new national audience has grown up, and for them, Brown can paint broader strokes on a blanker canvas than he could have done in California.

Just as he scored PR points as the plain-living governor--the mattress on the floor, the rented apartment, the Plymouth--this private man has turned one of his most profound experiences to grist for the lectern. In the union halls and college halls, he speaks of his travels in Japan and Mexico, and, unfailingly, of his time with Mother Teresa.

That is the paradox of Jerry Brown: half the proselyte and half the politician.

“He’s not a phony” on the topic, Burns says. “He obviously was very moved by it--cutting their hair, these poor people--it was very genuine. He may pull it out of his knapsack to trot it out at appropriate times, but it’s not any less real for that.”

At midlife, the titanic poles of Brown’s life, politics and faith, seem to be pulling more urgently at him. This campaign has the earmarks of a haj , a pilgrimage from an old self to new, with the need to knit them up into some kind of unified field theory of personal and public life.

In this he seems not to be alone. Master campaign consultant Pat Caddell, the man Brown says he phones before every debate, has quit the game in disgust. Consultant Mike Ford, who spent years assembling “classic machine campaigns,” now helps Brown virtually for free.

Brown’s legion of nonbelievers roll their eyes at the Sir Galahad stuff--the knight who had the strength of 10 because his heart was pure. They remember Brown shaking the bushes for contributions; in 15 years, he raised perhaps $18 million for himself and others. In 1990, when he was state party chairman, he testified against Prop. 73 limits on campaign contributions. He told the San Francisco Chronicle that he did so as “a lawyer and an advocate” to protect the party’s rights.


His campaign manager, Jodie Evans (one of several longtime Brown insiders still orbiting him), said that Brown defended large contributions to the party because “he felt money coming into the party would be diffused, that it wouldn’t be special-interest money.”

Brown seems now to retreat from even that distinction. Money corrupts, he says plainly, and big money corrupts absolutely.

So up and down the rows in classrooms and union halls, the Brown campaign passes the pastel Easter baskets, the grocery bags with “We the People” on the sides. The checks are forwarded for matching funds; the cash goes for operating expenses on the road, says press spokeswoman Ileana Wachtel.

Of nearly $3 million pledged, in person or via the 800 number, $1.4 million is in hand, Evans says. Federal matching funds have added $580,000, and another $320,000 is coming. Brown has kicked in about $10,000 of his own money, she adds.

(By the middle of this month, the Clinton campaign had taken in about $8 million, with more due from matching funds.)

Sixteen years ago, Mickey Kantor was Jerry Brown’s national campaign manager. Now he works for Clinton, and he says of Brown’s born-again message: “Jerry has given hypocrisy a bad name.”


It isn’t just Brown’s epiphany on campaign contributions. There are other switchbacks and soft spots. The man who for years has preached the era of limits in a country that consumes more of the world’s goods than any other is barnstorming for votes by warning union workers not to let their children be the first generation of Americans to have a lower standard of living than their parents. And while he says his head has always been pro-choice, his heart considers “the killing of the unborn (to be) crazy,” he told the National Catholic News Service on his return from India. He can hardly bring himself to use the word “abortion,” and in his speeches, he never raises the issue, even to college students eager to hear it, unless he is asked directly.

But the one thread that ran through his roller-coaster terms as governor was campaign reform.

Burns remembers “vividly, before he announced for governor the first time, he said, ‘This opponent takes money from this group, that opponent takes money from that group, I get my money from this group--we’re all in the same whorehouse.’ I think it’s a sincere message, one he’s always believed. I think he got to the point where he felt liberated by throwing off the commitments one has to make to get PAC money.”

Even liberated, maybe, from the need to be elected.

In physics, Brownian motion describes the random movement of suspended particles.

In politics, Brownian motion is the random movement of a political insurgency effort, the gap between the real and the ideal.

At the end of one day’s wild pursuit in New Hampshire--lost and late again--a peeved CNN crew scolded a Brown volunteer: “You should be arrested for impersonating a campaign.”

His is a picaresque effort that has made it--sometimes barely--from Independence Hall to Selma, Ala., to Wisconsin cheese country, fueled on volunteer ardor. “It will evolve,” in one of Brown’s favorite phrases.


Yeah, well, sort of.

Brown has not scripted a speech since he announced his candidacy in October. The campaign--with 10 paid staffers earning $500 a week or less--has not scripted its campaign, either, planning a day or two at a time. Local volunteers are glad to see him--in snowbound Marquette, Mich., they laid out homemade brownies and shelled pistachios in little pleated paper cups--but they make it politely clear that they didn’t get much notice.

Brown does not have Secret Service protection. He says he doesn’t want to stick taxpayers with the bill, and he jeers that all those agents make Clinton “look like he’s already President.” But in truth, a Secret Service presence might impose more order than Brown or his circle would like.

Campaign stops are canceled, rescheduled, reconfigured. Brown complains about not getting news coverage, but it was not unknown for Brown volunteer-driven press vans to arrive in the middle of his speeches, or not to arrive at all.

“You want this crew running the country?” one reporter asked after a day of snafus.

When he was governor, his staff presented a joke plaque--”Pulitzer Prize for Fiction”--to his scheduler, who despaired of ever making Brown stick to the program.

But on this scale, such willfulness courts disaster.

Robert Backus worked with Brown’s presidential campaign in 1980, and was prepared to be his New Hampshire chairman this year. But, as much as he believes in Brown and his message, he severed his ties months before the primary.

“One of the things that made me sore was I firmly believed we could win this primary. . . . I still believe it could have been done, but it would have required a genuine grass-roots campaign, not just the rhetoric of one.


“Obviously we were gonna be short on funds; we understood that. But with a lot of people willing to help, you still need an organization, to tell people where to go and how to get there,” Backus said. “We never had that. We never did have a knowledgeable New Hampshire person put in charge.”

The same thing nearly happened with Michigan’s black voters. Sam Riddle, who worked Michigan for the Rev. Jesse Jackson in 1988 and knows the territory, joined the Brown campaign in Detroit as a $100-a-week man and was dismayed at the virtually all-white crowds being lined up for the man who stressed bringing women and minorities into California government, and who says he wants Jackson as his running mate. Within 12 hours of Riddle’s arrival, Brown was talking to the black mayor of Flint, Mich.--black population 63%.

The New Hampshire campaign, Backus said, was run by phone from California. “I could never tell who was the national campaign manager.” One day he got countermanding orders--from three different people. Backus added, “We had a lot of people insulted by the way they were treated.”

Volunteers dropped out in disappointment, and, like a Ponzi scheme, eager new ones took their place. Some of them dropped away too, because “nobody got thanked for anything. People do need to feel they’re appreciated,” Backus said. He has watched Brown’s erratic successes since with regret and pleasure. The message is fine; the style needs work.

While many politicians have no gusto for flesh-pressing bonhomie, Brown clearly looks like a man who doesn’t like it. “I’m just not as much of a backslapper as some politicians are,” he shrugs. A Michigan exit poll may have shown that voters believe Brown cares the most, but he must be seen to care, too.

The day after he mechanically took the high school sophomore’s $10, he was about to accept $20 without a word to the wan little woman donating it. A staffer whispered to Brown. He stopped. “This $20 from you? And you’re a dishwasher? Hey, thanks--this means a lot.” The woman beamed, but at the next stop, or the one after, Brown would have to be reminded again.


Yet his speeches are passionate and fierce. Brown rarely structures jokes into his remarks; his humor flickers on and off unexpectedly.

After the finger-jabbing debate in Chicago last week, Brown was asked whether he thought Clinton might start slugging. “I thought that’s what he might be doing.” Brown paused, and smiled an almost deadpan smile. “So I stepped a little closer.”

He has likened the graceless plugging of his 800 number to selling knives on TV in the middle of the night. Chastising fat-cats, he asked, “Can you think of any other business where people give you $1,000 just because you’re there?” As the crowd started laughing, Brown caught on and began laughing, too. “OK, maybe there is one other business.”

Second only to greed, he has gone after the press.

He has complained that he is frozen out by reporters, but in New Hampshire, he blew off an interview with the New York Times so he could put in a few miles of running. Twice, just to get air time, he appeared on gross-talking Howard Stern’s national radio show, delivering his weighty message relentlessly as Stern babbled about becoming secretary of the vagina.

Toward the press, his manner is two-edged. Hurrying to the campaign plane recently, he stepped back and made a mock bow to reporters heading the same way: “All you governing elites can go first.” Asked earlier this month about Harkin’s poor showing, Brown said dutifully, “This is just another push that the grass-roots campaign is inexorably catching up to the putative front-runners.” Then: “Would you like me to spell putative?”

Yet he knows he needs press. He can’t afford to buy that kind of attention. His “media buys” would not even be throat-clearing money in most campaigns: $28,000 each in New Hampshire and Colorado, $10,000 in Texas for Spanish-language radio, $150,000 in Michigan.

The bachelor Brown clearly shrinks at gossip-column questions about his preferences in food and music and clothes and his personal life (apples and baked potatoes and Gregorian chants, for the record, and he does have more than one turtleneck), but as he accumulates the media attention he has wanted, the nature of it will change. With Tsongas out, Brown becomes less the jester and more the serious alternative, and the scrutiny will be more relentless.


In a radio interview months before he announced his candidacy, Brown was asked if he is qualified to be President. “Well, I tell you this--I’m a hell of a lot more qualified today than I was in 1976. I say that because I’ve learned a lot more and I’ve seen a lot more . . . on that basis, having reflected on it, I’m a wiser, and I hope more humble, person.”

The Rise of a Political Insurgent


* Born: April 7, 1938, in San Francisco.

* Education: Bachelor’s degree in Latin and Greek from the University of California, 1961; law degree from Yale Law School, 1964.

Career: Private law practice, 1965-70; member of Los Angeles Community College Board of Trustees, 1969-70; California secretary of state, 1971-75; California governor, 1975-83; private law practice, 1983-91; chairman, California Democratic Party, 1989-91.

Personal: Never married.

Campaign Themes

* Taxes: Seeks to eliminate the current individual and corporate income taxes, Social Security taxes and gasoline taxes and replace with a flat-rate 13% income tax, with deductions for mortgage, rent and charitable contributions and a 13% value-added tax on goods and services.

* Trade: Opposes the fast track negotiations for a free trade pact with Mexico, but is generally in favor of trade agreements.

* Budget deficit: Supports a constitutional amendment to balance the budget.

* Abortion: Supports a woman’s right to legalized abortion.

* Health care: Supports a federally financed health care system with caps on hospital and physician incomes.


* Environment: Proposes a massive program to produce efficient and non-polluting sources of energy. Would phase out nuclear power plants over 10 years.

* Military: Advocates arms control, cutting the military budget by 50% over five years and reducing U.S. troop deployments in Europe to 25,000 or below. Opposed Gulf War.

* Student loans: Wants to make the loans available to all who qualify academically.

* Labor: Advocates prohibiting companies from hiring permanent replacements for strikes.

* Israeli loan guarantees: Supports the loan guarantees but also endorses efforts to restrain Israeli settlement activity.

* Transportation: Urges more high-speed rail lines.

* Politics: Supports campaign finance reform and term limits.