Claim of 'Best Treasurer' Is Tops in Cheek

Hyperbole, of course, isn't confined to politics. You find it in car ads and comic strips; on sitcoms and shopping channels; among soap salesmen and carnival barkers.

Nobody blinks an eye--or believes it--when a car dealer claims to give the best deal in town.

If a politician claims to be the best at serving the public interest, people usually just yawn, if they pay any attention at all. Like car dealers, politicians have a license to engage in hyperbole.

But Kathleen Brown may have overused her license when she claimed to be "America's Best Treasurer."

"To Revive America's Worst Economy," the theme continues.

One might even quibble over whether California's economy is the worst. But leaving that aside, claiming to be "America's Best Treasurer"--better than any treasurer in 49 other states--smacks of being a bit presumptuous and/or pretentious. And that's putting it gently.

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According to a Times story by reporter Paul Jacobs, who spent several weeks examining Brown's three-plus years as treasurer, "her record is decidedly mixed. . . . There continues to be a backlog of approved but un-issued state bonds. . . . Earnings on investments have plummeted . . ." and she named her top political aide as assistant treasurer.

Brown has explanations. Interest rates fell during her tenure, reducing earnings. And victorious candidates routinely bring political advisers into government. But it all fits into the "turnabout is fair play" category. She hammered her 1990 opponent, incumbent Tom Hayes, for similar so-called sins.

Jacobs' story also cites Brown's "accomplishments and innovations": investing idle funds in home mortgages and small businesses, shifting more bond sales to firms headed by minorities, women and disabled veterans. . . .

But America's best? There are no playoffs to determine champion treasurer--no Final Four, no Super Sunday.

Brown claims the crown based on an award from City & State newspaper, a now-defunct bimonthly. It named Brown the "most valuable public official" at the state level for 1993. The newspaper annually gave six such awards for various levels of government. Readers nominated contestants and the newspaper staff selected the winners.

"The point was to honor people who are innovative, visionary and had leadership ability," says the former editor, Ellen Shubart. "And certainly she was doing things above and beyond what most treasurers in the country were doing.

"But nobody ever said, 'You're the best.' I was taken aback to hear she was using it as 'best.' Everybody we gave that award to used it to say, 'I'm doing good.' "

Good , however, doesn't have the same punch as best .

The slogan was the creation of new campaign manager Clinton Reilly, who has stamped it on lapel buttons and run it in TV commercials. The strategy is to adorn Brown with credibility, to credential her as capable of leading California back to the economic good life, despite only a brief exposure to state issues. She's the best; Gov. Pete Wilson's the worst .

"Why isn't she the best treasurer in America? Prove that she isn't," says Reilly.

Says Brown, referring to a 1986 campaign slogan: "Was (George) Deukmejian a great governor? 'A great governor for a great state'?"

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Brown could have called herself "a great treasurer"--although perhaps that is an oxymoron--and drawn less flak. But claiming to be No. 1 is risky because it invites serious scrutiny and scoffing, especially when running in a high-stakes race for California governor.

"Not only is Kathleen Brown not America's best treasurer, she's not even California's," asserts Wilson's lead attack dog, spokesman Dan Schnur, referring to her predecessors.

Campaign slogans have been known to backfire. Gov. Michael S. Dukakis' "Massachusetts miracle" turned to "the Massachusetts mess" when the recession hit. Hubert H. Humphrey's "politics of joy" didn't fit the riotous era of his presidential campaign. President Herbert Hoover's promise of "a chicken in every pot" was jeered by voters who complained they couldn't afford a pot. Gov. Jerry Brown's "era of limits" didn't play well in California boom times.

As for sister Kathleen, veteran Republican strategist Stu Spencer says: "I don't think it's a major thing. People expect these clowns to say 'I'm the best' this or that."

But pollster Mervin Field says, "Slogans, in order to be effective, should not require any explanation. And being the 'best treasurer' makes the eyes glaze over."

Voters may not understand credit ratings, bond sales and revenue anticipation notes. But they usually know political hyperbole when they hear it. And the more hyperbole, the less credibility.

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