DETROIT -- In the midst of last Sunday night's stormy debate among the Democratic presidential candidates, Bill Clinton turned to Jerry Brown and observed: "He reinvents himself every year or two."
Brown had just launched a broadside against Clinton, charging on the basis of a newspaper story that as governor of Arkansas he had "Funneled" state contracts to the law firm in which his wife, Hillary, is a partner. Clinton flatly denied the allegation and went on to charge that the former California governor had opposed a ballot initiative in his own state that would limit campaign contributions -- a limitation that Brown has now made the cornerstone of his presidential campaign.
Clinton's remark about Brown "reinventing" himself is one often heard from longtime Brown-watchers. After eight years as a governor, he ran and lost a Senate race in 1982, then turned away from politics. He said at the time that Californians had grown tired of him and he proceeded to travel widely over the next several years, including a celebrated stint working with Mother Teresa in Calcutta.
Then, still considered by many California political figures as unelectable, he decided to try nuts-and-bolts politics, something he seemed always to shun as governor. He persuaded party leaders to accept him as state party chairman and undertook to build a statewide grass-roots organization where there really had been none.
Brown had considerable success in raising millions for voter registration and other mechanical party tasks. But he finally threw up his hands because, he says now, he came to realize the pervasively corrupting influence of big money in the whole political process.
Last year he considered running for the Senate again, and while he was rated a fair chance of being nominated, the consensus among political pros in the state was that he probably couldn't be elected. Suddenly he switched and announced his third presidential try.
Asked about Clinton's "reinventing" remark, Brown insisted that he had "always been a reformer." He chalked off his former role as a champion fund-raiser as a learning experience that helped give root to his current "insurgent" campaign, in which he takes no contribution more than $100 and solicits money through his now-famous 800 telephone number.
Although he did turn away from politics after his Senate loss, the thought of finding a way back in never seemed very far from his thoughts. A week after that loss, he mused about supporting Sen. Ted Kennedy for president in 1984 in the hope that Kennedy would be elected and put him in his cabinet, but Kennedy decided not to run.
Brown has never made a secret of his belief that the presidency demands an individual of creative, bold and innovative thinking, and that he fills the bill himself. From advocating "small is beautiful" and a government of limits in a time of limited resources, he now talks more of grasping the huge opportunities for innovation and economic growth presented by the end of the resources-draining Cold War.
This year he is calling for a 13 percent flat individual income tax that would replace social security, gasoline and virtually all other taxes, and a similar corporate income tax that would do away with all the loopholes on which corporations, their accountants and lawyers have thrived. It is Jerry Brown at his most innovative.
So is his strategy of seizing on mushrooming voter disenchantment and anger with elected officials, by conducting a shoestring "outsider" campaign that figuratively (and literally at rallies) passes the hat for small contributions.
Just where Brown's campaign is going is uncertain. But it has all the earmarks of a long-term effort, planting the seed in the 1992 primaries and caucuses, cultivating it noisily at the national convention in New York in July, and then preparing for harvest in the 1996 campaign. It may not have started out that way, but Brown, who will be only 57 in 1996, is conducting himself now with a fervor that suggests this former Jesuit student sees himself as a political missionary with the Oval Office as his eventual holy grail.