News flash: Jerry Brown attended Paris conference on global climate change December 2015. Still here and still advocating for the environment and his principles.
I usually keep my back story on the down low with acquaintances. Most people make up enough stories just by appearances, so I don’t like to give them more fuel with biographical details that can be used to pigeon-hole me. But one afternoon this fall, I happened to make a comment about the presidential debates to an associate gymmer getting dressed next to me. A fit guy in his early sixties, he works in community housing. I’ve known Loren for a dozen years in that passing small talk way. He responded with an informed opinion. Sensing a deeper connection I asked, “What was your major in college?” He said, “Political Science at Stanford. I smiled knowing I’d met one of my own kind and replied, “That was my major at Berkeley, with a focus on Marxist ideology and its application.”
A intense twenty minute discussion ensued in the men’s locker room of 24 Hour Fitness—Santa Monica comparing notes and opinions about the current political scene and its players from President Obama to Hillary Clinton to Jerry Brown to Donald Trump. A range of provocative topics elicited smiles and comments from other guys with gray flecked hair in the room. All of this exposed my long standing political interests, sparked by growing up during the Vietnam War and eventually graduating from UC Berkeley in the seventies. Submerging my radicalism into a pragmatic career in public education, I’ve never relinquished my vision of fairness, justice, and peace. But now I wonder how I can apply my years of experience to promoting a better society. Jerry Brown has.
The locker room discussion centered on current California governor Jerry Brown and his previous administration in the seventies. We agreed he has done an excellent job governing, even better this time around at the age of 77. In his first terms as governor Brown was ridiculed with the label, Governor Moonbeam for his radical out of the box ideas such as renewable energy, a state space academy satellite, and declaring a era of limits. Jerry Brown in the seventies expressed the idealism of the time. Ahead the mainstream, Brown attracted derision from the older established politician/ reporter class. His lifestyle invited ‘eyebrow raised’ commentary, from his sleeping on a mattress on the floor to globe-trotting with Linda Ronstadt to his rejection of the new governor’s mansion.
Brown’s ‘out there’ thinking proved to be too much for the conservative backlash led by his predecessor as governor of California, Ronald Reagan who had catapulted his police-state treatment of the student radicals of my school, Berkeley, into the presidency. Reagan stood for the old school Hollywood values of looking good, constant smiling, and hypocrisy. He promoted traditional values, even though he had divorced his first wife, his daughter basically disowned him and changed her last name, he denied his second son was gay, and his wife retained a staff astrologer. Among Reagan’s most egregious crimes against the white working class that idolized him, was union busting, which directly contributed to lower wages for the Nixon labeled ‘silent majority.’
With his campaign’s populist We the People slogan, Brown polled well but fell just short in his three presidential campaigns. Again ahead of the times as seen in the current presidential election with Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump both tapping into grass roots, anti-establishment sentiment. But Jerry didn’t quit. He went back to the basics, something I’m often encouraging for later in life re-inventors/ Boomers. Instead of president, Brown served two terms as mayor of Oakland, CA, a medium-sized city across the bay from San Francisco. While mayor he lived in a converted factory and loft, igniting a revival in the down-in-the-mouth city whose police brutality against its majority black population in the sixties had birthed the Black Panther Party. Oakland has become a jewel of urban renewal with the bucolic buzz of Lake Merritt and the tony Jack London Square on the previously abandoned Embarcadero.
Jerry Brown practiced the adage ‘all politics is local’ and honed his skills as a politician. Not resting on his laurels and famous name to lay back and give expensive speeches, he went to work. Contributing to the greater good AND practicing his craft, Brown practiced and lived his ideals—government can be a tool for social justice and life enhancement. Re-energized after Oakland, he ran for and served as Attorney General and then governor.
Now in his fourth term, Jerry Brown will be termed out when he is 80. Old age doesn’t limit him. Although in recent years he’s battled cancer, his vigor and mental clarity exceed the great majority of politicians half his age. He has every reason to kick back, retire, and cash in on his name. Many of us do too. We’ve had a career, maybe raised kids, and / or written a book—achieved and served. But why quit when you have something to give, something to learn, and unfulfilled ideals? I ask myself that question regularly—why should I? I don’t need to prove myself, and neither does Brown.
But then my Berkeley Boomer core wakes up and yells, ‘You’re not done yet.’ At the locker room discussion, I mentioned that I still stand by youthful ideals of community, free expression, individual rights and justice, adventures, and personal growth. Boomers were not all hippie radicals or counter-culturalists, but many were and have influenced our society from new age religions, to yoga, health foods, and alternative health systems mass acceptance. In fact, the notion of the personal computer came out of the edgy, psychedelic consciousness of Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak back in the seventies. Our youthful ideals, tempered with realistic appraisal of the slow pace of change in the world have changed the world.
Perhaps President Obama has not delivered on all of his goals as president, but any president can only move the country forward (or backward depending on your point of view) a few steps. Big change takes time, even when a system is rotting from the core like what happened in the former Soviet Union. But he has moved the pieces forward a bit on key Boomer concerns of the seventies; environment, civil rights, war, and soul.
The political life of Jerry Brown demonstrates the successful marriage of ideals and experience. He went back to the basics (mayor of Oakland), polished his craft and worked his way back up the ladder of California government. Still an idealist, but heavily tempered with realism and compromise. He now knows how and when to mollify central valley farmers with a big government project (the bullet train) and to take an independent stand as he recently vetoed several bills passed by his own Democratic Party legislature. He applies his decades of experience to real problems and gets results. His approval ratings dwell in the high seventies, virtually unheard with high level office holders. Recently, the LA Times gave him a B+ rating with the potential of achieving greatness in this term.
At the same time, he still works from his early, progressive principles. For example, he pushed for recent legislation to end global warming that promises to be a model for the rest of the country and the world. And he has never changed his opposition to capital punishment, even in the hard on crime 90s.
Experience counts for Jerry Brown and can count for all of us in the fall of life. Youthful optimism for quick transformation may be gone, but I attempt (as Jerry does), to take my experience and skills and marry them to ideals perhaps half-forgotten in the mists of time. One of the greatest gifts of aging is the dignity of surviving (sometimes prevailing over) the travails of life. Age and experience qualify idealistic Boomers to contribute to our world aligned with the Sixties/ hippie ideals of expression, justice, community, and love. I do my best to live up to the vision and work for incremental progress. And as a non-Boomer friend says, “You got nothing to lose.”
On a personal note: I just returned from a ceremony in Berkeley where I established a perpetual scholarship for needy and deserving students at Berkeley Student Cooperative. The gift of community I learned in the coops has fueled and sustained me throughout life so far, and especially now that I’m in the ‘golden’ years. I know where I came from and support that mission. Again, the work of Jerry Brown and many others of our generation that enhances the common good are markers of a meaningful life. More on that & the coops in the seventies in a future blog.