The biggest difference between the hirsute Jerry Brown who first took the oath as California’s governor at 36, and the 76-year who recited it on Monday for an historic fourth time: today’s buzz-cut old guy is genuinely interested in governing.
Back in 1975, rock star visionary Brown delivered a seven-minute inaugural address that featured a smarty-pants tone (“I probably won’t come again to this rostrum for a while. As a matter of fact, I wasn’t sure I was going to make it”) and ticked off a laundry list of problems facing the state (“the rising cost of energy, the depletion of our resources, the threat to the environment, the uncertainty of our economy…the lack of faith in government, the drift in political and moral leadership”) without a hint about serious solutions.
Cue The Eagles.
By contrast, the gray fox prophet this week spoke for 23 minutes, respectfully paying homage to California’s pioneering past, his own family and even the lawmaking bodies upon which he used to heap scorn (“thanks go to the Legislature,” he said, for working with him to help balance the budget). There was plenty of self-congratulation for the accomplishments of his last term – some of it even deserved – but Brown also spent much of his 2,783 word text wading into the wonky weeds as he discussed policies for schools, criminal justice and, especially, his signature issues of energy and environment.
Cue the “All Things Considered” jingle.
Jerry’s nut graf: For all the differences of style and substance between then and now, however, the mature Brown Monday harkened back to his father’s first inaugural speech on January 5, 1959 to highlight the most abiding truth of politics in California: the more things change the more they stay the same:
That was 56 years ago, yet the issues that my father raised at his inauguration bear eerie resemblance to those that we still grappled with today: discrimination; the quality of education and the challenge of recruiting and training teachers; the menace of air pollution, and its danger to our health; a realistic water program; economic development; consumer protection; and overcrowded prisons.
To his credit, Brown proclaimed a simple and unglamorous truth about California: good political stewardship requires, not the kind of flashy, of-the-moment proposals in which he specialized last century, but rather “solid, steady work” on exquisitely complex, intractable problems.
So you see, these problems, they never completely go away. They remain to challenge and elicit the best from us. To that end, over the next four years – and beyond – we must dedicate ourselves to making what we have done work, to seeing that the massive changes in education, health care and public safety are actually carried out and endure. The financial promises we have already made must be confronted honestly so that they are properly funded. The health of our state depends on it.
In this way, Brown’s words, while billed as a combination of a State of the State speech and an inaugural address, were more the former than the latter. Sure, he book-ended his main message with a few idealistic, if not sentimental, rhetorical flourishes, the better to shape the ephemeral media coverage of the historic occasion:
We must build on rock not sand, so that when the storm comes, our house stands. We are at a crossroads. With big and important new programs now launched, and the budget carefully balanced, the challenge is to build for the future, not steal from it, to live within our means and to keep California ever golden and creative, as our forebears have and our descendants would expect.
Cue the music from “Wagon Train.”
In the end, however, what was important and lasting in Brown’s final inaugural was its call for focus on the complex slog of governance so that “slow and steady” progress can be made in improving the real lives of real people.
“We must dedicate ourselves to making what we have done work,” may not be much of a sound bite for seeking higher office; as a philosophy of governance, though, it ain’t bad.
Some other takeaways:
What will my monument look like? Those awaiting an unexpected proposal which Brown might hope to serve as his political legacy are directed to the final section of the speech, where he set forth an agenda for California to build on its standing as the most progressive state in addressing climate change.
Forty years ago, Brown became the first major politician in America to begin pushing alternative fuels, energy efficiency standards and environmental sustainability; because of this, his latest ideas may at first glance seem like more of the same old. But stop and ponder them for a moment – reducing the amount of gasoline used in the state by 50 percent in 15 years, for starters, has a Send-Man-to-the-Moon scale – to get a sense of how revolutionary they are, and how far ahead of his time Brown has always been.
(Of course, the south-to-north High Speed Rail system is the other big legacy project in Brown’s second term but, ever master of the media, he gave it short shrift in the speech so as not to step on his second day story, when he visits Fresno Tuesday for a big groundbreaking ceremony for the train).
The assistant governor. Speaking of big differences between Brown old and new, it was telling that the only person clearly visible in the main televised shot of the governor was First Spouse Anne Gust Brown, whose key duty is to keep him focused with hawkish nose to the grindstone; if Anne had been around terms 1 & 2, instead of leaving the task to first pal Jacques Barzaghi, the great man might be president today.
Carving stone tablets. Most of the speech read like another of those Brown composed himself, apparently on an old Underwood. We’re all for politicians writing their own stuff, but his distracting head-up, head-down delivery recalled a student council president updating the senior class on plans for the prom; hasn’t this guy ever heard of a teleprompter?
Culture of crime. Brown spent a surprising portion of his speech – about 15 percent by our count – talking about the state’s law enforcement and corrections operations. As the guy who approved many of the lock-‘em-laws of the 1970s and ’80s, it was amusing to hear him suggest that it was all too much. But with the passage of Prop. 47, which reduces sentences for many small-end drug and property crimes, California may have entered a new cultural cycle in the debate over crime and punishment, when rehabilitation will cease to be a dirty word and government finds “less expensive, more compassionate and more effective ways to deal with crime,” as he put it.
Jerry vs. Janet. Those looking for a Brown throw down with Janet Napolitano may have been disappointed, but it was in there, if understated: Brown is spoiling for a fight with the UC president, who’s trying to extort extract more funding from the state by threatening to raise tuition five percent. “While excellence is their business, affordability and timely completion is their imperative,” Brown, referring to the UCs. “As I’ve said before, I will not make the students of California the default financiers of our colleges and universities.”
What about the voters? It’s worth noting that in his previous three inaugural speeches, Brown cited the over-arching problem of the political system – declining citizen participation and voter turnout rates:
— 1975. We have all come through an election, and what have we learned? More than half the people who could have voted, refused, apparently believing that what we do here has so little impact on their lives that they need not pass judgment on it. In other words, the biggest vote of all in November was a vote of no confidence. So our first order of business is to regain the trust and confidence of the people we serve.
— 1979. Yes, the mistrust of our public institutions and mere anxiety about our future economy are more the order than the exception. Three quarters of the people do not trust their government. More than half of the eligible citizens in California again decided not to vote in the last election. Why? Why the anti-government mood?
— 2011. Perhaps this is the reason why the public holds the state government in such low esteem. And that’s a profound problem, not just for those of us who are elected, but for our whole system of self-government. Without the trust of the people, politics degenerates into mere spectacle; and democracy declines, leaving demagoguery and cynicism to fill the void.
This time, not a word. Not sure why Gandalf decided to skip past this existential problem to democracy. As a political matter, it’s hard to think of many things more important.