The Democrats' Buchanan

Anthony Lewis

March 25, 1992|By Anthony Lewis

WHEN Jerry Brown was elected governor of California in 1974, his campaign finance director was Richard Maullin.

A few years later Maullin said, "Jerry doesn't have the same attachments as other people do. He doesn't care about friends or possessions or sports. He's totally into power."

The truth of that observation has been brought home to me over many years of watching Brown. He assumes various guises, from the Zen mysticism of the early California years to today's blue-collar look, the United Auto Workers jacket. But the subtext is always the same: power for Jerry Brown.

He used to talk about friendship with Mexico and about the economic potential of the Pacific Rim. But campaigning in Michigan in recent weeks, he was a xenophobe who made opposition to the proposed free-trade pact with Mexico a main theme.

"Clinton and Bush want to send your jobs to Mexico," he told Michigan audiences. When he returns to California to campaign for its June presidential primary, he will no doubt be a free-trader again.

Brown has real talent as a politician. It is an ability to find the current sore spot in the country's political psyche and rub the hurt.

This year he has identified as his opening the public's resentment of Washington insiders and their privileges. So he is running as Mr. Outside, the enemy of vested interests, the man who will give politics back to the people. Thus his saintly refusal to accept campaign contributions of more than $100.

The evil of big-money contributors was not so clear to Brown two years ago. Then he and his law firm worked hard to defeat a California initiative that would have put a limit on contributions to state candidates.

He comes on as casual, a candidate of engagingly impromptu actions. But when I first interviewed him, 16 years ago, I concluded that, underneath, he was "cool, one might even say calculating."

The latest example of cold calculation was his attack on Bill and Hillary Clinton in the television debate before the Illinois and Michigan primaries.

On Sunday, March 15, the Washington Post put on Page 1 a story headlined "Hillary Clinton's Law Firm Does Business With State." It was a headline that vied with the one that years ago won Claud Cockburn the nightly prize for dullness at The Times of London, "Small Earthquake In Peru, Not Many Killed."

The Rose law firm, in which Mrs. Clinton is a partner, is one of the three largest in Arkansas, so the fact that it handles cases connected with the state is unremarkable. It has done so for decades, long before Mrs. Clinton was there.

The Post article made no suggestion that the Rose firm had been favored during Bill Clinton's governorship, or that Hillary Clinton had benefited improperly. (In fact, she does not accept the portion of partnership income attributable to state-connected legal work.) It was hard indeed to see what the point of the story was.

That night, in the debate, Brown said Clinton was "funneling money to his wife's law firm as state business." He said that was "right on the front of the Washington Post."

The statement was a calculated lie. The Post story had made no such charge.

The press covering the debate was caught as it often is when confronted with demagoguery -- caught as it was long ago by Joe McCarthy. It just printed the charge and Clinton's angry denial.

But Thomas Oliphant, a Boston Globe columnist who was there, was not trapped by the journalistic shibboleth of "balanced" coverage. He pointed out the falsehood and said Brown's behavior "gives hypocrisy a bad name."

Why bother puzzling over the phenomenon of Jerry Brown? He is not going to be the nominee for president. He decided not to run for senator in California because he could not win even that.

But he is going to be a spoiler, and a mean one. He will be in the race at least through California. And he will probably be back in 1996, and 2000, and . . . He is the Democrats' Pat Buchanan.

Anthony Lewis is a columnist for the New York Times.

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