Jerry Brown's Distasteful Campaign Kick-off

Having first met Jerry Brown in 1976 and reported extensively on five of his political campaigns between 1976 and '92, I was planning on waiting until later this summer before doing any reporting on his 2010 general election campaign for California governor. In light of Brown's propensity for vagueness and ambiguity, I thought that it might take some time yet for his latest political persona to sufficiently clarify itself and to see if he started to take some actual stands on the issues. But last week, Brown suddenly emerged with a stunning accusation against his Republican opponent Meg Whitman -- appearing to compare her to Adolf Hitler's right-hand man, propagandist Joseph Goebbels -- that piqued my interest.

On June 8, former eBay executive Meg Whitman won the Republican primary for governor of California while Brown coasted to victory in his own party's largely uncontested gubernatorial primary. Whitman and her Republican primary opponent, Steve Poizner, both wealthy businesspeople, were omnipresent for weeks on California TV stations with paid ads, largely funded by themselves and mostly attacking each other. Brown, a shoo-in to win his party's nomination, directly avoided the fray. Indirectly, in May, Brown's campaign reportedly worked with the California Democratic Party to coordinate an attack ad on Whitman, involving at least a $1-million statewide TV advertising buy that was perceived as also trying to help Poizner. Meanwhile, publicly, Brown was able to lie low and cruise below the radar since he announced his candidacy for governor on March 1 (in effect his try for a third term, 28 years after he last held the office). In his latest job, as Attorney General of California starting in January 2007, Brown was primarily visible when he took advantage of his involvement investigating the deaths of high-profile celebrities like Michael Jackson and Anna Nicole Smith for its perceived PR advantage.

"Lying low" might be an understatement in the case of Brown for Governor in 2010. In a year when white-hot issues (including illegal immigration, crushing government debt especially in California, and health care) have become dominant across the country, Brown has almost completely avoided any mention of such topics. He has made, as best I can tell, only three or four campaign appearances since March 1, and his website and official Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter pages have been largely filled with fluff.

For example, on June 12, the home page of his campaign website,, included the headline: "Birthday yesterday. Three cakes including my mother's banana cake made by my wife Anne. Headed to the gym for serious remediation."

On May 17, the top story at Brown's Web site was "Brown and Arts Council Host Statewide Music Festivals Funded By a Price-Fixing Settlement."

But like a predatory cat waiting patiently to attack its prey, Brown suddenly pounced on Whitman. On Saturday, May 29, as new polls were showing Whitman poised to easily win her party's nomination, KCBS radio reporter Doug Sovern encountered Brown in an Oakland park while Brown was jogging not far from his home in the Oakland hills. Sovern wrote about his conversation with Brown in a blog entry on June 9:

But he [Brown] also fretted about the impact of all those eBay dollars in Whitman's very deep pockets. "You know, by the time she's done with me, two months from now, I'll be a child-molesting..." He let the line trail off. "She'll have people believing whatever she wants about me." Then he went off on a riff I didn't expect.

"It's like Goebbels," referring to Hitler's notorious Minister of Propaganda. "Goebbels invented this kind of propaganda. He took control of the whole world. She wants to be president. That's her ambition, the first woman president. That's what this is all about."

On June 10, Whitman campaign manager Jillian Hasner released the following statement, quoted in an article on the flap in The Hill:

Just last week, Governor Brown promised he wasn't going to engage in mudslinging, but now he is comparing Meg Whitman to Hitler's Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels. Jerry Brown's statements comparing our campaign to a propagator of the Holocaust is deeply offensive and entirely unacceptable.

In his next blog post on June 10, Sovern wrote:

Jerry Brown's campaign spokesman, Sterling Clifford, confirms to the Associated Press that the conversation took place, describing it as "a discussion after a chance meeting while they were exercising. I wouldn't vouch for the accuracy of it, but I also don't want to dispute the accuracy of it. It was jogging talk taken out of context." He says Brown was not comparing the Whitman campaign to Nazis.

Friday afternoon [June 11], Jerry Brown issued the following statement: "I regret making the comments. They were taken out of context."

For his part, Sovern added, "I stand by what I wrote."

Beyond the unseemly nature of Brown's comments to Sovern implying some kind of equivalence between Whitman and Hitler's henchman, it is ironic for Brown to accuse Whitman of relying on propaganda. It is in fact Brown who has been one of the principal and most successful purveyors of political propaganda and spin in modern times.

In 1976, when I was covering his first campaign for president on the East coast, Brown introduced me to the work of one of his mentors, Jacques Ellul (1912-1994), an influential French sociologist and philosopher. Ellul was decades ahead of his time in describing, in books like The Technological Society and Propaganda, among other things, how the ever-expanding, all-consuming media matrix would come to influence and dominate the world of the future, including the coming marriage of the technique of technology and technocracy with advertising and the political process.

Another influence on Brown was his friend, the media guru Marshall McLuhan ("the medium is the message").

Brown has always used the media like a virtuoso spin doctor. He helped to popularize the use of buzzwords in advertising. As disgruntled former Brown administration staffer J.D. Lorenz wrote in his 1978 exposé of Brown, The Man on the White Horse, "If a picture was worth a thousand words, then, in Jerry's view, the right symbol was worth a thousand pictures." As the chief executive of California for eight years, Brown governed largely through symbolism: In the post-Watergate, gas-shortage-crisis "era of limits" of the 1970s, he eschewed living in the governor's mansion (a "Taj Mahal," he called it), slept on a mattress on the floor of a cheap rented apartment, and rode around in a Plymouth sedan -- all of these things highly visual cues and frequently trumpeted to the press.

 In his eight years as governor (1975-'83), and in the minor offices he has held since then to keep his political presence viable (California State Democratic Party Chair, Mayor of Oakland, California Attorney General), Brown has effectively manipulated symbols and the media, always one step ahead of the shrinking number (due to the downsizing and dumbing down of the mainstream press) of professional reporters employed to cover him, while (the unfair "Governor Moonbeam" label notwithstanding) successfully dazzling a number of influential columnists and potential critics across the political spectrum (who periodically parachuted in to hang out with him) with his iconoclastic intelligence and wit.

Jesse Walker, in an excellent article published in 2009, "The Five Faces of Jerry Brown," concludes: "When Jerry Brown wants power, he has a good sense of what he has to do to win and maintain it."

Every one of Brown's previous statewide campaigns has involved systematic vagueness and ambiguity -- as he said in his first race for governor in 1974, "moving left and right at the same time." Former aide Lorenz quoted Brown commenting about one of his 1974 TV ads on crime: "I sound tougher than Flournoy [Brown's Republican opponent], and I haven't proposed anything the liberals can criticize me for. In fact, I haven't committed myself to do anything at all." In this mastery of the media, Brown was predictive of another master of the arts of political persuasion, who currently occupies the Oval Office.

Meanwhile, in another coup for political theater, according to the Wall Street Journal (June 9, 2010), California Working Families for Jerry Brown for Governor 2010, "a labor-supported Democratic independent-expenditure group seeking to raise $26 million to $30 million to aid Brown," has been  funding a "Queen Meg" campaign in which actresses portraying Meg Whitman and Republican nominee for the U.S. Senate Carly Fiorina shadow Whitman and Fiorina on the campaign trail, "appear[ing] at Whitman and Fiorina events around the state, traveling in a bus with the words 'Queen Meg' emblazoned all over it." Pictures of "Queen Meg" have appeared prominently in California newspapers and on TV coverage.

Writing in the San Francisco Chronicle on June 12 ("Jerry Brown, California's chameleon prince"), columnist Debra J. Saunders shows that she has Brown's number, too:

Since Brown lost a U.S. Senate race to Pete Wilson in 1982, he has assumed the role of wandering prince -- continually reinventing himself, trading on his political connections and then, when convenient, shamelessly distancing himself from them. He can always return. ...

Brown's true talent, however, has been to sense what voters want to hear. By the time he was elected [Oakland] mayor in 1998, he was a pro-development politician with the goal of drawing 10,000 new residents downtown. Better yet, the majority of new downtown housing was privately financed.

Brown also shed the anti-law-enforcement tone he used as a talk-radio-show host ... This mayor wanted more cops on the beat.

Jerry Brown the skilled communicator and media meister must know that an unfair reference linking his opponent to Nazi monster Joseph Goebbels cannot be recalled. His weak apology aside, his thoughtless (or maybe carefully thought out) dig has helped to paint a potentially lasting derogatory word-picture of Whitman -- a symbol in the minds of many in the electorate -- perhaps subliminally, but in any case maybe having enough weight to influence the outcome of a close election. And Brown's comment comparing Whitman to Goebbels came after the widely broadcast California Democratic Party TV ad in May that portrayed Whitman in an extremely unflattering light, to say the least.

In an election that so far has been devoid of discussion of the issues, Brown's Whitman-channeling-Goebbels comment could turn out to have considerable -- and unfortunate -- influence.

Photos copyright © Peter B. Chowka
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