Let's just forget Jerry Brown's 'moonbeam' label

Mike Royko

September 09, 1991|By Mike Royko | Mike Royko,Tribune Media Services

OVER COFFEE last week, Jerry Brown was musing about the possibility of his running for president.

His thoughts about a campaign theme were intriguing. Politics has become a corrupt, big-money game that has made millions of Americans cynical.

It's no longer a question of what a candidate has to say, but how many millions can he raise from special-interest groups. And how those millions are spent by the hired media wizards who create the slick commercials, buzzwords and sound bites.

The ordinary person feels powerless and left out because he truly is powerless and left out. And that's why they don't vote. They believe their vote means nothing.

Near the end of our chat, Brown was weighing his long-shot chances. And like any Democrat, he would be a long shot. But unlike other Democrats, he has an added handicap.

Looking me in the eye, he said: "I'd have to deal with the, uh ... the ..."

He paused. I said: "The moonbeam factor?"

He nodded while I mentally squirmed.

If you follow politics, you may recall that when Brown was governor of California, someone thought he was a bit eccentric and slapped him with the label "Governor Moonbeam."

And the tag stuck. Oh, did it ever. The disc jockeys, his political enemies and every editorial wise guy in California picked it up. And from then on, he was Governor Moonbeam.

But as I told him last week, that was a long time ago. By now, the label had surely faded away. Especially since he is obviously a serious man and every bit as normal as the next candidate, if not more so.

He shook his head. "No, it's still there."

What a guilt trip. You see, I have the dubious distinction of being the author of the phrase "Governor Moonbeam."

Even worse, I don't even remember when I wrote it or in what context. But I do know that that column appeared in several California papers and, to my amazement, "Governor Moonbeam" became part of the political vocabulary.

During the 1980 Democratic convention, Brown made a speech that was far more sensible than any of the other babblings at that grim gathering. So I wrote a column renouncing the Moonbeam label. I not only renounced it, I denounced it, rejected and declared it unfair, inappropriate and outdated.

I mean, as the author I should have that right, right?

Anyway, when we finished our coffee and parted, I again assured Brown that the media would not be so lacking in imagination, so wedded to the past, that it would grasp at an obsolete and discredited phrase to spice up a story.

He said he hoped so, but he didn't appear convinced.

Shows what I know. Two days later, I picked up this paper and saw a column item that Brown had been in Chicago talking to acquaintances about the possibility of his running for president.

And there it was: "Moonbeam."

Then the latest Newsweek magazine came out. He was in it. And so was Moonbeam.

He is now a declared candidate. So Tuesday I read a story by the Cox wire service. The first paragraph said:

"WASHINGTON -- Former California Gov. Jerry Brown, whose unorthodox lifestyle and political leadership earned him the nickname 'Governor Moonbeam,' began running for president Tuesday."

Hold on, there. His "unorthodox lifestyle and political leadership" did not earn him that nickname.

He got that nickname because a guy in Chicago was stringing some words together one evening to earn his day's pay and tossed in what he thought was an amusing phrase. And if he had it to do over again, he sure as hell wouldn't.

The fact is, Brown's lifestyle wasn't all that "unorthodox." He didn't get boozed up, zonked out or hop from bed to bed. If anything, he pondered questions that most politicians are afraid to think about, much less mention.

But because the media like to demand original thinking, while declaring that any original thinker is zany, it decided Brown was "unorthodox."

Of course, if it hadn't been for that idiotic, damn-fool, meaningless, throw-away line, the rap that he was a bit unorthodox wouldn't have mattered or lingered.

Would somebody today have written: "Former California Gov. Jerry Brown, who was once thought by some to have an unorthodox lifestyle and approach to political leadership, began running for president Tuesday."?

Of course not. Ah, but toss in the "Moonbeam" tag and the reader has a vision of some weird, wild-eyed California oddball.

Which he isn't. There's nothing strange about him, unless you consider it strange to recognize that Washington is filled with career hustlers who live from one campaign bundle to another; that hundreds of millions are poured by fat-cat contributors into media blitzes that appeal to fear and bigotry; that genuine concerns and issues are buried under Madison Avenue buzzwords. If that's strange, then the majority of Americans are strange because they believe it and it's true.

So enough of this "Moonbeam" stuff. As the creator of this monster, I declare it null, void and deceased.

And to America's political pundits, gossip columnists and other opinion-warpers, I say this: Create your own stupid labels and leave my stupid label alone. Bunch of moonbeams.

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