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Reporter’s Notebook: Covering Jerry Brown

As the legend goes, some reporters were leaving a downtown club after a political banquet when they heard a rustle in the bushes. “Hey, let’s go get a beer!” The voice belonged to Gov.-elect Jerry Brown, 36, on a quest to hook up with the Capitol Press Corps.

“I knew then,” one of the journalists recalled later, “that things were going to be different in Sacramento.”

They were. That kind of thing didn’t happen with Ronald Reagan. And it hasn’t happened since.

Thirty-five years later, Brown is twice as old and Sacramento is twice as bad. The problems of 1975 seem miniscule compared with the problems of 2010. General Fund spending then was about  $10 billion, half the size of the current shortage facing the state in a spending plan that has ballooned 1,000 percent. The population has nearly doubled, campaign costs have skyrocketed, public confidence in California governance has plunged to record lows, the recession is painful, unparalleled partisanship has taken hold and the state, as usual, appears teetering on catastrophe.  But since reporters show up after the battle to shoot the wounded, there are a lot of good stories here.

The governor’s Capitol press office, which Brown kept in the Horseshoe three doors down from his own office, was banished by a successor to an outside corridor and never returned. The notion of a press office cheek-by-jowl with the governor’s inner sanctum is unheard of now. But the restless, inquisitive and contrary Brown, despite a relentless whacking in the media, did not fear the press – a characteristic not shared by his successors, especially the last two.

Indeed, Brown frequently called reporters on the phone or confronted them in person to complain about their stories or try to shape them – or both. Part of the ritual of a new reporter assigned to the Capitol included a meeting with Brown.

“Why are you writing it like that?” he once asked me as I filed a wire-service story from a long-forgotten campaign stop in Fresno where he hoped to tout his transportation policies. “Why are you writing about welfare cuts? What’s going on? Where’s the transportation program?”

One day, Brown hosted a children’s art exhibition in his office. It was a routine event. Two reporters hung around  – one from the Bee and the other from the A.P. – and both noticed  that he appeared distracted as he went from exhibit to exhibit and was photographed with each young artist. It was three days before the 1976 filing deadline for the final round of presidential primaries. The reporters, well aware of Brown’s penchant for surprises, thought he might be on the verge of a making a major announcement.

He was: He decided to run for president.  The AP reporter carefully sidled over to Brown’s desk, picked up the phone and began filing a bulletin with the desk supervisor – a crusty, veteran street reporter — at the San Francisco bureau, the closest office open at that hour. As the reporter dictated his story, Brown kept breaking in with suggestions for the lead and the desk man at the other end had trouble following the dictation.

“Brown was fascinated with how the press worked, and stood directly beside me while I was dictating a bulletin story off of my notes,” recalled former AP Political Writer Doug Willis. “At several points Brown interrupted with comments such as, “Is that how you write all of your stories?” and “That’s not the most important point. This is.”

“I vividly recall one point when (the) reporter taking my dictation in San Francisco, asked what the interruptions were all about, and I explained, “I told you this was an exclusive. Brown’s right beside me suggesting how he would write the story!”

As a politician and governor, Edmund G. Brown Jr. is an odd mixture of ferocious ambition, intellectual curiosity and spiritual exploration. Born into a legendary political family – his father was governor from 1959 through to 1967, and Jerry once said his greatest political asset was the name his parents gave him — Brown was elected in November 1974 after serving a stint as secretary of state. He was reelected in 1978. He zipped around in a blue Plymouth, slept on a futon, dated celebrities, hung out with poets, started arguments for the sake of discussion, outraged newsies by calling them on deadline and had a mountain cabin 70 miles from Sacramento. Quite a mix.

On his last night in office, after appointing scores of new judges, he hung out at David’s Brass Rail, a small bar on 12th near L where the Hyatt Regency garage is now, and partied through the night with singer Linda Ronstadt, reporters, staff members and anybody else who could get into the crowded tavern.

That many reporters liked him, few doubt, and a number of journalists left the profession to work for him. But few remained with him long. And those who didn’t like him, really didn’t like him. Even those who worked for him were disliked: Many of the “Brownies,” as they were known, had trouble landing jobs elsewhere in the political world after Brown left the governorship.

Rife with contradictions, Brown was an easy target for reporters, who nailed down his parsed positions over the years.

But whatever he did captured attention, from the trivial to the important. Brown’s love life – he dated rock star Ronstadt and Hollywood actress Cindy Williams, among other celebrities – also drew major coverage, as did his apartment at 14th and N with the mattress on the floor, his foray into Zen Buddhism, his call for private space exploration, his demand for solar and wind energy, his appointment of the first woman as chief justice of the state Supreme Court, his signing of the first law in the nation authorizing collective bargaining for farm-worker unions – the list goes on.

Combative and contrary, Brown as governor was contemptuous of a political litmus test. For years, his chief of staff was Gray Davis, a conventional Democrat who later became governor himself – and was recalled in 2003.

When Davis left Brown to run for the Assembly in 1982, he was replaced by the flamboyant and blunt-spoken B.T. Collins, a Republican, who had lost an arm and leg in the Vietnam war.

Collins once made national headlines by drinking a glass of the Medfly-eradicating chemical malathion to show it was safe for humans. It would be difficult to find someone as different from Brown as Collins – but people who knew them both well said that was exactly why Brown chose him.

In between terms as governor, the ever-ambitious Brown ran for president twice. In that 1976  run – he got in late – he made a respectable showing.

In his second run, he crashed and burned. One campaign appearance had been billed as the latest in flashy, multimedia events complete with a laser show and high-tech sound reportedly put together by Francis Ford Coppola, became known as the ultimate meltdown after the synchronization failed. A video tape of the event was known for years in the Capitol as “Apocalypse Right Now.”

I came to Sacramento mid-way through Brown’s second term and it seemed at the time that he was everywhere at once. He also seemed to be scattered and disorganized.

Ranking members of his administration would get weekend calls to meet the governor at his office to discuss administration business – and the governor would show up hours late, if at all. One friend of mine in the administration got such a call on a Sunday at 7 p.m., hurried to the governor’s office and wound up cooling his heels until midnight. Numerous others, always off the record, complained of the same treatment.

He was hard to pin down, but didn’t seem to care and appeared contemptuous of the reporters’ passion for consistency.

He danced around some issues – first opposing, then embracing Proposition 13, for example – and quickly acquired and discarded others. Although many of his notions were ridiculed at the time – “small is beautiful,” private space travel, “era of limits,” alternative energy, “woodchips and windmills”  – many have since come to pass. As “Gov. Moonbeam,” Brown seemed to fit perfectly into the popular notion of California as a screwy land of cultists, hedonists, activists, geeks and actors – a perception that often lingers in the national media’s political coverage of the state. The late Chicago columnist Mike Royko, who tagged Brown with the “Gov. Moonbeam” sobriquet, later apologized.

When he ran for president the first time, a pollster said the California public felt it had been jilted by a lover. The second time, people were angry. When he ran a third time, in the 1990s, most didn’t care.

How Californians will feel about him in 2010 as he tries to get his old job back is anybody’s guess. But political reporters, at least, are ready to enjoy the spectacle of yet another Jerry Brown campaign.

“I started running for office when I was 29 for the junior college board in Los Angeles. And I kept going at a steady pace, running for secretary of state, for governor, then president, then Senate, almost non-stop until my mid-40s,” he once said.

The big question, of course, is whether Brown’s canoe still floats.

“Politics is like paddling a canoe,” he once told reporters surrounding him in L Street in his first discussion of what later became known as his “Canoe Theory of Politics.” “You paddle a little on the left and a little on the right and you paddle a straight course. …If you stand up, you have to be careful or you will fall in the water.”

Editor’s Note: A special thanks to retired AP Political Writer Doug Willis, my former boss, who covered state politics for more than three decades.

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