Sure, Jerry Brown's Nuts, But . . .

RICHARD REEVES

March 30, 1992|By RICHARD REEVES

SACRAMENTO, CALIFORNIA. — Ron Brown says Jerry Brown is a destructive force in the party. Anthony Lewis of the New York Times is mad at him because he's a spoiler. My own assistant, Peter Keating, is mad at me because I'm soft on Jerry at a time when Peter feels folks should unite around the Democratic nominee -- and he thinks Bill Clinton is that nominee.

He's almost certainly right on that last point. Because Democratic primaries are based on proportional representation, rather than Republican winner-take-all rules, Governor Clinton picks up delegates every Tuesday, win or lose. In Connecticut, the man from Arkansas got fewer votes than Jerry but collected more delegates.

Barring revelations that he's an agent of Saddam Hussein, it is hard to imagine Mr. Clinton not getting the Democratic nomination. All he has to do now, with almost 1,000 delegates in his pocket (of 2,145 needed for nomination) is to hang in there -- a talent he has already shown in large measure. I would not take ''open convention'' scenarios too seriously; elected Clinton delegates did not work for him for a year or so to go to New York and renounce their loyalty.

I don't know yet what I think about Governor Clinton, other than admiring his campaigning skills, but I do know that I greatly prefer Jerry Brown to Ron Brown. The one called Ron, the Democratic National Chairman, seems to me to value order above all. From the beginning of the 1992 campaign, his goal has been to see that his party's candidate was selected as quickly and bloodlessly as possible, on the theory that the candidate should emerge undamaged by messy primaries and have as much time as possible to beat up on George Bush.

In other words, Ron wants to know why Democrats can't be more like Republicans -- or, at least, Republicans other than Pat Buchanan. But, in fact, the difference between the two parties' party poopers is that Mr. Buchanan never had a chance to win the Republican nomination because of the Republicans' tidy winner-take-all system.

On the Democratic side almost anything can happen. It's even possible that an unknown governor from a tiny state could practically be conceded the nomination by party leaders (such as they are) before anyone heard from a single primary voter. So it is hard for me to comprehend exactly what it is that Jerry is spoiling, much less destroying.

Jerry Brown is impossible. The guy is a screwball. True. He was laughed at when he abandoned a U.S. Senate race here -- where he had a pretty good chance to win the Democratic nomination if not the general election -- and announced to a totally uninterested world that he was (1) going to run for president and (2) take no contributions over $100. Wacko! Double wacko!!

I take a certain amount of professional pleasure in the fact that I wrote then that (1) Jerry Brown should not be underestimated; he's one canny little candidate, and (2) what he was saying about the money-corruption of American politics is true -- every word of it.

I go pretty far back with Jerry, profiling him first for the New York Times Magazine in 1975. (My wife, Catherine O'Neill, was the finance director of his first presidential campaign, in 1976, though I did not know her then.) In that piece 17 years ago, I quoted Mr. Brown's chief of staff, Gray Davis (now state controller and a candidate for the U.S. Senate) telling the story of asking the new governor on his first day in office if he wanted to issue a statement of objectives.

''What do you mean?'' Jerry asked.

Mr. Davis said, ''Well, what are we trying to do?''

''I don't know,'' Jerry said. ''It'll emerge.''

Six months later, I asked Governor Brown the same question.

''Reduce the sum of human misery a bit, I guess,'' he answered. Then he added: ''Do you think that what you or I do will really make a difference in the long run?''

Well, I hope his latest bit of public lunacy does make a difference. Because no matter how inconvenient he is to Bill Clinton and the Democratic National Committee, Mr. Brown is still telling the truth at the moment. Our politics, though peopled by thousands of the best people you'll ever meet, is systemically corrupt to the core.

As Jerry Brown said ever so rudely in the first candidate debate on NBC last December, even the best people end up bought and paid for by the men and corporations and interests pumping money into the endless campaigns of career candidates, of which he was one once and could be again. That is moving our politics and government further and further from the reach and interest of ordinary citizens. He knows what he's talking about because he did it all himself -- and then some.

Shout it from the rooftops, convert or hypocrite: Money is to the corridors of politics and government what crack is to the meanest broken streets across America.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

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