The only picture on Jerry Brown’s desk in the California state capitol building in Sacramento is a black-and-white photograph of his late father, Edmund Gerald “Pat” Brown, wearing a suit, a pair of dark-rimmed glasses and a stern expression while standing next to John F. Kennedy. It was taken in 1959, the year before Kennedy was elected president, in the same office where Edmund Gerald “Jerry” Brown and I now sit. “See that light switch in the picture?” the 74-year-old says, pointing out the switch on the wall behind his desk. “There it is. Different desk, though.”
Then, as now, a Brown is governor of California, America’s most populous state, with 38 million people and, thanks to Silicon Valley, Hollywood and the country’s largest agricultural yield, an economy that would be the ninth-biggest in the world if it were a separate country. This is not Brown’s first stint in charge, having served two terms between 1975 and 1983. But 28 years on, in 2011, he returned to Sacramento when he defeated the former eBay chief executive Meg Whitman in a landslide to succeed Arnold Schwarzenegger as governor.
In those intervening years he studied Zen Buddhism in Japan, worked for Mother Teresa in Calcutta and ran for president for a third and final time when he took on Bill Clinton in the 1992 primary race for the Democratic nomination. He was elected mayor of Oakland, on the other side of the bay from San Francisco, and then state attorney-general. And now he is back in his old office – an office which was used by his father before him and, from 1967 to 1975, one Ronald Reagan when he was California governor. I ask Brown if his improbable return disproves F. Scott Fitzgerald’s line about there being no second acts in American lives and he mentions Karl Marx’s maxim about history repeating itself – first as tragedy, then as farce. “Except now I’m thoroughly enjoying it,” he says. “Much more than the first time.”
Due to turn 75 the day after this story is published, Brown is trim and dapper in a dark suit – the same suit, he tells me, that he wore the day he married his wife, Anne, eight years ago. (This is his first marriage: “I waited till I was 67,” he says. “I was concerned by my retirement.”) He has inherited his father’s frown, judging by the pictures of Brown senior in the office, but his brows are silvery grey and the dark hair that he wore combed back when he was governor in the late 1970s – and dating the singer, Linda Ronstadt – is long gone. There is a deep scar on his nose, the result of a surgical procedure to remove a cancerous growth, but neither that operation, more recent treatment for prostate cancer, nor age appears to have slowed him. He is about to depart for China on a trade mission, beating the drum for investment in the Golden State, and has challenged journalists to contests on the pull-up bars in his office – late last year he laid down a similar invitation to Chris Christie, the corpulent governor of New Jersey, when the two were sparring over Brown’s push to raise California taxes via a plebiscite. (Christie has, to date, not accepted.)
Brown’s age has been no impediment to his recent political progress: in November he won a crucial victory when Californians voted for higher sales taxes and staggered new taxes on the wealthy. The revenue the new taxes will generate, combined with deep spending cuts, has effectively eliminated the $27bn budget deficit Brown inherited from Schwarzenegger who, despite plenty of tough Terminator talk, failed to fix the state’s perennial financial problems. Brown, on the other hand, has shown an iron side: the man known as Governor Moonbeam in the 1970s, in part because of his passion for satellite technology and space exploration, has balanced the books of a state that, until recently, was tipped by conservative commentators to follow Greece into financial oblivion. “They don’t call me Moonbeam any more,” he growls. “We cut pensions, the equivalent of social security, we cut healthcare, childcare … we had a tax [ballot] and everyone said, that’s not going to pass – and it passes! We’re getting things done. We’re building the foundation for a renewed California.”
The interior of Brown’s Sacramento office reflects his 40 years in the political spotlight and his family’s deep ties to California. There is a photograph on a wall of a vast city billboard promoting his father’s 1966 campaign; on another wall is a framed copy of Interview magazine from the late 1970s, with an Andy Warhol portrait of the younger Brown adorning the cover. The contents of a wide wooden bookshelf hint at his eclectic tastes: the collected essays and journalism of George Orwell is next to Autobiography of a Yogi, for example.
He peppers his conversation with Latin quotes, biblical references and classical allusions. Consider his opinion of Barack Obama. “He’s made a Herculean effort and has the wisdom of Solomon.” Or his response to my question about whether his views have changed since the 1970s. Most politicians of the left have tacked to the centre. Has Brown, over time? “I don’t know. I was just reading today about Bill Clinton signing [the Defense of Marriage Act].” Clinton signed the bill – widely opposed by gay people – when he was president but said last month that he had made a mistake. “And [now] he’s saying, ‘Ooops.’ No politician can be an abstractionist. You can’t make reality fit into your Procrustean bed.”
“That’s when you would chop the guy’s legs off because the bed didn’t fit. You can’t ignore reality, you have to say, what’s going on? And what’s available and possible? You want to take your view of the world and what you’re trying to do – we’re trying to create the good society, trying to make democracy work.” In other words, he cannot afford to be ideologically rigid. “The tree that bends [in the wind] stands up.”
He sits on a short sofa underneath a black-and-white photograph of a man with a long white beard tending to farm animals. “My great-grandfather, August Schuckman,” Brown says. “He was here in 1852 driving a stage coach to Sacramento.” He has letters written by Schuckman detailing the hardships of his journey from Germany to frontier California in the aftermath of the Gold Rush. This, Brown suggests, provides welcome perspective at a time when “there’s a lot of whining among very wealthy people”.
They should remember history, he says. “I see Schuckman talking about wagons strewn by the side of the road, guns broken up lying by the road in Utah,” he says. “And he got over here. Can you think of marching across America on foot?” Schuckman made do without modern comforts, he adds, before embarking on a diatribe about the “stuff” deemed essential to 21st-century life. “We’ve encrusted ourselves with more layers, more things. We have challenges [in this country] … not just to collect more toys. Is that our national purpose? Is that why August Schuckman came to California? I like to walk up there [at the farm]. I think of him coming over in a covered wagon, going out on the boat, and then I think, what’s my problem?”
He has first-hand experience of the ascetic life. As a young man he wanted to become a priest and attended a Jesuit seminary for three years. “We could only read the lives of Jesuit saints – not Franciscan saints, only Jesuit saints. The day was Latin, mass, meditation, menial work. The Jesuit upbringing was tantum quantum: you take what you need. Less not more. It’s almost a Buddhist thought, a Greek thought. There’s a balance.”
He calls this “proportionality” and it has become a philosophy that, over the years, has shaped his world view – particularly what he regards as the excesses of market-based capitalism. “The capital game, the market game is: is there ever enough money? No … how can there be enough? But take your body – you need so much salt, but not too much. [You need] some calcium but not too much. There’s an optimum range. The right proportions. But money? No. It never stops.” He suggests a fix that ties together strands of Buddhism and Jesuit Catholicism. The market system, he says, should “be embedded in the cultural biological system”.
While I ponder what this means I ask why he left the seminary. A friend visited him there and told him about Albert Camus. “He said, Camus is talking about the absurd, which is when the human heart reaches out and yearns for meaning and the universe is absolutely silent. But you can never stop the human heart from yearning and you can never stop the universe from being silent. I thought, ‘Wow. I have to get out there.’”
He was 21 in 1960 when he came out of the seminary and his father was embarking on the first of his two terms as California governor. Brown senior built new freeways, aqueducts and expanded access to higher education: the Washington Post recently credited him with turning California into “America’s postwar industrial Eden”. He beat Richard Nixon in his 1962 gubernatorial victory – another candidate, like Reagan, who would go on to be president – yet his final term was marred by the Watts riots and growing concern about the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley. The movement galvanised those protesting against the Vietnam war but horrified many voters in a state which was then moderately Republican. When the elder Brown ran for a third term he was beaten in a landslide. “Reagan rolled in with a million-vote victory,” says Brown. “Pretty stunning. People were tired. The city on the hill looked like it was under siege.” I ask if his father inspired him to get into politics. “I’m not trying to imitate my father. That’s pop psychology.”
I know that, I say, but …
“He never told me to run for anything,” he says, abruptly. “But you get imprinted. I am in the house with this guy every night for dinner and he is being a politician, not talking about it. From a very early age there’s the fundraising, the talk, the unions, the speeches.”
How were the speeches?
“Not bad. I wasn’t too impressed with his rhetoric. There was a certain bombast. But it was not elegant rhetoric. It was not Demosthenes.”
Whatever his motivation, the younger Brown did repeat the achievements of his father in winning public office. After leaving the seminary, he went to Berkeley, then studied law at Yale. He landed a job at a Los Angeles law firm but in 1970 ran for California secretary of state – and won. “I was elected in 1970 four years to the day after my father lost to Reagan. I stood next to Nancy Reagan and Reagan is taking the vow [as governor]. I said, ‘I’ll be back here in four years [as governor].’ And I was.”
In his first term as governor he made his mark with efforts to protect the environment but only one year in he ran for the Democratic presidential nomination, ultimately losing to Jimmy Carter. Why did he run? “Because I had big ideas! I thought, I know more than Carter, I know more than these other guys. I thought this governor stuff [at the time] was pretty mundane. If I had my wife Anne around maybe I would have pulled it off. She’s more systematic and you need to lay a foundation. You need allies.”
He came closer four years later when he challenged Jimmy Carter – Ted Kennedy also ran – but Carter prevailed, only to be swept aside by Reagan in the general election. Brown’s 1980 election slogan says much about his ambitions at the time: “Protect the earth, serve the people, explore the universe.” He laughs. “It was a little broad.” This was the Moonbeam era, when Brown wanted to launch California’s own space satellite as a way of moving data and information around. The idea was ahead of its time and he failed to get enough support for it but then many things that happen in California are ahead of their time: environmental legislation the state passed in the 1970s was the toughest in the US while its efforts to curb car exhaust emissions would eventually be adopted by the rest of the country.
His nearest brush with the Democratic nomination was in 1992 when he lost to Clinton, then the governor of Arkansas. There is footage online of a primary debate that year with the two men squaring up to each other onstage, Clinton angrily telling Brown he “ought to be ashamed of himself” after Brown accused him of “funnelling money to his wife’s law firm for state business”. Polls had the two neck and neck. It could have been you that year, I say. “Could have been. He had a better plan. He knew people, he made friends with the sons of Mammon. They say the children of darkness are wiser in their way than the children of light. That’s a biblical text,” he says, matter of factly. “No one reads the Bible any more.”
It was a tough campaign; Clinton’s admission that he had smoked pot at university but “didn’t inhale” becoming the stuff of legend, as did a Johnny Carson quip on The Tonight Show about Brown: Carson joked that the California governor had admitted smoking the drug in the 1960s “but didn’t exhale”.
There were reports in the years that followed of a feud between Brown and Clinton but Brown disputes this. “There was no feud,” he says. “No permanent enemies, no permanent friends … only permanent interests. Somebody said that. A Frenchman?” His press secretary is sitting nearby on a long, worn table that Brown calls the “monastic bench”, where he often holds meetings. “Lord Palmerston,” calls the aide, after consulting his smartphone.
“What?” says Brown.
“He said ‘no permanent enemies, no permanent friends’.”
“I’ll give you another maxim, because it’s so shocking,” says Brown, turning back to me and picking up a small red book. “This is the 12th rule of the Jesuit order.” He opens it at a page and points me to a passage that stresses the “abnegation and continuous mortification of all things possible”. “Abnegation – negate, go against. Mortify – make dead. That’s strong! That’s not the vibe of today.”
Brown doesn’t talk like most politicians and if it seems like he is from a different era it is because he is. “I look at things differently,” he says. “I’m a leftover. A remain.”
But he likes debate and argument. “I knew Christopher Hitchens very well. I used to argue with him about Mother Teresa.” Hitchens was a big critic of the nun. “I found that unfair. I worked with [her] and she was inspired. She could speak authoritatively from her whole being. I went to see her, just like I went to the seminary, to see what was the meaning of all this? She was an authentic leader. There was simplicity and power and a clarity.” It was an enriching experience, he says. “It’s a lot better than hanging around with good Scotch and talking to the powerful.”
With California’s budget deficit solved – for now – he has turned his attention to other challenges. Unemployment in California is still higher than the national average and the state has billions of dollars of unfunded pension liabilities. He says there are some public workers in the state who can retire at 50 “and I think they’re going to live until they’re 100. So we have to pay for them for 50 years and they only work for 30 … how’s that going to work?” He has other projects – “big ideas”, such as changing the distribution of new tax money to schools to help children who may not speak English as a first language, and developing a bullet train in the face of considerable opposition and a rising price tag. “You can’t be a great country without a big idea and without being able to have faith that the people who come after you will continue,” he says, emphatically. “Otherwise it’s just shifting sands.”
He also wants to build two vast tunnels in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to the east of San Francisco to protect the ecology of the area and improve the water supply to southern California. “We need those tunnels,” he says. “You get an extreme weather event, a rise in sea levels – or an earthquake tonight! – and 50 per cent of the fresh water stops in Silicon Valley, 20 per cent of the water in Los Angeles – it stops. Eighty per cent of the water for farms in the Central Valley – stops.” He punches his palm. “Game over.”
A similar plan went to a public ballot in 1982 when he was last governor but failed to pass. This time, he says, he has a better chance of success. “Now I know more. I didn’t know about that damn fish. What was it called?”
“The smelt,” calls his press secretary from the other side of the room.
“The smelt!” says Brown. “I didn’t know about that in 1982. I didn’t know that young juvenile salmon need to be in waters that flow a certain way.” Experience and age have given him a new appreciation for the smaller details that matter, he says. “Governors fly at 50,000ft with messaging from their communications directors and their handlers and consultants who get huge, obscene salaries. But they’re not paying attention! They don’t care [about the details]!”
In 1960 John F. Kennedy came to California and Brown shared a car with the presidential hopeful. “I asked him, ‘What are you going to do about Red China?’ He said, ‘Well, we have to watch our vital interests.’ So he didn’t answer the question.” More than 50 years later the Zelig-like Brown will himself go to China on behalf of his state. “I’m going to go there just like I went to Calcutta and Japan. I’m going to sense the dynamism. They’re building stuff – 5,000 miles of high-speed rail and a hundred years ago the British were feeding them opium. This is a big transition. So now I want to build a railroad [in California] and people say we can’t do it. I think there’s a demoralisation, a flagging of spirit. We have to light that fire.”
A dog barks and Sutter, his pet corgi, scampers into the room, followed by Anne Gust Brown, Brown’s wife.
He keeps going off at tangents, I say to Gust Brown. “Yes,” she sighs. “He’s good at pulling you off [track].”
Yet on the subject closest to his heart – the state that he clearly adores – Brown has a singular focus. California, he says, is “in some ways a dream … it’s a civilisation, a culture, an exceptional place. I’m intentionally bringing to the public the idea of what California is, its history, its people, its character and what it can be.” He says he will be around “for a while” but having returned as Golden State governor for a second act it is unclear what he intends to do for an encore. Brown, I sense, will write his own finale. “I have no intention of walking off the stage here, now that I’m on it.”
Matthew Garrahan is the FT’s Los Angeles correspondent