In many respects, Edmund "Pat" Brown fits the comic strip caricature of a politician. Heavy-set and florid, he talks in superlatives and looks at ease on a campaign platform. Genial most of the time, he blusters and pounds his fist if someone maligns Lyndon Johnson or another Democrat. He knows California as few other people do: probably no one else could be so effusive about the redwoods or the Los Angeles freeway system; probably no one else can name the tiny settlements that dot Highway 395 as it climbs from Barstow to Bishop.
Brown sees nothing demeaning about the politician's role. After two terms as governor and one as attorney general, he is clearly proud of being a pro. His pride is undoubtedly justified; few other politicians in this country can claim to have overpowered a Senate minority leader and a former vice-president. To a man confident of his vote-getting ability and elated by triumphs over two political giants, the million-vote loss to a virtual unknown last November must have been unbearably humiliating.
Even during his visit here in March, four months after the election, Brown still seemed stunned that "the people of California turned me out for a motion picture actor--and not a very good actor at that." He gives Ronald Reagan credit for being a "likable man," but still finds it hard to believe that the achievements of his two terms "didn't make any impression at all on voters." When he is pressed to explain his loss to Reagan, Brown confesses--somewhat helplessly--that he just doesn't "understand" the voting public anymore. "I don't think that as of today I represent the majority view in California," he says.
Brown is more concerned with concrete achievements and failures than with intangible sociological phenomena, but his explanation for his loss is particularly apt. Certainly his sponsorship of an unpopular fair housing act, the Watts and Fillmore riots, and repeated demonstrations at Berkeley also played a part in his loss, but behind these issues lies a more important truth about California: the state today is very different from what it was eight years ago, when Brown was first elected governor. And Brown's mistake was that he realized this too late -- after the election.
Five million people have moved to California since 1958, mostly from the South and the Midwest. Settling in Southern California, they have prospered and do not understand why Negroes and Mexican-Americans cannot also bull themselves up by their bootstraps. These self-made men have vague, probably unsubstantiated fears about open housing legislation, Negro riots, and "lawlessness" and "immorality" at Berkeley. They resented Brown because their property taxes had doubled; they suspected the governor of handing out their money to every "no-good" in the state. Voters like these probably voted Democratic in other years, because many are union members from the lower middle class. But for the first time last November, the Southern beach areas of Los Angeles County, where the aerospace plants are located and the workers live, went Republican, as did huge San Bernardino Country to the east, where space plants and military bases have been relocated.
Brown acknowledges that he detected a shift in popular feeling after he commuted Caryl Chessman's death sentence, as well as growing resentment of Negroes and state spending. "But I erroneously thought that people were proud of the things we had done," he says. "All they were really concerned with was taxes, I guess." Working without the blessings of second sight, Brown pitched a campaign that emphasized the "results" of his eight years in office: electoral reforms, a two billion dollar water program, a master plan for education, highway construction, and the establishment of a Fair Employment Practices Commission.
These were the issues that helped Brown beat Knowland and Nixon, but they simply were not live in 1966. As Brown says, "nobody seemed to listen to me. After all, they could watch this good-looking guy on TV." Brown claims Reagan never criticized any of these programs or offered constructive solutions to the state's budget problems, but simply capitalized on the public's fear of deficit spending, big government, and possible corruption in an entrenched administration. Not until after the election did Brown realize that "people just got tired of hearing the same voice and the same thing said."
His thrusts at Reagan, directed at the Republican's "inexperience" and "extremism," were blunted by Spencer-Roberts, the actor's campaign management firm that had begun second-guessing Brown early in 1965. Under their direction, Reagan turned the issue of his inexperience, which could have been a liability, into an asset; he claimed to be a "citizen politician," which somehow implied that Brown was not a knowledgeable pro but merely a used-up, corner-cutting political hack. And although Brown's staff unearthed every right-wing statement Reagan ever made, the issue of his "extremism" became irrelevant. After all, is a candidate "extremist" if most of the electorate is just as "extreme?"
Brown's campaign techniques were just as obsolete as the issues he emphasized. In a campaign where "image" counted heavily, Brown relied on the metropolitan press for the exposure he needed. Los Angeles and San Francisco newspapermen, generally unsympathetic to Reagan, were provided with well-researched smears against Reagan that produced big headlines. But for all this publicity, Reagan probably reached more voters through his frequent television appearances; he opened his campaign with a masterful fireside chat and spent unheard of amounts of TV, to capitalize on his good looks and long experience before the camera.
Both Brown and his former State Director of Finance, Hale Champion, who is now a fellow of the Kennedy Institute, stress the effectiveness of Reagan's "totally managed campaign." They predict that image building through the mass media will catch on nationally, and they worry about what this will mean to other political pros who may have neither youthful looks nor sex appeal. "The trouble with Spencer-Roberts," Brown told WHRB interviewers "is that after they tell you what people think, you have to say what people think." Always a party loyalist, Brown insists that Democratic candidates won't be tempted by the likes of Spencer-Roberts, "whereas the Reagans and Murphys will do it every time. I don't know how we Democrats are going to resolve this."
Brown is particularly worried about Johnson's lackluster image and inability to communicate with the public. "He's as proud of his program as I was, and I see him making the same mistakes that I did," Brown insisted. He assured audiences wherever he went that "Reagan is a threat, a real threat," and then claimed, in all seriousness, that "Reagan can beat anybody if he can beat me."
In a country where party identification is far less important than it once was, Brown is a strange bird. His unflinching loyalty to a Democratic Party he cannot control, and his inability to "understand" the electorate may mean bad days ahead for the old-time political pros. If elections continue to be wide-open, if voters continue to demand new faces and refuse to face the realities of this unlovely urban world, what happened to Brown may happen to other established politicians. California is not the weird anomaly the rest of the country considers it. As the Beach Boys, those insightful amateur sociologists, express it, "this country is becoming just one big California."