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I HAD READ about "Moonbeam" Jerry Brown. I had heard how this flaky former governor of California had traveled to the Far East to practice transcendental meditation. And I had seen him in the first nationally televised debate between the Democratic presidential candidates, advertising himself like clearing houses advertise Country and Western CD collections.
So, until I heard Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr. speak at the Kennedy School of Government on December 16, I thought I had developed an accurate assessment of him: unrealistic, anachronistic and obnoxious. After listening to Brown for an hour, I've changed my mind.
WHEN HE STARTED SPEAKING, I was skeptical to say the least. He sounded disorganized, had no prepared speech and rushed right into his platform without any sort of introduction to "warm up" the audience. Was this presidential material?
Then it occurred to me: I've become so conditioned by packaged candidates and manufactured candidacies that I generally view a politician negatively if he doesn't conform to this norm. As Brown spoke, his disorganization soon gave way to a comfortable stream of messages. So what if he had no introduction? It didn't matter--Brown needed no gimmicky anecdote (like Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton's one about the cab driver) to start his speech. He spoke directly to the audience and his face revealed startling sincerity.
But was this presidential material? In berating career politicians, Brown kept repeating. "There's a certain unreality here." But the unreality I saw lay in his perception and approach. I was hearing something I had only read about, seen in old Dennis Hopper movies, and heard my parents reminisce about: unapologetic, furious and bitter establishment-bashing. "I don't enjoy taking a crowbar" to the system, Brown said, but it was clear that he enjoyed it very much.
So much, in fact, that I began to wonder how anyone who so hated the establishment could ever hope to govern effectively as part of it. Come question-and-answer time, one woman vocalized my concern. Brown's response--clearly unscripted--may have been one of the better soundbites of the night: "If the system isn't working, then is working with an unworking system...working?"
Great Jerry, I thought, but how do you make the system work? That's exactly what his campaign is all about. "There's a world view here that needs to be shared," he proclaimed. "This is about saving this country's democracy." Here, finally, is a candidate who seems genuinely committed to creating change, to revitalizing a process in which most of the electorate has lost faith.
It was clear that his listeners sensed that committment. They heard him lash out against Political Action Committees, incumbent politicians, Republicans, Democrats, defense spending and Tom Brokaw--and loved every minute of it.
When Brown attacked the Senate for staying up until midnight to discuss the Savings and Loan bailout and asked why they couldn't do the same to discuss full funding for Headstart, his listeners agreed. Like no speaker I had seen before, Jerry Brown spoke to his audience, and his audience heard him.
STILL, was this presidential material? I began to see the usefulness of his efforts and the electric attractiveness of his campaign, even if it fails. His promise to wage "an insurgent campaign" is reminiscent of Abbie Hoffman, the 1960s radical and self-described "American dissident." Like Hoffman, Brown is unashamed to knock the establishment, unashamed to appeal to the people's sense of "what's right."
Whether or not he wins the Democratic nomination, his campaign will direct the American people's attention to the lopsided priorities of our current leadership. He speaks about "restructuring attitudes," and seems to favor restructuring the political system. He points out incongruencies in Bush's foreign policy, and advocates a policy based on compassion.
Here is a leader with firm, unwavering convictions, who refuses to base his beliefs on the numbers produced by the pollsters. After four years under George Bush, a man with absolutely no beliefs so strong that they can't be reversed by a drop in the polls, it would be nice to have someone who isn't ideologically empty. I doubt Brown can singlehandedly overhaul the attitudes of Americans, but I see nothing wrong with giving him a chance to try.
As for pragmatism, Governor "Moonbeam" is not as flaky as the press would have you think. Beneath the impassioned cries for revolution lies a practical approach to government: He articulates coherent energy policy ideas and supports his arguments about defense spending with statistics. Behind his eloquent calls for reform are serious facts that lend credence to his proposals.
He speaks the language of the masses, but has the knowledge of a leader. Indeed, his popularity probably comes as much from his revolution-minded rhetoric as it does from his relaxed rapport with his audience.
WHEN BROWN ANNOUNCED--twice--during the December debate that he had established a toll-free number for contributors to call, and when (amid the protests of moderator Tom Brokaw) he told his viewers what that number was, I found him obnoxious.
But the next night at the Kennedy School, I began to understand his point: to wrench political influence from lobbyists and big-money campaign contributors and return it to the populace at large. "How many of you in this room have never given $1000 to a candidate?" he asked, and the question drove his point home. (For those of you who are interested, the number--which "so terrorizes the establishment"--is 1-800-426-1112.)
The Jerry Brown I saw at the Kennedy School last month was not the flake I had come to expect from press reports. The Jerry Brown I saw seemed witty, impassioned, spontaneous, casual, eloquent, inspiring, sarcastic, serious, rebellious, astute, and--above all-honest. What a refreshing change from the pre-packaged, poll-driven politicians we have come to expect and even admire.
I don't entertain any illusions about Brown's ability to capture the Democratic nomination, much less the presidency. But I intend to support him nonetheless. After all, we could do much worse than to elect a passionate, sincere ideologue. In 1988, we did.
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