The days of the philosopher-king are long gone. Slipping away, too, are the days when the citizenry was familiar with the concept of a benevolent despot shaping a state in his mind's image.
But not in California. The picture painted of Gov. Jerry Brown in an extensive Atlantic magazine profile published this week is of a more wise and learned ruler than it is exhausted elder statesman limping back to old haunts, bereft of ideas (a notion bandied about by Brown's opponents in 2010 and today).
"It is cruel to lead people on by expanding good programs, only to cut them back when the funding disappears." This musing -- during a State of the State address -- came from the same tax-increasing, budget-cutting Democrat who was willing to use the absolute power available to him to kill redevelopment agencies (for which he is unliked by some in San Francisco and in his adopted hometown of Oakland), who channels the poet Rilke when declaiming his personal philosophy: to "live the question."
Literary, effective, and at times ruthless, Brown is "eccentric," the profile observed -- and in a day when political leaders are generally mentioned only to be reviled, "liked." And to think we could have had Meg Whitman or Gavin Newsom in the role of savior-dictator.
Penned by native Californio James Fallows, the profile is no feature-length caress: it notes that Brown has accomplished a lot but also "a little" at the same time. Brown's controversial Prop. 30, for example -- the once-unfathomable move in November by the California citizenry to raise its own taxes -- gifts the state $6 billion in taxes per yer but only for seven years, at which point the lean times may return. And Brown admits this. He informs the public of the bad news, via a Biblical reference that comes quickly to the former Jesuit seminarian.
A Bible-quoting pol who is a social liberal, a tax-raising lefty -- no doubt Brown is different. His differences, Fallows argues, are what make him suite to the role to which he has returned, though thanks also are due to the ups and downs of the last 40 years of California politics.
The ballot initiative process has been hijacked by the big-money interests from which citizen referendums were supposed to shield us, and worse, Prop. 13's two-thirds requirements has led to a Sacramento paralyzed by the tyranny of the minority. Brown, however, is able to break through the gridlock because he is who he is: an older man, familiar with the process, but also strong in mind, body and convictions, riding herd over a pack of "itinerant politicians" who are under the sway of professional lobbyists thanks to their term-limit-imposed institutional ignorance. It sounds simple, but maybe because it is.
Love him or hate him, it's hard not to admire Brown as a pure political anomaly. Here is an entourage-less guy who's wiling to say "I don't know' in between ably waxing philosophical as he does to the reporter from a national magazine (recall that when Newsom was profiled in an often-withering New York Times Magazine piece, his handlers were quick to boast of Gavin's enormous Twitter following).
"I find that a lot of people are more invested in position-taking than they are in the inquiry," he tells Fallows.
"Generally speaking, I am in the inquiry. I live in the question. People have so many positions, and usually the evidence is not strong enough for them really to be so confident in those conclusions. There are just a lot of things that are not certain."
In 2010, the question was, "Can an ancient mariner govern better than a captain of industry?" The deficit was $27 billion; now California is running a surplus. And there's a very unique man behind it all.