One morning on an airplane to Los Angeles, our hero saw hijackers leap from their seats, waving box knives. His old ailments might have saved the day, but he'd been cured. He remained calm, healthy, and unaggressively sane -- right up to the moment of impact.
This imaginary scenario has a depressing parallel, just across the bay from San Francisco. Jerry Brown, who once suffered an uncontrollable impulse to conduct absurd-seeming campaigns for higher office, appears to have found inner peace -- just as California might be saved by one of his untamed political outbursts. Brown seems to have found a cure for his old impulses in his role as a no-nonsense, big-city manager. Unfortunately, he's done so just as California appears headed for gubernatorial disaster: A sleazy right-wing loony named Bill Simon is running against an equally sleazy, visionless fund-raising savant named Gray Davis.
When the young Jerry Brown watched California struggle under Ronald Reagan, the former seminarian yielded to his baser impulses and ran. When he saw America threatened in 1976 by the prospect of a peanut-farm presidency, he launched a mad-dash campaign for president. When he saw Bill Clinton's unopposed primary campaign lacking in entertainment value, Jerry Brown's psychosis yanked him into the presidential fray again.
But for some reason, things are different now. Perhaps it was that Zen-meditation retreat in Kamakura, Japan, a decade or so ago; or maybe Brown's J-Lo Square warehouse is infested with a healing type of fungus; or perchance Jacques Barzaghi is really Brown's sub rosa psychiatrist. Whatever sort of cure he's found, the former man from Moonbeam seems at peace with his role as the fussy mayor of Oakland.
He's so at peace, in fact, that a day after I asked his press aide for an interview to accompany the "Draft Jerry Brown for Governor" campaign I'm launching with this column, she left a message saying, "I don't think there's really much he wanted to add."
It's difficult to overemphasize the darkness of the voices emanating from this fall's gubernatorial campaign. In incumbent Gray Davis, we have the man a McKenna College political science professor called "the Christopher Columbus of campaign finance." Our current governor has so eagerly sought so much money from so many special interests that a significant portion of the policy he makes faces legitimate charges of conflict of interest.
The state prison guards' union gives Davis $251,000, and Davis does its bidding; a $25,000 check from Oracle rapidly follows a $95 million state contract; Davis delays a decision to allow homes to have plastic pipe, the plumbers' union promptly gives the governor $260,000. Gray Davis' aides explain all this away with a template answer: "There is no connection between contributions and policy.'' Meanwhile, the concerns of ordinary citizens drift ever further from the thoughts and plans of the Statehouse.
The most important ramification of Davis' fund-raising expertise is his policy agenda: He has none, apparently by design. To remain a tabula rasa for the wishes of campaign contributors, our governor has created an apparent miracle: He's a politician with no discernible forward vision whatsoever. In place of attempting to realize such a vision, Gray Davis spends his energies seeking the perfect balance between benefiting campaign contributors and pandering to voters.
Campaign finance is the unified quantum theory explaining everything that's wrong with California politics -- and when you plug "Gray Davis" into the theory, you get very predictable answers.
Cash-flush nursing home lobbyists successfully stymie laws to protect the elderly. The well-heeled prison guards' union gets to keep a reprehensible policy prohibiting journalists from interviewing prisoners (and, just perhaps, learning of the horrors prison guards have perpetrated). Gray Davis takes $550,000 in donations from Southern California Edison and Pacific Gas & Electric. Those companies' interests get vigorously protected during the state's energy meltdown.
As horrid as Gray Davis might be, the incredible lightness of being gubernatorial candidate Bill Simon cannot be exaggerated. If we Californians are willing to elect a tax cheat whose dodges earned him a front-page spot in the Wall Street Journal, we're fools. If we support a wealthy scion who runs his family foundation as a revenue-producing tax-evasion scheme, we're ingénues. If we elect a man who has boasted on the radio about his eagerness to curtail government services for Hispanic immigrants, then lamely rescinded the boasts during the gubernatorial campaign -- may God save our mortal collective soul.
"Who could ask for a better opponent?" notes Leroy Chatfield, a former staff aide to Gov. Jerry Brown. "In terms of what's happening on the national scene, who's going to vote for a CEO [like Simon]? It's not in the cards. That's pretty cut and dried."
Which leaves us with Chatfield's former boss.
I first became a fan of Jerry Brown only three years ago, having held a grudge against him for 21 previous years, because of his role in the Jarvis/Gann tax revolt. Brown built up a large tax surplus during his first four years as governor, lending credence to proponents of property-tax-cutting Proposition 13, who said the government had more money than it needed. Once Prop. 13 passed, Brown became a post-factum advocate of the awful measure, a sin I hadn't forgiven him for -- until I was tipped back into the Brown column at a dinner party where I overheard a pair of Oakland-dwelling lawyers griping about the mayor's plan to bring 10,000 new residents to the city's downtown.
The buildings would gentrify their neighborhood, the lawyers were saying, placing obnoxious yuppies in areas once distinguished by their gritty character. Like most San Franciscans, I had barely paid attention to the political upheaval Brown had been causing in Oakland. But when I hear the whine of yuppie NIMBYs, even Oakland yup-NIMs, I'm prone to prick up my ears: This particular whine usually means a politician is doing something right. And as it happens, Brown is receiving the same criticisms as those leveled during his governorship, because he has, once again, placed effectiveness above ideology.
When Brown became governor, many California radicals hoped he would be a socialist-minded moonbeam flasher; instead, they got a fiscal conservative obsessed with esoterica like energy policy, budget-making, and crime-fighting.
A quarter-century later, Oakland leftists who thought they were electing a New Age radical are now living under a law-and-order, developer-friendly, heavy-handed political boss who's committed scores of leftist mortal sins, from confronting the abysmal, old-Oakland-left-allied school system to routinely dismissing the self-absorbed concerns of neighborhood activists.
Just as he did 26 years ago, Jerry Brown has appalled liberals and conservatives alike by preaching the doctrine that progressive faith, whether religious or political, has consequences.
For a century, the Creed of California has said that this is the land of endless possibilities: We can all live in ranch houses with swimming pools and gorge ourselves on the world's cheapest, most plentiful food. We've luxuriated in the fantasy of limitless wealth, and blissed out on the notion of endless summer (or spring, or fall, or whatever setting we happened to choose on our electricity-guzzling air conditioners).
In 1974, Brown seemed to suggest that components of this dream had a dark side. And he made heretofore-ignored issues such as the rights of agricultural workers, energy conservation, and government profligacy his policy centerpieces.
Decades later, following his failed 1992 campaign for president, Brown began preaching an adapted version of his less-is-more koan on his KPFA We the People radio show. He talked about transforming urban space with the goal of creating individual dense, livable neighborhoods that could, eventually, be important on a global environmental scale.
Brown spoke expansively of an "elegant density" that would become the defining element of an Ecopolis. Economically and physically ravaged downtown Oakland would be rejuvenated with ecologically smart projects and high-tech business. These improvements would draw residents and artists to something that sounded suspiciously like the more livable parts of his San Francisco birthplace. He promised to use every bit of his power as mayor to make this so, thus infuriating the old no-growth, anti-business Oakland left.
The teachers' union opposed Brown after the mayor battled with the school district. Some environmentalists became angry that the mayor won an easing of ecological standards for denser downtown development. Still others on the left were angered by the mayor's anti-crime crusade.
As before, Brown is fighting the battles of the future. The state will soon come to terms with a simple fact: For California to continue functioning, its cities must work; they can't remain crime-ridden dumping grounds, with the suburbs the only places that grow.
Much in the same way that Brown's quirky-seeming ideas about energy and budget limits have, 26 years later, become the most talked-about issues in California politics, all California politicians will eventually begin talking about some version of Brown's urban Ecopolis.
"I'm sure he's still a visionary. That's his makeup," says Chatfield, who was a gubernatorial and presidential campaign strategist for Brown, and who served alongside Gray Davis in Brown's Cabinet. Chatfield won't entertain the notion that his old boss might run again for governor.
"It's so hypothetical that the only real choices are Simon and Davis," says Chatfield, before going on to reminisce about Brown's compulsion toward vainglorious runs for higher office. "I don't think it's going to change. He was always ahead of where the conventional wisdom was. ... He was on the cutting edge of progress. He didn't have his finger in the wind to figure out where he was going. He was a visionary."
Ordinarily, I'm not one to launch a public appeal in support of a potentially dangerous emotional disability. You'll find no stauncher opponent of intermittent explosive disorder; I oppose kleptomania; and if there were some way I could eradicate Munchausen syndrome by proxy from the planet tomorrow, I would. But now, I'm making an exception to my normal position on instability, because California needs Jerry Brown, and it needs his compulsive political disorder; we need an escapist fantasy that might help us elude the night terrors caused by the threat of a Simon administration, or another Davis one.
Looking across the bay toward Oakland, I imagine Jerry Brown forgetting to take his political depressants. I see Brown contemplating jumping into the race, then hesitating for a nanosecond -- and then jumping. I see him defeating Gray Davis, his old chief of staff, and Bill Simon, a man with no business in politics.
And as I continue looking across the bay, I see an airline passenger, awakened from his calm reverie by the shouts of hijackers; his vision goes red; his body lurches into a frenzy. He strikes down box-knife-wielders two at a time, yelling, "Asslick Shit Shit. Fucking assmother greasy gruttocks!" all the while. Within moments, the hijackers are cowed into submission. The plane lands safely.
I see Jerry Brown once again governing California, as we all ride toward the future on moonbeams.