Experts wonder if Jerry Brown’s words make him a straight shooter or loose cannon

Share via

When gubernatorial nominee Jerry Brown blurted out his unfiltered thoughts last week, aiming barbs at a longtime rival and former president whose assistance Brown’s campaign had been scurrying to obtain, the reaction from Democrats was dismay, but not surprise.

In four decades in public life, Brown has defined himself as a candidate who eschews talking points and speaks his mind, and occasionally suffers for it when he does. Already, in the three months since the primary, the Democrat has come under fire for comparing Republican rival Meg Whitman’s ad blitz to that of a Nazi propagandist and, last week, taking on Bill Clinton.

The question is whether it will happen again, and what effect a pattern of such gaffes could have on Brown’s chances of election.


“If he does two or three more, does it exceed the number of stupid, self-defeating comments you are granted in a campaign?” said Raphael Sonenshein, a political science professor at Cal State Fullerton. “The attitude among Democrats is that it may have been entertaining once, but we’re not looking this year to be entertained. Just do your job, be there in the fourth quarter, fight like crazy in a really tough race to win.”

Whitman faced her own travails on the campaign trail last week, but Brown caused national headlines for firmly lodging his foot in his mouth. The brouhaha began when Whitman launched an ad that featured 1992 footage of then-presidential candidate Bill Clinton attacking Brown’s record on taxes when he was governor of California. (At the time the footage was taped, the two men were seeking the presidential nomination).

As his campaign worked to get Clinton to back Brown and undo some of the ad’s damage, Brown responded by calling Clinton a liar and joking about the former president’s dalliance with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.

The furor seemed to subside quickly — Brown apologized Sept. 13, hours after a recording of his words came to light, Clinton endorsed him the next day, and the campaign announced Friday that the former president would campaign with Brown next month.

Publicly, Democrats pointed to the quick resolution as evidence that Brown’s joke, while inappropriate, would do little lasting harm.

But privately, some worry that the gaffe continues to do damage: Brown and Clinton have not spoken directly. The dust-up further highlighted the Whitman ad, which was found to be partly inaccurate but packed a blow. Brown caused news coverage to shift from his argument — that Whitman had aired something she knew to be in error — to his gaffe. And the Brown-Clinton relationship will surely be analyzed anew during the former president’s visit in October.


Questions remain: Although Clinton, among the most popular Democrats in the nation, is aiding Brown, would he have been more helpful if Brown hadn’t attacked him? Did the joke cause potential Clinton loyalists who could be major donors to question Brown’s viability?

“Jaws were dropping, people were staggered,” said one Democratic strategist who, out of deference to the party’s nominee, asked not to be named criticizing Brown. “I know some people are saying that the whole thing is over, but I don’t think it really worked out very well for Jerry.”

Democrats agreed that the incident reflected Brown’s force-of-nature personality, and some were quick to argue that his bluntness could allow him to be seen by some voters as more authentic than the typical politician.

Chris Lehane, a veteran of the Clinton White House, said that in a year when voters are especially distrustful of professional politicians, they may prefer a politician “who does not come across as an antiseptic, blow-hard, dried, pre-cooked … candidate.”

Darry Sragow, a Democratic strategist, noted that even some of Clinton’s most fervent admirers were uncomfortable with the personal failings addressed by Brown.

“We once again experience Jerry Brown as he is and as he always has been,” Sragow said. “What you see with Jerry Brown is what you get. He’s a candidate who’s forthright, you pretty much know exactly what’s on his mind. You can argue that sometimes gets him in trouble. I happen to think voters respect someone who shoots straight.”


Asked whether he would now choose his words more carefully, Brown said no. And in the days that followed, he campaigned as usual. At the downtown Los Angeles celebration of El Grito, marking the 200th anniversary of Mexico’s independence, he mingled with diplomats and dignitaries at a VIP lounge at Staples Center and with street vendors hawking Mexican flags and vuvuzelas — ear-piercing horns — on Figueroa Street.

When Brown ran into boxer Oscar de la Hoya, the Olympic gold medalist punched the air between them and said, “I can give you some tips on how to get in some body shots.” One man called out to Brown that he was “nuestro gallo.” The Spanish phrase is a colloquialism that means “our man” or “our champion,” though it literally means “our rooster,” — a translation that Brown appeared to find amusing.

Whitman faced her own difficulties on the campaign trail last week, when a few critics surfaced at her events, typically filled with intensely friendly audiences. The most glaring confrontation occurred at the Yelp headquarters in San Francisco, when Whitman was grilled repeatedly about her support for the anti-same-sex-marriage measure, Proposition 8, as well as for her perceived insularity and promotion of an ad that contained a known falsehood.

“Why would you both knowingly and purposefully run a campaign that is based on lies?” asked an employee of the firm, which provides online customer reviews.

Whitman cited a litany of statistics to insist that the underlying message of the ad remains true and said she stands by it.

Political observers said Whitman, who had difficulties dealing with jarring questions early in the campaign, handled the matter and the ensuing news conference well.


“Meg Whitman, she’s learned her lessons,” said Bruce Cain, a political science professor at UC Berkeley. “She’s very poised, she’s got that little smile she flashes no matter how much she hates you, she’s got her lines down, she’s very quick-witted. I can’t imagine she’ll deviate from that.”

Cain said most electoral contests feature two candidates like Whitman, scripted and unwavering from their central message.

“I really like unconventional politicians, they’re more fun to watch,” he said, but they are not necessarily the most successful. “In general, the upside of being scripted exceeds the downside of being scripted, that’s why everybody does it.”

But some wondered if Whitman will be damaged by her Clinton ad, which cites a CNN report that both the original reporter and the former president have acknowledged was inaccurate.

“It opens the door to the charge that she’s not being honest. Saying stupid things is a pretty serious thing, but saying untrue things is probably more damaging,” Sonenshein said. “That’s the problem with honesty in politics, it’s like pulling a thread, sometimes the whole cloth gets pulled apart.”