Gov. Jerry Brown was explaining why he loves his isolated, ancestral ranch and plans to live there when he broke into song.
“Oh, give me land, lots of land under starry skies above.
“Don’t fence me in…”
“What’s the next verse?” he stopped and asked. “I like that song.”
The 1944 Roy Rogers hit — also sung by Bing Crosby, Kate Smith, Gene Autry and many others — was popular when the 80-year-old, termed-out governor was a kid.
Now he’s packing up and heading into unfenced retirement after serving a record four terms as governor and, in all, an astounding 34 years in five elective offices. They include Los Angeles Community College board, secretary of state, Oakland mayor and state attorney general — one of the most successful and long-lasting political careers in California history.
Brown and his wife, Anne Gust Brown, are building a house on a 2,600-acre spread his family owns in the foothills of western Colusa County, a 75-minute drive northwest of Sacramento. His great-grandfather on his father’s side settled there during the Gold Rush. It once was a stagecoach stop and hotel.
How big a house? “It’s 2,700 square feet,” he said. “One bedroom, a big living room, a pantry, a basement, a mud room, a garage and a little office.”
Mud room? “That’s where you come in with your muddy boots and the dogs,” he said. “You scrape off your boots, wash the dogs and take off your muddy clothes.”
The ranch is four miles off the main two-lane road between Williams and Clear Lake.
“It’s beautiful,” he said. “The closest neighbors are a mile and a half away. Living out there is a lot different than living in a little condo or some house behind a gate. People are very friendly.”
The governor did get booed once at a local rodeo. But at a rice farmers’ dinner, he won a raffled shotgun and John Deere hat.
Most of the Brown property is leased for cattle ranching. There’s a big Tule elk herd, he said, and lots of rattlesnakes.
What’s there to do up there?
“What do you do anywhere?” he replied. “I have several thousand books.” His wife has been trying to figure out where to put them.
Somehow, this doesn’t seem like the Jerry Brown we’ve all come to know — the San Francisco-reared, Los Angeles bachelor who dated singer Linda Ronstadt, later became Oakland mayor and is a philosopher-quoting internationalist. Now he’s going to be wearing a John Deere hat and muddy boots, a shotgun slung over his shoulder and singing “Don’t Fence Me In”?
But little about Jerry Brown has ever been conventional.
One example: I asked him in an interview at the historic, Victorian governor’s mansion Tuesday whether he accomplished what he’d set out to do when he ran for governor.
“What I wanted to get done,” he answered, “was I wanted to get elected governor. That’s usually the objective of people running for election.” That was fairly candid.
He thought for a moment and added: “I wanted to bring a whole new spirit to Sacramento, which I did. I was a little different than those who went before and those who came after.”
What kind of spirit? “A spirit of inquiry and openness to ideas and constituencies that didn’t have much influence or power.”
He was referring to both his tenures as governor — the youthful one in the 1970s and the mature second act.
I spoke with him in a remodeled breakfast room. It’s larger and more elegant than the porch-like nook in the same spot where I interviewed his father, Gov. Pat Brown, in 1966 as he began a losing reelection race against Ronald Reagan.
Nancy Reagan considered the place a firetrap — she liked Southern California ranch-style houses — and soon abandoned the mansion in 1967. It hadn’t been lived in again until Jerry Brown remodeled the structure and moved in. Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom probably won’t be living there either.
There’s a baby grand piano in the mansion that belonged to Brown’s mother. Brown intends to cart it up to the ranch. He doesn’t play, but has taken one lesson.
Later at a Sacramento Press Club luncheon, Brown family biographer Miriam Pawel — a former Los Angeles Times senior editor — and I moderated a Q&A session with the departing governor. I asked him what he’d learned from his father.
“One thing I learned was not to have an open-ended press conference every week,” he said.
His father would express his honest view on an issue, then later change his mind and get tagged for being a “flip-flopper.” So Brown Jr. decided to hold news conferences only when he had a particular point to make.
He also learned that “loyalty is important. Keep the meritocracy within limits.”
But “politics is a difficult business,” he said. “You need to raise massive sums of money from people who all want something. And if you give it to them directly, you’ll go to jail. But if you don’t give it to them in some form, you won’t be elected to the next office.”
What will he miss and not miss?
“I like sparring with the press. I like raising money. I like attacking my opponents. I like being attacked by my opponents,” he answered. “I like it all.”