SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- The state of nature before civilization. The Austro-Hungarian Empire. Financial instability. Politics in Brazil. Refugees from Honduras. The philosophy of the Canadian thinker Charles Taylor. Paul von Hindenburg. The perils of automation. A French railway car. Thomas Hobbes. Swings in the stock market. The genocide of Armenians. The Reichstag fire. How Costco packages the milk it sells at its warehouse stores. The two times his car fish-tailed on the highway.
This could only be a half-hour in the California Capitol with Gov. Jerry Brown.
Edmund G. Brown Jr., 80 years old, is just now completing his fourth term as governor of California, the last two coming after a 28-year gap that Brown filled by serving as mayor of Oakland and state attorney general and also by running for the Senate and the White House, visiting Mother Teresa, studying Buddhism, reading widely, speaking broadly and thinking deeply.
The latter is what the 34th and 39th governor of California -- nothing about the man is simple -- does best. Right now, for example, he's reading about the perils faced by democracies and the history of the Social Democratic Party of Germany before 1919, along with dipping into "Memories, Dreams, Reflections" by the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung and an associate, a book that he has had for four decades but that he now feels compelled to examine.
"I've felt the need to read a little Jung," Brown says, this being a remark that no other American political figure would contemplate, "considering the unsettled state of public affairs."
For many years, and through three Democratic presidential campaigns, it was Brown who unsettled the state of public affairs, expounding on Buddhist economics, scrambling political assumptions by opposing both the death penalty and deficit spending, and vowing to "protect the Earth, serve the people and explore the universe." A former seminarian, he was not bound by this planet but looked to the heavens, proposing solar panels in space to power life on Earth.
"He always asked questions that other people didn't ask," says former state treasurer Kathleen Brown, the governor's youngest sister and, like him, the child of former Gov. Pat Brown (1959-1967). "Once he gets interested in something, he will detour into a bottomless pit of inquiry. It's as if the internet was a gift to his mind."
No Jerry Brown sentence is strictly declarative, none without a layer cake of dependent clauses, but -- here is the difference between him and the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts -- there is always a verb in there somewhere. And: It is always an active verb, never a passive one.
In retirement, he will remain active, serving as executive chair of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, known for the doomsday nuclear clock, and will specialize in what he calls "governing the ranch," which is to say the swath of property north of Sacramento that his grandfather homesteaded and that is now scattered with a few old barns, some olive trees and some cattle.
But he still has a few days left in the governor's office, situated behind the 800-pound bronze grizzly bear statue installed by former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. And in that time, he seems preoccupied with issues involving the truth.
"This disregard for the truth seems unusual, not that Nixon or LBJ weren't accused of not telling the truth," Brown starts, and soon he is in flight, producing a stream-of-consciousness contrail that stretches the minds of his minders even as it stretches the note-taking skills of his out-of-town visitor. "The propaganda, the lies, the exaggeration, the deceptions -- it is very destructive of the democratic discourse."
The figure behind that is not mentioned but rather is assumed. And the governor has not yet reached his cruising speed, nor his altitude, at about 35,000 feet. "If you can't trust what people say, how does democracy function? It can't just be a game of deceptive statements. Thus 'reality' is invented. It may be completely unreal."
We leave the conundrum produced by a reality that is completely unreal and return again to the crisis of democracy. Here we go: "The promise of democracy -- where virtuous leaders discuss matters publicly and the people weigh in at election time -- is being challenged if not threatened." You get the general idea. But he also thinks politicians should concentrate on big things, not small ones -- and now we get to the essence of Jerry Brown in the late autumn of his life, approaching winter.
"Though I liked the excitement of politics, I found a lot of it boring. Humdrum. Nuclear war, climate change and energy are big things. The others come and go -- a little more or a little less money here or there. Climate change has catastrophic potential. The same with nuclear weapons. A lot of people say we only survived the Cuban Missile Crisis and other things through luck. Well, luck runs out."
Now the conversation shifts abruptly from nuclear weapons to trench warfare in World War I and then to the terrorist attacks of September 2001 and finally to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Well, not exactly finally. Soon we're back in France and the armistice in Ferdinand Foch's railroad car that brought World War I to a close. Plus a diversion to the condition of Silesian peasants a century ago and then immediately to the Trump tax cuts.
Brown is against them -- the tax cuts, not the peasants.
His visitor, dizzy, switches to the crisis of civility in American life.
"Is that really the problem?" the governor asks. Of course he challenges the question, which is what Jesuits and Jerry Brown do. Then he goes on, and of course he begins his answer to the question with a question. It would be out of character -- jarring! -- if he didn't.
"Didn't the Federalists and Republicans yell at each other? Maybe we can't go back that far. The question is whether politicians accommodate each other. The question is consensus. Democracy requires that. There's always a tension in democracy between including people and excluding people. There has to be consensus in a society. If there is no consensus, how can you say what 'the people' think? What we are seeing is a movement from democracy to diversity to authoritarianism.
"I'm thinking about this," he continues. "That's tentative." Then he starts speaking in Latin.
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