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 last fall, I happened to make a comment about the presidential debates to a fellow gym rat 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 tribe, and replied, “That was my major at Berkeley, with a focus on Marxist ideology and its application,” said with a dose of irony.
An intense twenty-minute discussion ensued in the men’s locker room—comparing notes and opinions about the current political scene and its players from Barack Obama to Hillary Clinton to Jerry Brown to Donald Trump. The variety of provocative topics elicited smiles and comments from other guys with gray-flecked hair in the room. A public forum exposed lifelong 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. Now retired into the senior phase, I am again looking to publicly cheer on those who, in an overt fashion, seek to improve society. As has Jerry Brown.
So the locker room discussion became all that more interesting to me when it 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 79. 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 of the mainstream, Brown attracted derision from the older established politician/ reporter class. His lifestyle from his sleeping on a mattress on the floor to globe-trotting with Linda Ronstadt to his rejection of the new governor’s mansion invited criticism.
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 well short in his three presidential campaigns. Brown was ahead of the times as seen in last year’s presidential election with Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump both tapping grass roots, anti-establishment sentiment. But Jerry didn’t quit. He wentMayor of Oakland, CA, a medium-sized city across the bay from San Francisco. While mayor he lived in a converted factory and loft, which ignited a downtown revival in the city whose police brutality against its majority black population in the sixties had birthed the Black Panther Party. Now, Oakland is 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, 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. 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, but Sixties values 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.
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 applies decades of experience to real problems and gets results. His approval ratings dwell in the high seventies, virtually unheard of with high level office holders. Even the LA Times, his former nemesis, 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 has taken leadership in the US to support the Paris accords on global warming. 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. Although today I may disagree with his wheeling and dealing, he gets stuff done. One of the greatest gifts of aging is the dignity of surviving and working with the inevitable setbacks. The Sixties/ hippie ideals of expression, justice, community, and love still make sense, it’s a great time to bring experience and patience in the struggle for progress. And as a non-Boomer friend says, “You got nothing to lose.” Keep up to date and find inspiration in the Los Angeles Free Press, reborn because truth wants to be FREE.