The Fifth-Grader’s Picture File: The Browns

Governor Edmund G. “Pat” Brown and Bernice Layne Brown, 1965.

It’s a little strange to look at this as a long-time Californian (or at least a long-time Californai resident. Are they the same thing?).

Pat Brown was a really important figure in state government through the mid-1960s, and there are several things I immediately associate with him: the State Water Project, for instance, and California’s Master Plan for Higher Education. And the fact he took office in a period where the state was growing like crazy. But what, specifically, would have made me, a fifth-grader in the Chicago suburbs, write the governor’s office for a picture? Maybe I had heard mention of him as a potential running mate for President Johnson in 1964 (yes, I would haver been paying attention). Maybe I heard some other news item or an approving remark from my parents. I have no real idea.

This arrived in the mail in March 1965 — probably the same week that I got the first picture in my collection, the portrait of Otto Kerner. Brown was in his second term, having beaten Richard “You Won’t Have” Nixon (to Kick Around Anymore) in 1962. Standing for his third term as governor, he wasn’t so lucky. In 1966, Brown lost in a landslide to Ronald Reagan, winning just three of the state’s 58 counties (San Francisco, Alameda and Plumas).

How did he come by the nickname Pat? This is what he said during a 1982 oral history interview:

Brown: It was 1917 when I was in the seventh grade they had these four-minute speeches for the sale of Liberty Bonds. We had to write a speech and then we had to deliver it. I’ll never forget that I made the speech and I ended up by saying, “Give me liberty or give me death,” and the kids at school started calling me “Patrick Henry” Brown. It’s an amazing thing how they shortened it to “Pat.”

Q.: How did you see that at the time, as derisive or as something that was …?

Brown: Oh no, it was friendly, very friendly. It usually is when they give you a nickname. It was a fortuitous thing that happened because I think “Pat” Brown helped me later on in political life. It gave me an Irish connotation which was really somewhat undeserved because I was half German and half Irish.

Of course, I should mention Bernice Layne Brown, the governor’s wife, also pictured above. She and her husband were both San Francisco natives. Her official biography mentions that they eloped to Reno when they were in their early 20s. The short writeup also says this: “Bernice was ambivalent toward politics. The Governor’s Office confirmed this in a 1960 press release which stated, ‘Mrs. Brown frankly admits she never would have chosen a political career for her husband if the choice had been hers to make.'”

Not mentioned in the official biography: The Browns were parents to the state’s longest-serving governor, Edmund G. “Jerry” Brown Jr. But you knew that.

From the governor’s office postal meter: “California: The nation’s leading state.”

Candidate on a Hill

Ron Dellums, who used to represent Berkeley and parts of Oakland and other East Bay locales in Congress, announced last month he’s coming out of political retirement to run for mayor of Oakland. Dellums says the decision surprised even him: He arrived at the event where he declared his candidacy uncertain whether he would run. He said he made up his mind when he took the podium and saw the yearning in the audience’s eyes. “If Ron Dellums running for mayor gives you hope, then let’s get on with it,” he said. The Chronicle quoted a supporter as saying that Oakland was “finally getting the progressive leadership it deserves.”

The campaign issues Dellums talked about in his announcement sermon were universal health care, ending poverty, and inspiring young people. About more mundane problems — the kind a mayor might actually be expected to do something about — he told reporters later: “Potholes are important, but that’s not why people asked Ron Dellums to run.”

Leaving aside the question of why he referred to himself in the third person — maybe it’s just important to keep repeating the brand name — I don’t fault him for reaching above the gritty concerns of urban life to project a lofty vision for his followers. But at some point, governing a city comes back to potholes, or at least what’s happening on the streets.

Yesterday, Dellums gave another talk, to Oakland’s African American Chamber of Commerce. He spent some time ridiculing suggestions that his experience in Congress has not prepared him to lead a city. He talked some more about universal health care, but mentioned that as mayor he’d also be concerned with education, public safety and economic matters. “We can become a model city and grapple with every problem,” Dellums said. And: “I come not to tinker at the margins, but to ask you to join me in an effort to do big things — great things.”

From the stories and TV pictures, the crowd loved what they were hearing (with the possible exception of Ignacio De La Fuente, a City Council member who was the front-runner in the mayor’s race until Dellums’ experienced his podium impulse). And what’s not to like. He’s an extraordiinary speaker. Still, the specifics?

One of the local TV stations, KTVU, ran a clip in which one of its reporters asked Dellums what distinguishes him from the other candidates in the race. Dellums called the question “grossly premature.”

OK, maybe a guy just needs time to think. But five weeks after he declared his candidacy, and just seven months before the election, it’s fair to wonder what Dellums has in mind for the city he wants to lead. Oakland’s a real place with real needs and problems, not a city on a hill. It’s wonderful to expound on ideals and possibilities, but no amount of impassioned oratory will fix them without a plan that grapples with the city as it is.

I’ve never been a big fan of Jerry Brown during his tenure in Oakland. I’ve always felt that his approach to governing the city was a little imperious and arrogant. He took office as a major leaguer who came to show the bushers a thing or two about how to get things done; he was a big thinker who was going to broaden the horizons of poor, petty Oakland; and if the locals didn’t understand how smart and wise his vision was, he’d just run over them until they got it.

But if you listen to Brown now, he at least suggests he’s learned something about the real nature of leading a city. Last month, he described being mayor as a “much more in-your-face, concrete, down-to-earth reality than what you’re faced with at the level of governor or congressman, where you’re dealing with the great issues of the day, but dealing with them at a high level of abstraction. … Instead of an omnibus crime bill, you have to deal with shootings in Ghosttown in West Oakland and sideshows in East Oakland.”

So maybe Dellums can start out by learning something from his fellow superstar and talk about what he’d actually try to do, aside from being a symbol of uplifting ideals, if he becomes mayor. In fact, the most inspirational thing he could do for the city would be to lay out a pragmatic plan for turning his progressive faith into on-the-street reality.

Jerry Brown, Blogger

My friend Ted Shelton did something pretty cool a couple months back: He got in touch with Jerry Brown — mayor of Oakland, former California governor and presidential candidate, aspiring state attorney general — and talked to him about how to use the Net to speak to the people. The result is that Brown started his own blog. It exhibits everything I like and dislike about Brown, who is well into his fourth decade as an elected official. The part I like: The guy’s smart and quick and communicates ideas beautifully. The part I dislike? Well, I said it in a response (below) to a recent post he wrote on all he’s done for the Oakland schools: Brown’s got a razor-sharp sense for telling the story that casts him in the most glowing light. As to the unhappy scene that may lie just outside the frame of his self-portrait — that’s someone else’s problem. But that’s another thing I like about the blog — I can tell him just that, and there’s some evidence he’s actually reading what his audience has to say.

My comments to Mayor Brown:

Jerry, any public education success story is to be applauded, and the Oakland School for the Arts is no exception. It’s also refreshing to hear someone in a position of responsibility say the schools need both innovation AND money; cash isn’t a panacea for our public schools’ problems, but used wisely it’s a crucial part of the solution. You also mentioned "freedom" as a necessary ingredient for success; I’ll get to that in a minute.

But I have to say that your post is full of the kind of attitude and omission that long ago led me to conclude that while your intellect is a couple cuts above the average pol’s and you occasionally seem to be moved by the most noble motives, you’re at bottom a self-promoter and opportunist. …

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