SACRAMENTO — Gov. Jerry Brown had been plowing through the hundreds of bills on his desk, many involving what he calls the "vast tracts of unknown" in state bureaucracy, when one caught his eye.
It was the "Google Car" bill to regulate driverless vehicles. "I said, 'Wow. This sounds kind of Moonbeam," Brown recalled. "I want to look at this a little more carefully.'"
These days, the man tagged "Gov. Moonbeam" nearly four decades ago for his plan to launch state satellites doesn't have the luxury of playing the wide-eyed futurist. He's got his hands full with a state in constant budgetary crisis.
But he still retains some of the old eccentricity. He attends legislative meetings with his dog, eats food from others' plates and refuses to replace the stained carpet in his office. He uses Latin. He has no use for an entourage and has been known to ask his physician for advice on legislation.
In a recent interview, Brown reflected on how the job of the state's chief executive has changed, ruminating on the workings of government, the role of the state in people's lives and the mythical qualities of California. A page of typed talking points on his desk was ignored.
First inaugurated at 36, Brown was once the dynamic young face of the Golden State, globe-trotting with rock-star girlfriend Linda Ronstadt, enraging Los Angeles drivers with new "diamond lanes" and pursuing a "windmills and wood chips" energy strategy. He sought advice on nuclear disarmament from Jane Fonda and so annoyed lawmakers with his grandstanding that he was once booted from the state Senate chambers.
But the governor, who campaigned for office in 2010 as an insider with an outsider's fresh ideas, moves more deliberately now, navigating a Capitol where hyperpartisanship has stymied him at more than one turn. In the twilight of his long career, California's 74-year-old governor spends much of his time on what he characterizes as housekeeping.
"You need big ideas, but you need to take out the laundry and clean the tables," he said, jacketless and tieless in his government office where, he reminded visitors, he paid for his own furniture. "I have a better sense of that this time."
His policy agenda hangs on the outcome of a November ballot measure to raise taxes. But Brown was willing to muse on the machinery of state.
Even after a lifetime in politics, he talked of the "petty pace" at which government changes, borrowing a phrase from "Macbeth" and checking the quotation with the help of a smartphone-adept aide. A fitness buff who recently challenged New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie to a foot race after the overweight Easterner mocked him, Brown finds government to be much like the human body.
"You can't change it," he said, "but you can adapt" — slowly, steadily and perhaps painfully, and only with lots of effort. "There are all these [policies] that I've devoted my whole life to in one sense, and now I'm trying to make them [work]," he said, "unlike when I was here before."
Then, an impatient young Brown ran for president while still in his first term.
"I said, 'Oh boy, I can be president.... Who's running for president? Ford? Carter? I can beat those guys. So let's go.'
"It was kind of ridiculous," he continued. "I was only 38, and I had only been governor less than two years. But I'm an enthusiast."
Sacramento "can bog you down," he said. But "that's probably true of anything."
Brown conceded that his political opponents have valid points about eye-popping salaries for some state officials, lawmakers' tendency to draft laws where none may be needed and the influence of interest groups.
The tax measure, Proposition 30, was guided by what rich interests would tolerate, he said. Some worthy alternatives to his proposed sales and income tax increases — such as new fees on oil production, tobacco, alcohol — were off the table, Brown said. The relatively small groups that oppose them had tens of millions of dollars available to fight him.
"We didn't have a lot of moves," he said. He sought a path with "as few obstacles as possible."
Brown repeated what has been his mantra since he retook office: the state is in a period of reckoning. At the heart of the upcoming election, he said, is a public sentiment that government should do more for people — but can't be trusted with their money.
"Human institutions have flaws," he said. "But … government is perceived as unique in the flaws it has. And there is a certain hostility."
Polls show people believe waste and fraud account for as much as 40% of state spending, he noted — a wildly inflated amount by most estimates, which put waste at well under 10%.
"People say… 'Go spend the waste bank.' The problem is the waste bank is not available.... We are dealing with a world where there is not agreement" on the facts.
Where Brown once campaigned for president promising to "protect the Earth, serve the people and explore the universe," he's now enmeshed in the details of water infrastructure, prison overcrowding and ways to make state agencies more efficient.
"It is a very exciting thing to make some of this stuff work," he said.
But he regards many of the bills lawmakers introduce — more than 4,200 in the two-year legislative session that recently ended — as an unwelcome sideshow to more urgent matters. He implied that he'd wield the veto pen more heavily but for the political relationships he needs to maintain.
"Even for me to slow the machine down, they get mad at me," he said. "They say you've got to sign this thing…, you can't think about it. It's just moving too fast. You've got to do fewer things better."
As Brown rises to escort reporters from his office, he points to a photo of his great grandfather, a Placerville stagecoach driver in the 1850s, and talks of the "pioneer spirit" he embodied.
Paraphrasing the writer Carey McWilliams, Brown says California is a mix of "hucksters and dreamers and inventors. It has been drawing people since the Gold Rush.
"That spirit of invention and creativity is something I am attracted to," Brown says, "and I hope I can further it."
By signing the "Google car" bill, perhaps? He's still deciding.