Reincarnated on Radio, Jerry Brown Is Doing What Comes Naturally in His New Show: Talking

Jerry Brown is living proof of reincarnation. This time, the onetime seminary student, California governor and perennial candidate has been reborn as a radio talk show host.

For the brilliant, if distant, philosopher-politician, it is the perfect job. All he has to do is talk and, once in a while, give out a toll-free number.

Bearing his message that special-interest money is corrupting American politics, Brown began his nationally syndicated talk show this week. He broadcasts live for two hours every weekday afternoon from a studio here.

“We are going to take apart the conventional wisdom--the dumb ideas that are wrecking the country, the lies politicians tell, the greed of the corporate high and mighty, the phoniness of the wanna-be liberals,” Brown says at the start of each broadcast. “There are no sacred cows on this show.”


So far, more than 20 radio stations from Seattle to Biloxi, Miss., have picked up the program, but none yet in Los Angeles, San Diego or the Bay Area.

Brown sees his broadcasts as a way to broaden the populist political movement he began during his 1992 presidential campaign, hitting such themes as political reform, term limits for elected officials and preservation of the environment. Some suggest he will serve as a liberal counterpoint to conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh.

“I want to stir up citizen involvement for more progressive causes,” Brown said in an interview. “That’s what interests me.”

Brown calls his show “We the People"--taken from the preamble of the Constitution and also the name of his grass-roots political organization. Striving for an all-American image, Brown begins each program with a country-Western theme song and a group of children reading the preamble.

In his first broadcasts, the man once branded as Gov. Moonbeam was engaging and down-to-earth, answering questions from callers, reading highlights from the day’s news and at times revealing bits of insight into himself.

When one caller asked him if he was influenced as governor by contributions from special interests, Brown quickly admitted that he was.

“You bet I was influenced,” he said. “You think you can collect $10 million or $20 million and not let it affect your judgment? Your behavior is influenced and that is the vice that is destroying us.”

Brown also hopes to use the show to prompt public activism on specific issues. At one point, he gave out the White House telephone number and urged his listeners to call President Clinton to voice support for production of non-polluting cars.

In a sense, this is the role Edmund G. Brown Jr. has been training for all his many lives.

He grew up as the son of a politician, Gov. Edmund G. (Pat) Brown, and studied under the Jesuits before abandoning the idea of the priesthood. He got into politics as a member of the Los Angeles Community College Board, then won election as secretary of state in 1970.

Running as a political reformer in 1974, he was elected governor and served two terms. In some ways, he was ahead of his time, preaching an “era of limits,” satellite communications and car-pool lanes before many people were ready. He ran for president twice, in 1976 and 1980, earning a national reputation for his visionary, if sometimes flaky, ideas.

But as governor, he also presided over the initial decline of the school system and got poor marks for his management of state government. In 1982, when he ran for the U.S. Senate, his reputation had fallen so low that he was defeated by the then-mayor of San Diego, Pete Wilson.

What followed was a period of self-examination. For a time, he grew a beard and studied Buddhism in Japan and learned Spanish in Mexico. He did some writing and visited Mother Teresa in India.

In 1990, he staged a comeback as chairman of the California Democratic Party, but again drew criticism over his management style when the party’s gubernatorial nominee, Dianne Feinstein, lost to Wilson, then a senator.

Now he says serving as party chairman and raising millions of dollars from interest groups finally opened his eyes to the influence of money in politics. The experience prompted him to run for president in 1992 on a pledge that he would accept no contribution greater than $100.

Explaining his belated metamorphosis, Brown said, “People who work in a fish factory don’t realize they stink.”

These days, the 55-year-old Brown--with a decided middle-age paunch and a growing bald spot--seems more relaxed than in the past, but still has the riveting brown eyes, the prominent eyebrows and the sharp profile that helped make him a charismatic leader in the 1970s.

Brown got started on his new radio career after he was a guest on columnist Jack Anderson’s talk show and mentioned it was something he would like to do. Afterward, the network that carries Anderson’s show, Talk America, contacted the former governor and signed him up.

“I really believe this is the avenue Jerry has been looking for for a long time,” said Tom Star, a Talk America vice president who helped put the show together.

In his first week, Brown has yet to crack the big radio markets in California, but stations in Santa Barbara, Sacramento, Fresno, Santa Rosa, Santa Cruz, Redding and Alturas have signed up.

“We’re picking up stations every single day,” Star said. “We’re confident we’ll have a Los Angeles station within two weeks.”

The show is owned by Brown’s We the People group, and is free to radio stations. Brown said he does not plan to take a salary and will pump ad revenues--when there are some--into his organization.

During the shows, Brown talks about some of the people he ran across--or ran against--during his years in politics. President Clinton, Ross Perot, former President George Bush, Oliver North and others are all targets of his wit.

Brown says he doubts his show will have any effect on the gubernatorial campaign of his sister, state Treasurer Kathleen Brown. “We’re on a totally different track here.” The two are close and talk frequently, he said. During his first day on the air Monday, one of the calls was from a “Kathy in D.C.,” who turned out to be sister Kathleen, in Washington on state business, calling to wish him luck.

Brown plans to pick a different theme for each program, bashing the oil companies one day and hitting political contributions the next. “I’m enjoying it,” he told his listeners. “I hope you are.”

But can the man who would be president find happiness in a radio booth? Perhaps. Will he be tempted once again to seek an elective post? “I don’t think so,” he says, “but . . . I obviously enjoy running for office. That’s pretty clear.”