In summary

Jerry Brown made three failed bids to become president, but if he had played the game differently, he might have made it.

Editor’s note: Jerry Brown and Dan Walters arrived in Sacramento at the same time in 1975. Brown was a new governor and Walters was a reporter at the Sacramento Union. More than any other journalist, Walters has followed Brown’s career ever since. This four-part series is his inside look at the politician he has watched so closely for so long.

Jerry Brown campaigns on the campus of the University of Maryland at College Park in May of 1976, seeking the Democratic nomination for president. Photo by Associated Press
Jerry Brown campaigns on the campus of the University of Maryland at College Park in May of 1976, seeking the Democratic nomination for president. Photo by Associated Press

It took Jerry Brown just six years to scoot up the political ladder from ex-seminarian and recent law school graduate to the governorship of the nation’s most populous state.

But that wasn’t enough. Scarcely a year into his first term as governor, Brown decided to make a grab for the brass ring of American politics, the presidency.

At the time, early in 1976, the former governor of Georgia, Jimmy Carter, had improbably emerged from a crowded field of Democratic candidates. But Carter had enemies and they were looking for someone to block his nomination.

Jerry Brown volunteered. “The country is rich, but not so rich as we have been led to believe,” Brown said as he announced his presidential candidacy 14 months after being inaugurated as governor. “The choice to do one thing may preclude another. In short, we are entering an era of limits.”

Nancy Pelosi, a Democratic Party activist from San Francisco (and later House speaker) whose father and brother had been mayors of Baltimore, connected Brown to the city’s powerful political machine and to Maryland Gov. Marvin Mandel, an old foe of Carter’s.

Brown entered the Maryland presidential primary and the machine, in the form of Baltimore County Executive Ted Venetoulis, known locally as “TV Teddy” for his flashy style and naked ambition, turned out the troops for the upstart from California.

So began the first of Brown’s three presidential bids, all of which fell short of making him a true contender for the White House.

During his first year as governor, Brown’s penchant for buzzwords and symbolic gestures, and his bachelor lifestyle that included a rock star girlfriend, had made him a media sensation. Therefore, as he campaigned in Maryland, even the remote possibility that he could vie for the presidency drew huge attention from the national political media in nearby Washington.

Brown won in Maryland, thanks to Mandel and Venetoulis, both of which saw their political careers end shortly thereafter. Mandel was convicted on corruption charges a year later and was sent to federal prison, while Venetoulis lost a bid for governor in 1978.

Brown later won primaries in California and Nevada and about 300 delegate votes but never posed a real threat to Carter. However, Brown’s name was placed in nomination at the 1976 Democratic National Convention by another Southern governor who despised Carter and who later went to prison for corruption, Louisiana’s Edwin Edwards, with a seconding speech by California farm labor leader Cesar Chavez.

The juxtaposition of Edwards and Chavez neatly framed the young governor’s split political personality – grasping and opportunistic at one moment, idealistic the next. And losing in 1976 only whetted his appetite for another presidential bid four years later, this time while paddling his political canoe to the right, hoping to capitalize on what appeared to be a nationwide tax revolt.

Gov. Jerry Brown with Cesar Chavez and aides at La Paz, the UFW headquarters, in 1975. Photo by Jon Lewis, Farmworker Documentation Project
Gov. Jerry Brown with Cesar Chavez and aides at La Paz, the UFW headquarters, in 1975. Photo by Jon Lewis, Farmworker Documentation Project

In 1978, California voters passed Proposition 13, a tough limit on property taxes whose effects are still being hotly debated.

Brown opposed the measure, along with most of the state’s political leaders of both parties. He called it “a ripoff.” But within hours of its passage, Brown reversed position, declaring himself a “born-again tax cutter,” and pushing through a state tax cut as he sought re-election to a second term as governor.

Looking ahead to another run for the presidency in 1980, Brown latched onto the supposed tax revolt. He supported a California spending limit measure and called for a balanced budget constitutional amendment.

Brown’s 1980 presidential bid was a very long shot from the beginning. Not only was he challenging an incumbent from his own party, but Sen. Ted Kennedy had also chosen to take on Carter.

After winning just 10 percent of the vote in the New Hampshire primary, Brown declared that staying in the race would depend on a good showing in Wisconsin, a state that seemed to be tailor-made for his quirky political positioning.

The Brownies hit Wisconsin with all they had, and Brown crisscrossed the state by plane, train and bus in hopes of gaining traction. But the state’s media mostly ignored him in favor of covering other candidates, particularly Kennedy, and the boys and girls on Brown’s campaign bus were mostly Californians waiting to report on the end of his second presidential quest.

In desperation, Brown tapped his cadre of supporters in the entertainment industry with a live, 30-minute television broadcast from the steps of the state capitol in Madison, staged by film director Francis Ford Coppola, four days before the primary election.

Unwittingly or otherwise, Coppola re-created the USO scene from “Apocalypse Now,” his Vietnam War masterpiece, with Brown taking the place of the movie’s scantily clad dancing girls.

Swaddled in a borrowed trench coat several sizes too large for him and pelted by wind-driven snow, Brown delivered his pitch to Wisconsin voters, but the graphics that were supposed to accompany his speech were mishandled and it became an infamous technological disaster that must be viewed to fully appreciate.

A day later, CBS-TV aired a prime time account of the event by political correspondent Bernie Goldberg, who mocked Brown’s campaign slogan. “It was billed as the shape of things to come,” Goldberg concluded after showing scenes from the botched broadcast, “But it was more like Jerry Brown’s apocalypse right now.”

When Brown heard about Goldberg’s report, he exploded in rage on a bus carrying him, his staff and journalists to campaign stops in rural Wisconsin, and confronted the only CBS-connected person he could find, Linda Douglass, a reporter for KNX, the CBS outlet in Los Angeles, with a screaming, Donald Trump-like diatribe about media bias.

Goldberg’s assessment of Brown’s campaign, however snarky, was quite accurate. He won exactly one delegate in the Wisconsin voting, a young man from Madison – his only delegate from the entire 1980 campaign.

Incidentally, Linda Douglass, unlike Brown, later made it to the White House as a top aide to President Barack Obama.

Brown’s first two failed campaigns for the White House were perhaps exercises in egocentricity, but his third was both bizarre and semi-successful.

After losing a bid for the U.S. Senate in 1982, the 44-year-old Brown went into self-imposed political exile for the remainder of the decade – traveling the world, growing a beard, and spending some time in Sister Teresa’s service to the poor of Calcutta.

Brown re-emerged for a short-lived, unsuccessful stint as state Democratic Party chairman, announced he might run for the U.S. Senate again in 1992, but opted – for reasons best known to himself – for a third presidential campaign.

This time, he paddled his canoe to the left again, echoing his first campaign for governor in 1974, promising to “take back America from the confederacy of corruptioncareerism, and campaign consulting in Washington.”

Brown, without any official duties, was able to campaign vigorously in multiple states, accompanied by Jacques Barzaghi, a French-born former actor who had been Brown’s personal advisor and companion since the early days of his governorship. He did fairly well in early primaries and appeared to present a serious challenge to the Democratic frontrunner, Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton.

Jerry Brown and Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton were bitter rivals for the presidency in 1992.
Jerry Brown and Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton were bitter rivals for the presidency in 1992.

Brown’s verbal clashes with Clinton, often personal, punctuated their rivalry, but Brown made a misstep by saying he would consider Jesse Jackson as his running mate, which drove down his polling numbers.

Wisconsin voters once again delivered the death blow to Brown’s presidential ambitions, rejecting him in favor of Clinton, who went on to win the Democratic nomination, although Brown finished second in the first convention floor vote with 596 delegates.

So Brown was a three-time presidential loser. But under other circumstances, could he have achieved his burning White House ambitions?

His first missed grab for the brass ring in 1976 wasn’t fatal, but his second, in 1980, was embarrassing and along with other factors, so lowered his popularity in California that he lost his 1982 bid for the U.S. Senate by a fairly wide margin.

Had Brown been more attentive to his gubernatorial duties and not run for president in 1980, he might well have won that Senate seat in 1982, putting him in position to run successfully for the White House.

Brown acknowledged in a Sacramento Press Club appearance last week that his 1980 presidential run was a mistake, saying he “ran one too many times.”

“A lot of politics is timing, circumstances and luck,” he added.

Yes it is.

Brown Redux—The Series

Part 1: The son also rises

Part 2: Could he have been president?

Part 3: A second art in California politics

Part 4: What will be his legacy?

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Dan Walters has been a journalist for more than 60 years, spending all but a few of those years working for California newspapers. He began his professional career in 1960, at age 16, at the Humboldt Times...