Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Jerry Brown: A Literary Appreciation

Let us not praise him for leaning left or right, rather for being an uncommon artifact in a world of windblown bluffers.

And let us not confuse this post as a political endorsement of California Governor Jerry Brown (D).

The purpose here is to focus on someone who meets our special highwayscribery threshold for the successful mixing of politics and literature.

Brown, as might be expected, and as this article in "Capitol Weekly" attests to, is comfortable with a book.

The article does a detailed review of the governor's library, which includes Melville's "Billy Budd," a tome on "Christian Monasticism," Kevin Starr's "California," "The Dancing Column: On Order in Architecture," Beat poet Gary Snyder's "The Old Ways," and much more: a well-detailed map of one Renaissance man's mind-stamp.

"Yes highway scribe," you shake your head, "that's very impressive, but how does his literary bent inform his work as governor? Is there a difference between a west Texas bumpkin, and a fellow who sets himself up as an intellectual, when it comes to horse-trading and dispatch of the National Guard?"

Glad you asked and hard to say.

It's not much, but by way of first-hand experience, highwayscribery can say the governor handled the 600 bills sent him by the California legislature, almost all of them at the end of September, differently than other's he's covered including Arnold Schwarzenegger (R), George Deukmeijian (R), or Gray Davis (D).

(We skipped the Wilson years)

Typically, the bills begin to trickle out as they are signed. Some are posted on a governor's web site or announced in press releases by his office, some on the web pages of legislators who sponsored the measures. Reporters also break the news before it's available from the public record.

It's willy-nilly and in tune with the frantic note set by the closing days of the legislature.

This fall, Brown disappeared while those of us waiting on the final disposition of bills we'd followed for months waited and wondered. What was Brown doing? There was a deadline and, with about five days to go, he had only acted on a handful of measures.

The signing and veto messages were finally released in a staggered fashion, smartly grouped by issue. These issues (environment, transportation, public safety, etc.), for the most part, jibed with those Brown campaigned on as priorities.

They were the stuff of PR: "Gov. Brown Signs Bills Protecting California's Lakes, Streams and Coastlines," but were presented in the form of an argument and as the expression of an overall policy. It-

"C'mon highway scribe," you interrupt, "that because Brown know the state machinery inside out. You can't attribute that to the fact he read some Beat poet."

Point taken.

Over time the record has shown art to be no great civilizer, nor artists benighted with special human graces.

In "My Last Sigh," filmmaker Luis Bunuel wrote of the Spanish Civil War:

"I tell myself that all the wealth and culture on the Falangist side ought to have limited the horror. Yet the worst excesses came from them; which is why, alone with my dry martini, I have my doubts about the benefits of money and culture."

This second article from "Capitol Weekly," suggests that Brown's reading has at least informed his veto and signing messages, which, unlike those who came before him, writes his own.

The reporter, Greg Lucas, notes that "Brown has been brusque, pithy, candid, acerbic, droll, trenchant, and even a tad persnickety - sometimes all in the same veto message. His penchant is brevity, simplicity, and precision in word choice."

The article quotes Brown's communications director, Gil Duran, as saying, "He's a writer. he pays very careful attention to what he's saying and how he says it. Why use a word with three syllables when you can use another with only one?"

There are good answers to that, but they'd take up another article and that's not happening.

Here we sought only to examine the literary and legislative habits of one character in current American political theater.