There is a certain happiness sighted when your bus comes along. It is of course a small specialized form of happiness and will never be a great thing.

-Richard Brautigan, The Old Bus

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Basic Brown on the bus

Finished Willie Brown's "Basic Brown: My Life and Our Times," part memoir, part graduate seminar for wannabe politicians, and all-around entertaining.

Willie Brown gets credit as the author, but the book owes much to P.J. Corkery, the San Francisco Examiner columnist who collaborated with Brown. As Corkery explains, the book is the product of a series of Saturday morning breakfasts during which Brown would hold forth.

In a leisurely fashion, he began to talk and spill out his observations of politics today, what makes things work, how money operates, who influenced him, how to handle scandals, and how flamboyance in a politician doesn't mean an avoidance of serious political issues. Over time, the material began to organize itself -- not as a standard biographical work, but as a set of related glimpses and flashes into the making of modern politics and a modern political life.

The book, especially the first part, reads as if you are seated at the breakfast table listening to Brown weigh in on such topics as "Consensus and Power," "Sex Scandals and the Socializing Politician" and, the most entertaining of all, "The Power of Clothes: Don't Pull a Dukakis."

Brown admits that before he became speaker he was at most a part-time legislator.
I agreed to take this watchdog's post and became chairman of the Revenue and Taxation Committee, or "Rev and Tax." It didn't seem like such a major deal. I didn't expect it would cut into my work at the time, which was building my private law practice.

Indeed, one condition I imposed on (Assembly Speaker Leo) McCarthy as part of the deal was that the committee would meet on Mondays. To give me the time to work on my law practice, I only came to Sacramento then on Mondays and Thursdays, when the whole house was in session and when you had to sign the roll to get paid. I needed the other days of the week for my private work, and I wasn't going to come to committees that met on other days.
Unfortunately for California, it was while Brown was chairman of the Rev and Tax committee that the the Legislature faced one of its biggest challenges -- how to respond to the growing anti-tax movement of the late 1970s -- and came up empty. The Legislature's failure to find a way to answer the anti-tax fervor and prevent passage of Proposition 13 cost California dearly. Brown's part-time focus no doubt contributed to the Legislature's inept response.

To critics who complain that he lacked a real agenda, a vision for where he wanted to lead the Legislature, Brown answers, "My guiding principle was to place myself in a position of power so that I could help people with good ideas see those ideas realized. I was the leader as facilitator, a facilitator you didn't want to cross because then I became a shark."

In a previous lifetime, I was married to a woman who worked for Patrick Johnston when he was in the Assembly and for Majority Services during part of Willie Brown's tenure as speaker. As a result I had something of an inside glimpse at the workings of the Legislature. I saw enough to know that the FBI's effort to ensnare Brown in a cash-for-votes sting was doomed to failure. Brown is nobody's fool. He is smart, very smart, and certainly smarter than his opponents.

"In the end," Brown says of the long FBI effort to entrap him, "it was only Patrick Nolan, the Republican member of the Assembly who went to the FBI in 1985 and suggested they try to get Willie Brown via an undercover sting involving phony legislation, who went to prison. Nolan served two years in federal prison for taking illegal contributions in the very FBI sting he himself suggested."

As Brown explains, the politician as leader is often viewed as a quarterback on a football team or a point guard in basketball -- the tactician, the strategist. "But a more appropriate comparison," Brown says, "is to, of all things, nursing."
Indeed, that's really how I've often thought of myself. You're doing vital work, necessary work. You get to use your brains, your people skills, and you get to help people. The physicians are specialists with highly specific knowledge, but the nurse is the facilitator, the real practitioner. And often you have to get people to take medicine they don't want. ... A real working politician these days isn't a prostitute, isn't a preacher, isn't a topic-specific expert, isn't a rabble-rouser. The good pol is a nurse for the body politic.
It would be nice to have a Legislature filled with such nurses.

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