Bill Whalen: Politi-Cal

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Will Jerry Return to Namibia?

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A reporter called the other day ago asking for my thoughts on Jerry Brown’s gubernatorial campaign.

Not sure if I offered much beyond a keen grasp of the obvious:

— I assume Jerry packages himself as a high-falutin’ populist, just as he did in his “We the People” days (question: who’s had more versions — Jerry Brown or Windows Internet Explorer?). This won’t be the Zen governor or no-nonsense mayor. It’ll be the trust-busting, big-bank-loathing Attorney General.

— He’ll run against the political status quo and Sacramento’s failings, but not in a way that offends the Democrats who run the Legislature, or the unions and deep-pocketed special interests that are running interference with Meg Whitman.

— He’ll trash Whitman (assuming she’s the Republicans’ choice) as a candidate of wealth and privilege, although Brown hails from California political royalty — and would probably be serving rice and chapatis in some dingy ashram if he had a different surname.

— He’ll offer himself as a candidate of vision and daring, just as he did when he first offered himself as a 36-year-old gubernatorial hopeful . . . 36 years ago.

But there’s one thing I forgot to bring up. And that’s the outside chance of arrogance getting the better of Brown, as it did in a previous campaign.

In a word: Namibia.

The year was 1982 and Jerry Brown was running for the U.S. Senate. His opponent was Pete Wilson — at the time, the mayor of San Diego.

After eight tumultuous years as governor, Brown entered the race in trouble. At first, he trailed Wilson, a relative unknown, by 14 points. But during the summer, the Brown campaign undertook a $2.5 million media campaign featuring a pair of hands using a pair of scissors to cut up a Social Security card. Translation: vote Republican and say goodbye to your golden years.

The ads worked. By September, Brown had gone from 14 points down in June to 6 points up, with the Wilson campaign scrambling for money and a way to turn the tide, in the midst of the Reagan Recession, in what was turning out to be a good campaign year for Democrats.

But then, Brown’s arrogance got the better of him.

Wilson and his brain trust guessed — correctly, it turned out — that Brown, as a two-term governor and two-time presidential candidate, would pull some stunt to lord over his (presumably) less-worldly, less-informed and less-enlightened opponent (the irony being that Brown went to Berkeley as an undergrad, then Yale Law; Wilson did the opposite: Yale undergrad, then Boalt for law school).

It wouldn’t be something trivial, the GOP reckoned, but certainly something not on the radar screen of a city mayor.

Team Wilson figured that Brown’s attack would come in the form of a question posed by Brown to Wilson — something to do with Asia and Africa. So they readied a list of 12 likely topics — 6 each from Asia and Africa. Wilson’s press secretary, the late Otto Bos, thought it might be Namibia, which at the time was in a struggle to establish a democratic way of life.

Sure enough, as the debate unfolded and the time came for the candidates to go after each other, Brown’s first question to Wilson was: “How would you respond to the situation that exists in Namibia?”

Wilson answered right away, without hesitation and with command of facts. Brown was stunned. The debate went silent for a moment, until a woman in the back of the audience yelled: “Hurray, Pete!” Game over.

Hours after the debate, Boss handed out yellow-and-back t-shirts to the press corps. On the front: a map of the African nation in question. Beneath the map, the words: “Where the hell is Namibia?”

As for Brown, he lost the election and went into the political wilderness.

Remember this story if Brown does draw Whitman as his opponent and they ready for debate later this fall.

As a former governor with 40 years of political experience under his belt, he’ll be tempted to do something to make Whitman look like a lightweight. No doubt, his inner circle will be reinforcing that perception to the candidate (here’s an example of Al Gore falling into this trap).

But in a year when politicians are on notice — not just for how they vote, but how they act — any attempt to intellectually browbeat an opponent carries with it risk.  The stunt could easily backfire, even if it succeeds in catching Whitman flat-footed in her lack of awareness of some Golden State triviality (“Ms. Whitman, which do you prefer — Ballard Mountain or Negrohead Mountain”?).  

And whereas California voters, in 1982, decided they simply didn’t like Jerry Brown anymore, in this climate all it could take is the same condescending approach — a repeat visit to Namibia, if you will — to reach the same conclusion.

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Written by Bill Whalen

February 24, 2010 at 1:00 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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