Travels With Jerry

govbrownAPRIL 11. It’s Saturday, and the 10 freeway is clear as Jerry Brown heads toward the convention of the California Democratic Party at the Bonaventure Hotel. Beside him in the car is Dee Hansch, a slim, blond attorney who has an air of command that belies the fact that she’s just turned 30.

“We need to think about this convention. Jerry. You’re the excitement of the day.”

“Who’s introducing me?” he says.

“Your father.”

“Don’t we have a volunteer who could do it? That’s the message we want to put out—a volunteers’ effort.”

“No. Your father’s doing it,” Dee says. “Let’s go over what you’ll say.” She hands him an outline. Jerry scans it. “I will look at these things, but I’m not gonna follow it.” Jerry almost never uses notes, cards or plans a talk in advance.

“Make sure you say it’s great to be back, with the party. You’re the golden boy coming home.”

“I have a problem with that language,” Jerry says.

“Never mind the language. It’s a feeling. Positive. Joyous.”

Jerry turns to her. “Dee, the whole point is that the 500 people meeting in that room are not connected to the 20 million people out there who are not participating.”

Jacques Barzaghi, Jerry’s friend and mentor—dressed in black, with shaved head—intervenes. “People keep asking you to start a third party and you say no. You want to work through this party.”

Dee adds, “There are new faces at the convention. The grass-roots fund you started, all the things you did as chairman to democratize the party are continuing.”

“OK,” Jacques says, squeezing Jerry’s shoulder. “After Maine, New Hampshire, it’s good to be home.” Jerry punches his fist in the air.

Home. I have been following Jerry Brown’s presidential campaign—one of the strangest, most chaotic and creative political journeys in memory—since January of 1991. My friend Jodie Evans invited me to a meeting when Brown was beginning to plan what was then a race for the Senate, a race she’d been asked to manage. I was not a fan of Brown, but I am a student of human dramas and I went to the meeting with the idea that I might chronicle how a politician plots his course.

In the 18 months that followed, I watched Jerry Brown go from dark horse to luminous contender, then be slapped down into a black hole only to emerge, now, on the eve of the California primary, on a road with an even more ambitious and seemingly impossible goal: the establishment of a grass-roots movement that will transform the way politicians are elected and government governs.

Many of Brown’s proposals have been adopted by his rivals—term limits by President Bush, “taking back the country” by Bill Clinton, the 800 number by Ross Perot. But when he began developing them, they seemed tentative and fuzzy, if not loony.

On that first night in January, 1991, I found Jerry and eight advisers sitting in the family room of Jodie’s home, a sprawling, warm Spanish house in Santa Monica filled with art and comfortable furniture. Everyone was wearing jeans, sweaters, sneakers, except Jerry, who wore a brown suit and tie and brown loafers.

Jerry said he wanted to build a grass-roots campaign that would draw new people and get them “excited and alive.” The key, he said, was to limit campaign contributions to $100. He was met with startled looks. “With telemarketing,” he said, “we get 10,000 people to donate a hundred dollars each. That would raise a million.”

The room exploded with people objecting: It won’t work. You’re tying your hands. You’ll never raise enough. You can’t win an election on a million dollars. One man said, “The government already limits contributions to a thousand. The difference between a hundred and a thousand is not that significant.”

Another man said, “You’ll be beholden to more people—to every schmuck who gave a hundred dollars, instead of a thousand. You can be had for less.” Everyone laughed.

Jerry said, “That’s kind of cynical.”

Jacques said, “This is a joke. Jerry.”

They went on to discuss which of the two vacant Senate seats he should try for. The consensus was that Jerry could beat the field in a primary but not take the general. “I don’t see a liberal strategy succeeding,” one consultant said.

Jerry said that would not deter him. He wanted to speak out, stir up debate. “If I don’t run, what do I do? Go back to Japan?” He’d heard of a politician in Minnesota who drove around speaking from a battered bus. “Maybe,” he said, loosening up, “I get a high-tech bus with a dish on top that says ‘Moonbeam.'”

I went home that night and put my notes in a drawer. I found Jerry remote and his ideas out of touch with reality. The race he was planning had all the earmarks of a lost cause, and I was wary of investing my time.

Jodie began the campaign from her house, using her own phone and fax machine. It was not her first time out: She had worked on Jerry’s campaigns since 1973 and ran his office for a year when he was governor. She invited me to fund-raising parties and meetings for volunteers, which looked like Birkenstock Nation—women in flowing dresses and men with ponytails. I kept my distance.

Jodie was unfailingly positive. Jerry had switched his goal, in August of ’91, from the Senate to the presidency, and hit the road. While the press dismissed or ignored him, she said, when he spoke to groups of people, they responded strongly. “Whatever happens, we win, because we’re touching people with our message.”

Then Brown began to win — in Maine and Colorado — until the Democratic field was down to two and Brown beat Clinton in Connecticut in March. I remember waking up after his victory feeling awed by what they had accomplished. In the face of ridicule and dismissal, of general agreement that Brown had no chance, they had, as one volunteer put it, “played an impossible game with the intention of winning.”

Some great wind was blowing, Jerry had caught it and I kicked myself for not having seen it. I had been offered a window seat on a presidential campaign and had not taken it. I telephoned Jodie and asked if it was too late to come to the party.

APRIL 4. Three days before the New York primary. Swarms of jerry’s friends, family and advisers have flown in: Tom Quinn, a media consultant; Kathleen Brown, Jerry’s sister and California’s treasurer; Patrick Caddell, a pollster who worked for Jimmy Carter; Richard Goodwin, who wrote speeches for Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. All agree that New York is “make or break.” Goodwin says, “If he gets New York, he gets the nomination. If he loses, he can still go on, but . . . .” He shakes his head.

An afternoon rally draws 10,000 people to the Upper West Side. Jerry is in peak form, plunging into the crowd with no Secret Service agents, no escorts except Jacques and a couple of staff members.

Jerry gives the crowd his speech about “We the People—taking back our country” and lashes out at Clinton as a “bobbing, weaving target that has no moral compass.”

When he leaves the stage, the press flies at him like a swarm of bees. Jerry will speak into any microphone. His staff can’t control him, so he zigzags down the street, taking the swarm with him, while his friends shout in vain, “Governor! This way!”

The Brown campaign is run largely by volunteers, which leads to chaos and disorganization that are legendary. Schedules are improvised at the last minute. Vans get lost. The candidate gets lost. Supporters are stood up, which makes them quit in a rage. Some of the top staff members have refused to vote before, let alone work in politics. When people call Jodie to complain that “these are amateurs,” she responds: “Right. That’s what Jerry wants.”

In New York, Don Lesser, an attorney from San Francisco, has been flown in to take charge of the schedule. Late on Saturday, he is still conferring with staff about Sunday. “I think we should do the debate with Clinton in the morning. It’s our last chance to get in a killer blow.”

Joyce Hamer, a black volunteer from New York, says, “We gotta go to church. We got to.” A volunteer from Georgia agrees. “Sunday is always reserved for black churches.”

Hamer starts calling preachers in Harlem, but Lesser is considering whether Jerry should skip church to rest and prepare for the debate. “We’ve got him running all over the state Sunday. He’s gonna die. He’s gonna look like s— on TV.”

Don McDonough, a pollster, says, “There’s two days to go! Give him some makeup.”

Lesser has another idea. “Feel free to crap on this, but I’d like to see Jerry teach a high school class. Talk to children about what ‘We the People’ means to them and their future. I think it could be magical.”

People start proposing schools and dates, but one of Jerry’s advisers from California interrupts, “Let’s wait on that. I’m concerned about this event tonight— with the rabbi.”

Jerry is set to observe the Sabbath with Meyer Fund, a Hasidic rabbi who has a small shul in Brooklyn. The adviser wants it taken off the schedule, because of tension in the Jewish community over Brown’s naming Jesse Jackson as his running mate. “It looks like pandering now, and it opens us up to hecklers. Wouldn’t he be better off going to Little Italy? It’s safe.”

Lesser shakes his head no. “Jerry’s willing to go to areas that aren’t safe.”

Two hours later, in Brooklyn, Jerry is wearing a yarmulke, standing in Meyer Fund’s wood-paneled dining room, humming and clapping as the rabbi plays a Hasidic melody on guitar. Relatives and followers fill the house, which glows with the unnatural brightness of TV lights.

“Dear friends,” says Fund, who wears a black coat and beard. “I have nothing to do with endorsements. I’m beyond it. My wish” — he turns to jerry — “is that God should give you the strength to make the world more beautiful.”

Jerry says, “We are very divided, but there is a way to bring us together…”

“Rebbe! I’m surprised at you!” shouts a man who has come in from the street. “How could you have him here? He’s for Jackson. A man calls you a Hymie, let him go to hell!” He turns and storms outside, where a dozen men start chanting, “Say no to Jackson!”

The women in Fund’s home are embarrassed by the outburst. One says, “I like Brown’s attitude. He’s got vision, integrity. But Jackson kills it. He’d have my vote, except for that.”

Jerry has been told by everyone who can get his ear that naming Jackson was a political mistake, a gesture for which he got nothing in return, but Jerry will not renege. “I see Rev. Jackson as a powerful leader who inspires and draws people to vote who’ve never been involved.” As to the Hymie remark. Jerry says, “He’s apologized. He feels terrible.” But that apology has not been heard in Brooklyn.

It is 1 a.m. when Jerry and Jacques arrive at the East Side apartment of writers Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne. Since the start of the campaign, Jerry has slept every night in the home of a volunteer, friend or at some institution like a church or homeless shelter. I cannot fathom this: being a perpetual guest, having to make chitchat after a grueling, 20-hour day. It also seems a logistical nightmare. I ask Jacques, “Who sees that he has a clean shirt? That his underwear is washed?” Jacques smiles. “God.”

Neither of the Dunnes is registered to vote, but they have been friends with Jerry since the ’70s and offered their home as a base. Last December, they gave a lunch for Jerry at which they assembled a formidable group of publishers and writers, which included Calvin Trillin, Carl Bernstein, Barbara Epstein of the New York Review of Books and the editors of Esquire, Foreign Affairs, the Nation and the Village Voice. Most of the guests were “patronizing,” Dunne says. Three months later, after Brown won Connecticut, several called Dunne and said, “What did you know?”

Dunne laughs. “What I knew was that Jerry rubs people the wrong way. He drives them truly around the bend. They get rabid, and it tickles me.”

What is it about Jerry that so disturbs and infuriates people and can also prompt them to abandon their course and follow his? He is not like any politician we normally encounter. He is a wild card, a former Jesuit, an ascetic who lives his principles to the point of being a pain. While he can be brilliant, biting and funny in debate, he is awkward and self-conscious with small talk.

He is criticized for changing his mind, for not following through and for being a flake, but this often stems from his having ideas ahead of his time. He got the nickname “Gov. Moonbeam” in the ’70s, when he wanted to buy a satellite for state communications. It sounded loony then, but today, use of such satellites is common.

Jerry is an attractive man who has never been a householder, never lived with a woman, though for two years, he has been dating an attorney in San Francisco. Late one night, I ask if he made a conscious choice not to have children.

“No. It’s just the way it’s turned out. Is turning out. Can you tell me how you do that and do this?” He swivels around in his seat. “Politics is a life that absorbs you. A traditional wife could handle that. But you get a professional wife, and you really cause problems for your kids.”

In the absence of a wife and family, Jerry has maintained close friendships, particularly with Jacques Barzaghi. Jacques, 54, was born in France, is Jewish, has worked in film production, lived in a rain forest, been married three times and had seven children. He met Jerry at a party in the ’70s and joined his staff. When needed, he is at Jerry’s side, and he has a leavening effect on him. He owns no home or car. “I float. My path is a life of service.”

People who work with Jacques find that he is wise, astute and can cut to the quick of a matter and discard what’s not essential. Many feel the surest way to get a result from Jerry is to go through Jacques.

On the road, though, his persona can be that of the trickster. Jacques is a master of the pregnant silence. When asked a question, he will stare a long moment, during which the words you’ve just spoken seem to ring with foolishness. Then he will utter a cryptic remark, like, “Don’t sell the skin of the bear before you shoot the bear.”

He wears black jeans and shirts, wire-rimmed glasses and a beret, which he adopted in New Hampshire because “it was cold, and it made it easy for Jerry to spot me.” In New York, after one of Jerry’s debates with Clinton, the Arkansas governor walked up to Jacques and said, “All my life, I’ve wanted to wear a beret and I never had the guts. I congratulate you.”

Jacques said, later, with a laugh, “That remark came from contempt.”

APRIL 7. Election day, and Jerry Brown’s 54th birthday. At 9 p.m., 500 volunteers are waiting in the auditorium of the Drug, Hospital 8c Health Care Employees Union, Local 1199, which endorsed Brown.

Jerry is on the seventh floor, watching returns in the office of Dennis Rivera, the union president. The networks are calling Clinton the winner and Brown second in all four states:

New York, Wisconsin, Kansas and Minnesota. Outside Rivera’s office, Jerry’s family and friends sit in somber groups, whispering. The Dunnes are there, as are two of Jerry’s sisters. Pat Caddell is scowling. “I hate politics. I hate election nights. I hate ’em when they’re good.”

Jerry walks out. “So, here we are,” he says. Joan Didion extends both her arms to him. He takes her hands, squeezes them, turns to another friend. “Lot of people downstairs?”

“Yes.”

“Good.” He punches his fist in the air. “Now I gotta get ready to say something.”

A tall, dark-haired man wearing a yarmulke, Dan Greer, steps out of the elevator and hurries to Jerry. They hug. “Thanks for coming,” Jerry says. Then he goes back into Rivera’s office and shuts the door.

Greer was Jerry’s roommate at Yale Law School. He has taken the train down from New Haven, where he practices law and leads a small congregation. “I feel very badly,” Greer says. “He could have won. Then all the concerns about Gov. Moonbeam would have vanished.”

Greer thinks the loss is due to Jerry’s endorsement of Jackson. He shakes his head sadly. “There’s a saying in the Talmud: A person can acquire the world in one moment, and can lose the world in one moment.”

Jerry comes out of Rivera’s office and heads for the elevator. Five minutes later, he’s on the stage, telling his volunteers to take heart and keep going. He is, as a friend puts it, “attractive in defeat,” and for the first time, I feel close to him.

He congratulates Clinton and Paul E. Tsongas, who, in the latest tallies, is pulling ahead of Brown, even though he has withdrawn from the race.

“Paul, wherever you are, you do very well, even in your absence,” Jerry says.

The crowd boos.

“Wait a minute. This is not a time for mean spirits. This is a time for generosity.” Jerry says real change doesn’t happen quickly, “and if you stumble, you stand up.”

Hours later, the New York staff gathers for drinks at the Royal ton Hotel. Late results confirm that Brown has placed third, behind Tsongas. Dennis Rivera, a spirited man with laughing eyes, says, “Our exit polls this morning were bad, but this is worse.” He signals the waitress. “I’m gonna drown my depression in alcohol.”

Kevin Connor, the field director, says, “I’m pissed. We got off the message.” Others feel that Jerry’s attacks on Clinton were too shrill, and his proposal for a flat tax too easy to attack and difficult to explain. Don Lesser, wearing a bright red jacket, says, “This is an experiment. No one’s run a campaign before on a hundred bucks a person. The other candidates have all dropped out and we’re still here. That’s the bottom line.”

The impact of the loss hits Jerry a day later. Jodie says, “When things go badly, he rises to the occasion and pumps everyone else up. Then later, he feels it.”

Between Connecticut and New York, Jerry and his staff had been dazzled by the spotlight. As Jerry put it, “We got too excited.” What was not understood was that as long as he was a dark horse, a vote for Brown was a vote against all the others. It was a statement: They’re rotten, throw them out. But when he became a front-runner, people voted against him also, even for a candidate who was inactive. The fall was like a belly flop.

APRIL 9. Jodie is holding a staff meeting at national headquarters in Santa Monica, sitting on a green velvet settee nicknamed “the Queen’s chair,” with her natural red hair falling over her shoulders. She wears a black dress with roses, black tights and ballet slippers.

As is her style, Jodie finds a way to see events in a positive light. “You guys,” she says. “This campaign is going all the way to the convention and beyond!”

One staffer says, “I’m confused about our goal. Are we going for the White House, hell for leather, or are we building a movement to change America?”

Both, Jodie says. Jerry will continue to campaign hard, and “the more delegates we pick up, the stronger we’ll be at the convention.”

But the focus is shifting. In the corning weeks, she says, Jerry will be working up a platform to present at the convention, which will include a simple and fair tax plan, universal health care, a family bill of rights and an aggressive environmental-protection program.

The campaign will also focus on a longer view: building a grass-roots organization that can fight for change after 1992.

Today, though, a crisis is developing with ABC, which is about to run a story charging that Jerry, while governor, had parties in his home where marijuana and cocaine were used.

“It’s outrageous,” Jodie says. “I worked with Jerry then, and you knew, if you were around Jerry, you didn’t smoke marijuana or you were gone.”

She phones state police who served as Jerry’s drivers, to enlist them as witnesses, and asks an attorney to put ABC on notice that the allegations are false.

When the charges are aired on “Nightline,” Jerry tells Ted Koppel: “It didn’t happen. I never saw drugs used in my house. If you support me and think we oughta fight back, call 1-800-426-1112.” The number is swamped with callers who pledge money.

APRIL 11. Jerry sits in the front seat of Jodie’s red Land Cruiser, ready to pull away from the California Democratic Party convention. A man leans in the window and says, “You realize you’re in a Japanese car?”

Jerry snaps his head. “What? This is a Toyota? We shouldn’t be riding in it.”

Jerry’s driver pulls into the street. Jerry turns to Dee Hansch. “This is a real screw-up! In California, we don’t think about it. But in Michigan, it’s a big deal.”

They’re approaching the ramp to the freeway.

“Stop,” Jerry says. “I’m getting out.”

“Jerry, wait . . . .”

The driver honks, to get the lead car’s attention, and both pull over to the shoulder of the on-ramp. Jerry gets out and, trailed by five people, hurries to the other car, a dented Chevy wagon owned by a volunteer.

Mariachis are playing when the Chevy arrives at Dolores Mission Church in East Los Angeles. “This is what’s fun, right?” Jerry says. Father Greg Boyle, a Jesuit who heads the mission, takes Jerry on a walk through the streets, where a 4-year-old girl was shot and killed the night before. “I’ve buried 26 kids in the last three years,” Boyle says.

“Gangs?” Jerry asks.

Boyle nods. “What will quiet the bullets is jobs. If you give them jobs, the drug problem goes away.”

Jerry adds, “Jobs that give people a wage they can live on. No one wants to hear how simple it is.”

A lowrider pulls up with two young Latino men. Boyle says to Jerry, “Come here and meet two homies.”

Jerry sticks his head in the window and says, flat-footed,

“Are you in a gang?”

The young men don’t answer.

“We shouldn’t ask,” Boyle says. “We’re all in the human race.”

“Right,” Jerry says, and makes a thumbs-up gesture.

In the afternoon, Jerry returns to Jodie’s house for a meeting with what Jacques calls “the round table” — a floating cast of advisers which, today, includes Tom Quinn and Pat Caddell.

At 4 p.m., when I join them for the evening events, they’re discussing whether Jerry should sue ABC for libel. Jerry is furious at the people accusing him. Caddell is taking practice swings with a baseball bat. “No presidential candidate has ever sued a network. It shows he’s innocent and so outraged he’s gonna strike back.”

Quinn agrees, “If he doesn’t, he looks guilty. And it will smoke out who’s behind this.”

Jerry says, “You know what it’s like to wage a lawsuit. It becomes your life.”

Later, driving to a benefit, he asks to stop at a drugstore. “I feel a cold coming on.”

“It’s that conversation,” Jacques says, “It does the same thing to me.”

“You don’t agree with Pat on how to handle this?” Jerry says.

“I always have a problem with you going on the attack,” Jacques says. “That’s the lesson of New York. People don’t like to see you in the gutter.”

We find a drugstore and get out of the car. Jacques adds, “In the samurai code, if you pull out your sword, you’ve already lost the battle.” He takes a breath and stands up tall. “You stop it by who you are.”

Inside, Jerry heads for the cold remedies. He starts reading labels, trying to see the difference between a name brand and a generic cough syrup. “They should tell you what it is—it’s part of the disempowerment,” he says.

In the car, he opens the boxes of medicine he’s bought and unwraps bottles. “Look at this packaging mess,” he says, holding up a plastic bag full of cardboard and paper. “It adds to the landfill.”

I sigh. Doesn’t he ever shut it off? But his fixation with the environment is contagious. The following day, at a market, I find myself refusing a bag for the one item I purchase.

APRIL 19. I am driving with Jodie and several friends to Burbank for a sweat lodge conducted by a Muskogee Cree medicine man. Bear Heart. This is the only time I have been able to pin her down for an interview.

Jodie has planned this outing with an efficiency that is her trademark. If she invites you to go somewhere, she will assemble a group, make reservations, get directions, drive, arrange for delicious, healthful food and if a check comes, she will grab it.

She is the first woman to run a presidential campaign who is also a single mother, raising two sons, 7 and 12. She is invariably calm, quick to laugh, and yet, she says she struggles daily with a sense “that I’m totally inadequate.”

Jodie, now 37, met Jerry when she was 19 and remembers feeling, “Here was somebody who believed what I did.” When he was governor, she says, “I got to watch things actually change. Jerry brought new people in — women, blacks, gay men and lesbians, farm workers, Indians, Koreans.”

We arrive at a small house in the flats of Burbank, walk around to the back yard and we’re in a different world, which seems a hallucination: There’s a white tepee, a fire pit and a black, domed structure made of willow, covered with tarps—the sweat lodge. We change into bathing suits and, along with a mixed group of Indians and Anglos, crawl into the black hut.

Bear Heart, who is called “grandfather,” lets down the door and the hut becomes pitch black. He suggests that we give a prayer of thanks “for the most difficult thing that happened in your life. Because of the lesson it taught, the lesson you couldn’t learn any other way.” Then he pours water onto hot rocks and scalding steam fills the hut. People beat drums, play flutes, women chant and great beads of water form on our skin.

Afterward, cooling off, Jodie says, “Don’t you feel open and clean?”

“Renewed,” I say.

She smiles. “Whenever the campaign gets stuck, I try to do something like this. It reminds me how we’ve lost our way and need to come home.”

APRIL 30. Jerry abandons his campaign schedule and flies to Los Angeles as riots are spreading through the city after the announcement of verdicts in the Rodney G. King case.

In interviews, Jerry says the riots are a terrifying illustration of his message. “This is a warning sign. All this stems from despair—over lack of jobs, lack of opportunity.” He calls for an immediate program to rebuild the inner cities, employing people who live there.

He spends the night in the home of a black carpet installer, Oliver Brown, near Pico and La Brea, where stores have been burned to the ground. Oliver and his wife, Geraldine, were asked an hour earlier by their son, who volunteers for Jerry, “You want to have the governor stay the night?”

“Get outta here, he’s not coming,” Geraldine said. “The house isn’t ready!”

But just before midnight, Jerry appears, alone except for two aides and me, instead of the press corps of 40 who followed him at the height of the New York campaign.

Oliver and Geraldine serve him a late dinner of chicken and rice, and walk him to the comer where a dozen neighborhood men are guarding a 7-Eleven.

The street is smoky, ghostlike. Jerry says he’s inspired by the neighbors. “It’s the American spirit—people coming together to raise the bam again after it burned down.” He adds, “I’ve got nothing else on my calendar, except to keep pushing on until we work real change.”

They walk back to Oliver Brown’s and watch the news. Then Jerry, continuing his maverick journey as the unexpected guest, goes to sleep on the sofa bed.