Trailblazer: A Biography of Jerry Brown
California Lawyer
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Trailblazer: A Biography of Jerry Brown

November 2013

Trailblazer: A Biography of Jerry Brown
by Chuck McFadden
University of California Press, 248 pages, $29.95, hardcover

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California has had some interesting gubernatorial characters: Hiram Warren Johnson, the reformer, later to become a U.S. Senator; Upton Sinclair, the not-quite-governor; Earl Warren, winner of the Republican, Democratic, and Progressive primaries in 1946, later to become U.S. Chief Justice; Edmond G. "Pat" Brown, the architect of modern California and vanquisher of Richard Nixon; Ronald Reagan, the actor, later to become president; and Arnold Schwarzenegger, the sort-of actor.

Yet none of these, I submit, is as interesting as Pat Brown's son, Gov. Edmund G. "Jerry" Brown. When Jerry Brown was first elected governor of California in 1974, that other Jerry - Jerry Ford - had been president for only three months. The Ford Pinto was the top-selling American-made car. Muhammad Ali had just defeated George Foreman in the "Rumble in the Jungle," and "Kung Foo Fighting" was climbing the charts.

Jerry Brown left office at the end of his second term in 1982. He was most recently elected governor - for his third term - 28 years later, in 2010. No California politician, no American politician, has achieved a return to power after a hiatus as long as Brown's. Even Juan Perón spent only 18 years in the wilderness.

Author Chuck McFadden is a veteran Sacramento-watcher and Associated Press reporter. Trailblazer is his thumbnail guide to the life and career of the second Governor Brown. It is an accurate and interesting introduction, although the copyediting was not painstaking: the former Los Angeles Mayor was Fletcher Bowron, not Bowren; Brown's former assistant for legislative affairs is Paul Halvonik, not Halvonlik. The book was compiled from personal interviews with people who worked with Brown and from journalistic sources. McFadden seems to have gone over every newspaper piece published about Brown; extensive face time with a sitting governor would have been too much to expect.

The problem with Trailblazer is that it is a thumbnail guide. Jerry Brown was the governor's kid who spent three and a half years in the Jesuit Sacred Heart Novitiate. Why? What was the family's reaction? This is a man of obvious intellectual and spiritual curiosity, a man with a strong streak of idealism, who also has cosmic-scale ambition: In 1976, after only two years as governor, he made a creditable run against Jimmy Carter in the Democratic presidential primaries. How does that ambition reconcile with the idealism and the intellectual curiosity?

If you haven't been watching Brown's entire career, Trailblazer is a good introduction. I find him such a compelling figure that he's worth the much broader canvas given other prominent Californians, something the scope of W. A. Swanberg's Citizen Hearst or A. Scott Berg's Goldwyn: A Biography. We'll probably have to wait for Brown's retirement (if it ever occurs) for that.

Jerry Brown is the canniest politician in California history, surpassing even Abe Ruef, Artie Samish, Jesse Unruh, and Willie Brown. Governor Brown's most recent political conquest is, of course, the November 2012 victory of Proposition 30, the $6 billion sales- and income-tax increase that had been a big underdog. Brown put his energy and political capital behind Prop. 30, and it won decisively. What's next? The 2016 presidential primaries? Watch out, Hillary.

The author and several people he interviewed refer to Brown as "trying to be the smartest guy in the room." Trying to be? Brown was first elected governor of California when The Waltons was a top TV show, and he's governor in 2013. Jerry Brown is the smartest guy in the room.

Ben Pesta, a contributing writer to California Lawyer and a member of its editorial advisory board, is a Beverly Hills white-collar and criminal defense lawyer. He has written for Esquire, Playboy, Rolling Stone, the Los Angeles Times, and the American Bar Association Journal, among other publications.

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