Book Review: Jerry Brown, The Man Who Would be President, or a Monk

Bill Boyarsky
Columnist for LA Observed and former reporter, editor and columnist for the Los Angeles Times

Jim Newton’s “Man of Tomorrow: The Relentless Life of Jerry Brown,” explores in unparalleled detail the rich, varied and complex spiritual forces that have shaped the former governor and made him such a challenging political leader.  

Newton is editor of Blueprint, the public policy magazine of UÇLA’s Luskin School of Public Affairs, and a faculty member there.  He was my colleague at the Los Angeles Times where he was a reporter and a top editor. And he is the author of biographies of Chief Justice Earl Warren and President Dwight Eisenhower.

There is much to be learned from his book.  Even though I know the Brown family, I got new insights from Newton about the former governor’s relationship with his parents, his friendship with Linda Rondstadt, and his long courtship and marriage to his wife Anne Gust, who was a Gap executive. Newton offers revealing details of Brown’s governorship and unsuccessful presidential campaigns and mixes in important California history. 

I was drawn to Newton’s account of Brown’s spiritual journey from a Jesuit seminary to practical politics–better than anything I have read on a subject so important in shaping the governor Brown became.   Newton follows Brown through his religious growth, from the teachings of Saint Ignatius to Zen Buddhism. The author writes, “Over time, the sturdy rope that ran from Saint Ignatius to Zen shaped Brown’s appreciation for the great ideas of politics—notions otherwise as disparate as capital punishment, nuclear weapons, and climate change—all of which had in common a necessary humility before fearsome powers such as death, destruction, the earth itself.  Those issues later informed Brown’s politics, but the foundation was well under construction when he was still a very young man.”

Fox & Hounds readers, with their interest in local government, will especially enjoy Newton’s account of Brown’s years as mayor of Oakland.  He settled there to put together his political comeback after his unsuccessful 1982 race for the U.S. Senate. Working class Oakland, across the bay from San Francisco, was trying for a comeback, too. A weak economy, a troubled police department, high crime and ethnic tensions added up to a city in need of economic help.  The job of the mayor, Brown told Newton,”is concrete.  It’s getting people to come to Oakland. Getting Whole Foods to come to Oakland.  I tried to get Trader Joe’s.  They wouldn’t come.  I drove around myself. ‘Look at this site, look at that site.’ ‘No.’  They wouldn’t come.  I knew the man from Whole Foods. He came.”  

I visited Brown at Oakland City Hall when he was mayor.  I was teaching a class at the Graduate School of Journalism at UC Berkeley on writing about cities.  I had focused the class on Oakland, my hometown, and I wanted his insights on the city.  He inquired about my life after retiring from the Los Angeles Times.  I told him.  “Act two,” he said. I invited him to speak to my students.  He readily accepted.  Our dean, Orville Schell, a Brown biographer, brought in two other classes for the event, a good- sized crowd.

Brown enthralled the students.  He gave them a verbal tour of Oakland, starting at Lake Merritt, in the heart of the city, proceeding through the flatlands to the Berkeley border, then into the more affluent hills.  From there, painting vibrant word pictures, he took the students to the poor, crime ridden East Oakland flats, with its combination of ethnicities, and back downtown to the lake.  He knew every detail, every neighborhood quirk.  It was the best talk on urban affairs I have ever heard.

 Newton shows how those years with local business people and politicians and mixing it up with Oakland’s unrestrained, well informed activists gave Brown a practicality and common sense that was missing from his first two terms as governor.  As Brown’s friend Nathan Gardels told Newton, the lessons of the Jesuits and the Zen masters were not out of place in a city that needed so much from its public servants.  Part of Brown wanted to be president and part a monk, Gardels said.  Being mayor was perfect: “Now he was a parish priest.”

In exploring the depths of Brown’s spirituality, Newton explains the man.  “He governed less by polls than by the conviction that the great questions—prudence, humility, justice, mercy—demand rigorous exploration,” Newton writes. 

The exploration continues, Newton concludes in this fine book.

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