I ran into Jerry Brown the other day. Or, rather, he ran into me. Literally.
I was out for a bike ride in the Oakland hills and stopped at Redwood Regional Park to fill up my water bottle. Suddenly, up jogs Jerry, in his sweats, chugging along the trail. As he caught his breath and got some water from the fountain, I said hello. He recognized me but couldn't remember my name, something that has happened many times between us over the past 25 years. I reintroduced myself, and he asked me if I was still at KCBS. I said I was, and complimented him on his impressive fitness for a man of 72. He'd run perhaps a mile and a half from his house on Skyline Boulevard.
We proceeded to have a remarkable and revealing chat about his race for governor. As strange a human being as he can be, Brown is almost always open and forthright. He can veer into esoteric tangents, but he tells it like it is (or at least how he sees it) and rarely pulls a punch.
I asked him if he intended to debate Meg Whitman, once she locked up the Republican nomination for governor (which she did Tuesday night, trouncing Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner). He said he'd like to have "many" debates with her - and indeed, he has since formally challenged Whitman to a series of ten town hall-style debates (Whitman dismissed his challenge as "playing political games" and said Brown should lay out some detailed policies so they'll have something to debate).
I asked him how he could possibly compete with her vast campaign treasury - Whitman spent $71 million of her own money on the primary, and is ready to write checks for $80 million more to crush Brown. She also raised about ten million from donors, and there will be more where that came from, from supporters and from the Republican Party.
Brown boasted about his legendary frugality. "I've only spent $200,000 so far. I have 20 million in the bank. I'm saving up for her." It's true - his stay-on-the-sidelines, bare-bones primary run cost him almost nothing, at least in California political terms. But he also fretted about the impact of all those eBay dollars in Whitman's very deep pockets. "You know, by the time she's done with me, two months from now, I'll be a child-molesting..." He let the line trail off. "She'll have people believing whatever she wants about me." Then he went off on a riff I didn't expect.
"It's like Goebbels," referring to Hitler's notorious Minister of Propaganda. "Goebbels invented this kind of propaganda. He took control of the whole world. She wants to be president. That's her ambition, the first woman president. That's what this is all about."
I pointed out that most politicians want to be president someday. Gavin Newsom, for example. "Sure, sure he does. But they can't control it. Look at Barack Obama, he got in and it's all out of his control. I wanted to be president. I ran for president three times, you know."
Uh, yeah, we know. No kidding, Jer.
At that point, some other runners stopped to say hello, recognizing Brown. I suggested it must be tough for him to get a run in, with people always wanting to talk to him.
"No, no one ever wants to talk to me. You're the oddball. You're the only one." He turned to the newcomers. "Hi, I used to be your mayor. I was the last Mayor of Oakland," a dig at current, less-than-constantly-visible Mayor Ron Dellums. "Oakland could use a mayor, it hasn't had one since I left office."
"You know," turning back to me, "we've got to do something about energy in this country. I just looked it up on the Internet. We only produce five million barrels of oil a day, but we consume 20 million. There's no balance there. We need a balance." He pointed to my bicycle. "People need to ride bikes, or walk more." Then he started saying something obscure about use value vs. exchange value. I told him I had no interest in exchanging my bike for anything, so therefore it only had use value for me. "Then that's subsistence. You believe in subsistence. But most people, they want exchange value, they want something in return for their goods."
He started musing about Whitman again. "She looks like an athlete. You think she's an athlete?" I said that she's certainly tall, towering above me (which isn't saying much). "Yeah," he said, "she could probably outrun me."
At this point, I had already stopped far longer than intended, and I told him I needed to start riding again. "What do you think," he asked me, "should I keep running? Should I go a little farther?" Why not, I answered. Go for it. "You've given me a nice little break here, " he said with a smile. I told him I looked forward to talking with him again, on the campaign trail next time, instead of on West Ridge Trail, or maybe on the panel of one of those debates.
"I feel recharged. I think I'll get back on the trail and run a little farther." And he trotted off, lean and frugal, with an awkward smile. "Let's see how far I can get."