In 1992 Governor Jerry Brown ran for the Democratic nomination for President. I was living in a log home on a mountain ridge in Oregon, having left NBC News several years earlier to write novels. I listened to one of the first debates of that political season on NPR. Brown was up against a number of other candidates, including a former Arkansas governor named Bill Clinton.
At the end of that debate I looked at my wife-to-be and said, “I think I can help Brown.”
The next morning I contacted his headquarters in L.A. His campaign manager told me they were interested in talking. I drove an old Toyota pickup down the coast. Seventy-two hours later I was sitting across from Brown on a chartered Learjet flying across the Midwest, briefing him about the gruesome counter-insurgency that the U.S. supported regime in Guatemala was waging against native villagers suspected of aiding leftist guerillas.
Just moving around Guatemala back then had been dangerous. Reporters had disappeared, so I’d left all my press credentials in the States and identified myself as a windsurfing instructor. I had to pick an occupation I knew a lot about, other than journalism. In fact, within a year I would abandon the business to carve up big surf on the north coast of Maui and write fiction full time. But it was very different in the tropical locales of Guatemala. Every fifteen or twenty kilometers heavily armed soldiers, many still in their teens, stopped and searched my traveling companion and me at roadblocks. He was a widely respected psychologist who had worked with children of war. I had no camera operator; I shot parts of that story with a home movie camera, always posing as a tourist.
Despite the dangers and excitement of journalism, signing on as Brown’s press secretary was one of the headiest experiences of my life. He was an insurgent of sorts himself, calling for a 50 percent cut in the defense budget and redirecting American priorities from militarism to investing in the country itself: infrastructure, high-speed rail, public education, the environment, social programs. Brown, in so many ways, was a progressive’s dream candidate. And he was winning primaries. By the time we reached the critical one in New York, party stalwarts were worried enough to pull out all the big guns to defeat him and crown Clinton.
But Jerry didn’t quit. He used the campaign pulpit to advocate for his ideas across the country. His campaign slogan was “Take Back America.” He refused campaign contributions of more than $100, and on that basis alone matched Clinton’s big money backers dollar for dollar in the New York primary. But after that decisive loss the national press vanished and the traveling campaign staff was soon reduced to the two of us. He was seen by the few reporters who showed up in states that no longer had a role in selecting the Democratic nominee as a quixotic candidate, laudable, perhaps, for pursuing his goals, but not capable of achieving them.
Jerry was serious. He played hardball through the convention and gave a rousing speech to his delegates.
When it was over, I went back to that log home on a mountain and writing full-time, although my first foray was to the Oregon coast. The wind was light, the waves small. I didn’t care. I was back on the water.
Jerry offered me a staff position after he moved to Oakland and started planning his campaign for mayor of that city, the first step that would lead him by design or happenstance—serendipity plays a role in every politician’s life, even the most successful—back to the governorship of California. I declined his offer, as single-minded about writing novels as I once had been about pursuing corrupt public officials.
He’s been back in the news over the past few weeks, and he’s definitely achieving his goals: first by issuing his emergency measures to deal with the drought savaging California, then for signing an executive order calling for cuts in greenhouse gas emissions of 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030. This is on par with the European Union, a standard much tougher than the one advocated by most federal officials in the U.S., including President Obama. It’s the kind of cutbacks necessary if we’re to get serious about containing the ongoing damages of the warming.
Brown’s making climate change his signature issue in the final years of his political life. He’s had an admirable career by any measure—and a long one. When he was first elected governor in 1974, he was one of the youngest to hold that office. He served two four-year terms. When he was again elected governor 2010, he was the oldest person to ascend to that position. He was reelected in 2014.
A lot of politicians don’t wear well. I’ve interviewed so many that I long ago lost count. Most I’d rather forget.
Not Governor Brown.