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Beat the Devil

Inaugurals

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Twenty-six years ago, when the world was young, Jerry Brown began his reign in Sacramento and, even though I wrote some rude things about him at the time, life was certainly fun. He changed the idiom of what these days is so pompously called the national conversation.

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Alexander Cockburn
Alexander Cockburn, The Nation's "Beat the Devil" columnist and one of America's best-known radical...

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Pose a political threat to Business As Usual and sooner or later, mostly sooner, someone will try to kill you.

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In the first week of January 1999, the incoming Democratic Governor, Gray Davis, chief of staff to Brown back then, came to Sacramento and gave an inaugural speech stagnant with cant, fetid with platitude. Here was a moment when the sixteen dreary, costive years of Deukmejian and Wilson were being bid adieu, and the only rhetorical flourish Davis could muster was to compare Willie Brown to a shopping mall Nordstrom's. "This is not in my script," he declaimed to Senator Dianne Feinstein, "but I notice you are sitting next to my anchor tenant in San Francisco, the great Mayor of San Francisco, Willie L. Brown Jr."

There was no such amiable halloo for Mayor Jerry Brown of Oakland. To the contrary, Davis stuck it to his former boss by announcing, "Today we begin a new chapter in the history of California: The Era of Higher Expectations. We will embark in a new direction guided by our lasting values." In 1974 Governor Jerry took a leaf out of E.F. Schumacher and told Californians that "lowered expectations" were on the Zeitgeist's menu.

It turned out 1973 saw the peak in postwar workers' wages, so Brown spoke truer than he knew. For Davis, higher expectations is the right to strike it rich or, in practical terms, the right of the rich to strike it even richer. When he wants to invoke the acme of economic felicity he invokes the Gold Rush. Earlier on that inaugural Monday, Davis imparted the same message to massed lobbyists from the energy, agriculture and real estate sectors.

From Clinton, Davis has learned the basic lesson--offend and betray all core Democratic groupings but one: "And to those who would deny a woman her right to choose, let me offer this suggestion: Don't waste the legislature's time.... Now I will complete the sentence: Don't waste the legislature's time trying to pass bills restricting women's constitutional rights. It simply will not happen on my watch."

Democrats are now so terrified of being accused by the press of "catering to special interests"--women excluded because Democrats have read the polls and tasted the victories--that they make a point of kicking labor and blacks in the teeth to manifest Olympian detachment from notions of party and constituency. The Los Angeles Times cited flacks for Davis emphasizing the governor's fidelity to this new style: "Davis' advisors hope the resounding election victory will give him the authority to scale back his party's wish lists and persuade those traditional elements [i.e., the working people who gave him most of his twenty point margin] to accept his 'new Democrat'-style platform of limited government and support for business, as well as his campaign call for tax cuts."

You never hear Republicans pledging to persuade business backers that victory means they must be "governor of all the people" and expand healthcare, workers' rights, environmental protections, assistance to the poor and the disfranchised.

The hope for many liberals and leftists who voted for Davis is that he will appoint some decent judges. Jerry Brown's judicial appointments are nearing retirement, and there are sixteen years of monsters presiding in California's courtrooms. But Davis has always stressed his eagerness to gas 16-year-olds. If the Clinton paradigm holds true, Davis's judicial choices will be dismaying. "I will be...death on violent crime," he proclaimed. That heavy footfall on the word "death" doesn't bode well for the 513 lodgers on California's death row, starting with Jay Siripongs, who will be the first candidate for the thumbs up or down from Davis.

Davis picked all the coward's rhetorical options. When you daren't talk about exploitation in the fields or low pay in the shops, go on about schools and the fecklessness of idle youth. One of the great joys of the Lewinsky scandal is that Bill Clinton can no longer enter poor schools and lecture kids about personal responsibility. By the look of him, Davis's hand never strays to an intern's thong or a well-stressed bra strap. He lacks even the interest of Clinton's personal frailties. With Davis, we arrive at Degree Zero of the Democratic Party. Give him a couple of years and all the Third Party talk, muted out of revulsion at the Republicans' onslaught on Bill, will start up again. It has to.

A day later, Jerry Brown, who quit the Democratic Party a year or so ago, delivered his inaugural address as mayor of Oakland. As always with Brown, you feel at least there's a mind at work, not merely an adding machine totting up campaign contributions. Brown, too, talked about raising hopes rather than lowering them. How could he stand in downtown and do otherwise? His fourfold pledge is to reduce crime, bring 10,000 residents into downtown, assist parents and teachers in establishing public charter schools and "encourage celebration, festival and artistic performance."

It's rhetorical wallpaper thus far. About six weeks ago a charter school director went down to Brown's HQ, "We the People," and though Brown has been mayor-elect since the summer, his staff had nothing in terms of knowledge, available resources or even a coffee to offer my friend. It will be great if Brown's version of Xenophon's Anabasis has 10,000 settling within a stone's throw of Ratto's in what he charmingly calls "elegant density and mixed-use vibrancy." And we're all for celebration.

As for crime, Brown stated: "Lack of investment easily fosters desperation...that lead[s] to crime and antisocial behavior. In turn, crime deters investment.... Window bars and metal gates in front of doors...do not betray a convivial spirit." He calls for fifty-seven neighborhood crime-prevention councils: "It is absolutely crucial that neighbors come together and collaborate--and not just about crime statistics. I see these councils as a form of democratic power--the power from below." All power to the soviets!

A couple of people listening on TV said they felt cheered, even inspired, by Brown's address. One of them said he wants to be one of the 10,000 colonists. Brown still knows how to lay a finger on the Zeitgeist. Let's hope he makes a go of things.

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