SACRAMENTO, Calif. — I ask Jerry if he’s ready for Hillary.
In 1992, when he ran for president against Bill Clinton, Jerry Brown was remorseless in taking on “Slick Willie,” as he called him, and his wife, pelting them with accusations of corruption and conflicts-of-interest in Arkansas. In one seething exchange on the debate stage, Clinton snapped: “You ought to be ashamed of yourself for jumping on my wife. You’re not worth being on the same platform as my wife.”
In the governor’s office for coffee, I ask a more mellow Brown how he would feel about a Hillary coronation.
“The polls say that she’s in an extremely strong position,” he says. “So prominent in her husband’s administration, then a senator, then secretary of state. Those are powerful milestones. I don’t see anyone challenging her at this point.”
So, how does he reconcile what he said in 1992 and now? Have the Clintons changed, or has Brown changed?
He crosses his arms and gives me a flinty look, finally observing: “In retrospect, after we see all the other presidents that came afterwards, certainly, Clinton handled his job with a level of skill that hasn’t been met since.”
Take that, President Obama.
And could he see his former nemesis, Bill, who endorsed Gavin Newsom for governor instead of Brown in 2009, as First Lad?
“Wherever he is, he will fill up the room, that’s for sure,” he replies. “He has a lot of political energy.”
It’s an astonishing thing, but the prickly Jerry Brown has, at long last, become something of a diplomat. He’s 75, balding and gray. But he’s still slender and fit, and remains an eclectic party of one.
Two weeks ago, Brown ended up on the opposite side of two key planks in the California Democrats’ platform — banning fracking and legalizing pot.
Like Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper and California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Brown is wary about legalized pot and wants to chart the evolution of the revolution. As he said on “Meet the Press,” “How many people can get stoned and still have a great state or a great nation?”
I ask the man formerly known as Governor Moonbeam if he ever smoked pot.
“We’re dealing with the seventh largest economy in the world, and I’m not going to deal with these marginal issues,” he said primly. Actually, it’s the eighth, but maybe he is anticipating a move up.
His lieutenant, Gavin Newsom, told Ronan Farrow on MSNBC that Brown was wrong on the pot issue and should not use words such as “potheads,” “stoners” and “hippies.” But Brown says his remarks to David Gregory were “more of a wry comment” than “a policy pronouncement.”
I ask the governor if he read Linda Ronstadt’s memoir, in which she praised her former beau as “smart and funny, not interested in drinking or drugs.” She made note of his famous frugality, recalling that once, when they were going to dinner at Rosemary Clooney’s, Jerry wanted to take a box of roses that were sent to Ronstadt, remove the card and give it to Clooney.
At first Brown clams up, but then he relents. “I visit her at Christmastime” sometimes, he said. “She’s thoughtful and has a lot to say.”
As he raises a ton of money to run for an unprecedented fourth term, which he first announced in a casual tweet, the famous rebel seems strangely content.
He’s never seen “Chinatown,” but he’s trying to deal with the drought by fixing the state’s unsustainable water transport system, which his dad helped put in place and he himself tried to fix 30 years ago. And he’s still fighting for his dream of a high-speed train from Sacramento to San Diego, a project bogged down in lawsuits. He takes a white model of the train from the window and lovingly places it in the middle of a big picnic table, noting he has liked trains since he was a kid.
He says he wasn’t upset when Newsom joined the opposition last month. “I don’t think he has repeated the comment, do you?” he asked an aide.
His office is full of black-and-white pictures of his father, the former governor of California — two with a stunningly young-looking JFK just before he became president. The onetime Jesuit seminarian is low-key about his role in bringing California back from $27 billion in the red three years ago to a budget surplus of several billion.
“I had a good hand,” he murmurs, “and I played it reasonably well.” He says he thinks his dad would have “enjoyed” seeing his son’s success, achieved partly by belatedly adopting some of Pat Brown’s more social ways with lawmakers.
I ask Brown what he thinks about the young Silicon Valley entrepreneurs who complained the homeless are ruining the aesthetic of San Francisco.
“There’s not a lot of people who like homeless on the street,” he says. “I wouldn’t tie that to Silicon Valley.”
We’re meeting the same day Rand Paul is making a speech at Berkeley warning about the NSA’s “assault” on privacy, and Brown says he also worries about that.
“There’s a tendency to totalism, total information, and once you have total information you’re making it easier for total control,” he says.
He also finds Tea Party obstructionism “extremely ominous and dangerous.”
Asked what he has done for fun lately, the looser Governor Brown replies he helped his wife and adviser, Anne Gust Brown, pick out some clothes, noting: “I like elegance, more classic, not too flamboyant with colors.”
Maureen Dowd is a syndicated columnist who writes for the New York Times News Service.