Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Dancing on the Winds of Politics

"What do I care what Jerry Brown thinks? What do I care about people dancing on the winds of politics?" - Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums

Three weeks after the fact, Mayor Dellums has finally responded to the derisive comments made in this space by former Oakland Mayor Brown (see "Run Jerry Run" post, below). Brown, a critic of Dellums from almost the moment the longtime Congressman took over at City Hall, told me (and a few other people) at Redwood Regional Park on May 29 that "Oakland could use a mayor; it hasn't had one since I left office." He referred to himself as "the last Mayor of Oakland."

I was surprised those comments didn't cause more of a stir at the time, but I suppose references to notorious Nazis tend to suck all the air out of the room.

The beleaguered Dellums held a rare news conference yesterday to finally reveal his plan to close a $31 million budget deficit. It was also the media's first opportunity to ask for his reaction to criticism from Brown, and others, who consider Dellums an absentee mayor, missing in action while his city drowns in red ink.

The often prickly Dellums, never one to suffer media fools, insisted he is the "master strategist" of Oakland, the fully in command CEO of the city, and hardly MIA, despite his frequent absences from City Hall and his failure to attend City Council meetings or participate in budget negotiations.

When Dellums was drafted to run for mayor, many a pundit wondered how the aloof and imperious retired Congressman would take to the nuts-and-bolts, fill-the-potholes duties of a big city boss. When I asked him that very question for a campaign profile piece during the race, he scolded me, telling me it was the wrong question, and that the most important issue was his vision for making Oakland a "model city." It turned out to be exactly the right question, and the answer is what many Oaklanders feared it was at the time. Not thrilled with their options, they put Dellums in office anyway, and I know many who deeply regret it. The two previous mayors, Elihu Harris and Jerry Brown, struggled to control the violent crime that has been Oakland's sad emblem for years. But at least they left a rich legacy of downtown renewal, new construction and a burgeoning arts and culinary scene. And they were very much hands-on chief executives, visible around the city, showing up at the scenes of major crimes and emergencies, becoming the face of the city they were elected to lead.

In contrast, Dellums has been a phantom. He had a burst of energy in his third year in office, but in this, his final year, that has dissipated. His legacy may well be one of debt and a decimated police force, gutted to keep the city's books in balance. Mayor Dellums insists he is focused only on doing his job, not the winds of political fortune - but that's partly because he knows he is just about done dancing, and there are no new partners waiting.

NB: I've got a stack of blog items piling up on the races for governor and senator, which I will try to get to as soon as the KCBS workload allows...

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Sweaty Strangers

"I'm sorry. I talked to the people at the Holocaust Center and they completely understand."

That is the first public, recorded comment by Attorney General Jerry Brown on the matter we blogged about last week: his likening Meg Whitman's mega-money campaign tactics to the propaganda techniques pioneered by Joseph Goebbels.

I was ready to let this story die, and frankly, I was relieved it was starting to blow over as a new work week dawned. Other media outlets have made much more of it than we have at KCBS. But then Brown made a campaign stop Tuesday at Microsoft in Mountain View, touting his new plan to create half a million green jobs and 20,000 megawatts of renewable energy by 2020. This was the media's first opportunity to question Brown since last week's Nazi controversy went nationwide. And so they did, in a post-speech gaggle (I wasn't there; the tape comes from my KCBS colleague Matt Bigler and from our CBS-5 TV newsroom). Earlier in the day, the Anti-Defamation League issued a statement, denouncing Brown's comments to me as "deeply offensive and inappropriate," and calling on Brown to retract them publicly. He reacted with the aforementioned apology, although later his spokesman clarified that Brown was apologizing to the Jewish leaders for upsetting them, not necessarily for the comments themselves.

Asked by KTVU reporter Randy Shandobil, in a followup, if this means he doesn't regret making the remarks in the first place, Brown answered: "Well, I will tell you this. Jogging in the hills with sweaty strangers will no longer result in conversations. Mum's the word."

Can't say that I blame him. Except that answer is a little misleading. Yes, I was probably a bit sweaty, having ridden my bike about ten miles, mostly uphill, to that point. But I was not a stranger. Even though, as I blogged last week, Brown couldn't remember my name right away, he recognized me immediately, exclaimed "I know you" and, after I reintroduced myself, discussed the fact that I was a reporter at KCBS. So it's disingenuous for him to suggest that he got into all this trouble because he talked to a sweaty stranger. A sweaty reporter, maybe.

Brown's penchant for blunt talk landed him in some more hot water at the Silicon Valley event. Asked how he would cut state spending but still fund infrastructure projects and create jobs, Brown replied: "How do you do things without the money? It's very difficult, but I have a plan." After a pause, he joked, "I'll tell you after the election." That drew laughter from the audience but more fire from the Whitman campaign, whose spokeswoman, Sarah Pompei, said "this election and this issue are far too important for Governor Brown to continue to dodge questions, avoid specifics and shirk responsibility."

At Microsoft, Brown was whisked away by his handler as soon as the media questioning turned to the Goebbels incident. He's always been a little awkward - his late father, the legendary Pat Brown, used to lament that Jerry lacked the "human touch" and said it was daughter Kathleen who was really the natural politician in the family - but it struck me as odd how uncomfortable Brown was with the media who gathered around him in Mountain View. He seemed put off by the "gaggle," as we call it, of reporters and camerapeople who crushed around him. He complained about how "intimate" it was and said he had never been this close to so many reporters at once. Really? This, from a guy who's been winning elections in California for 40 years? You'd think he'd be used to that kind of close media attention. He'd certainly better get used to it, because this is already shaping up as an intense, hard-fought campaign, and it's likely there will be an awful lot of sweaty strangers crowding around, just waiting to see what he will say next.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

The Right to Remain Silent

Maybe I should carry Miranda cards to hand out to political candidates from now on.

Carly Fiorina sure could use one. She knows all too well now not to fiddle with her Blackberry and make disparaging remarks about her Republican ticketmate's campaign, or repeat one about her opponent's hair, while getting primped for a live TV shot before an open mike (not to mention a rolling video camera).

Jerry Brown could use one. He's got notoriously loose lips, but this time they got him in trouble (okay, I did), when he brought up Nazi propaganda master Joseph Goebbels during a conversation with me about Meg Whitman's campaign, at a park in the Oakland hills (see "Run Jerry Run" post below if you somehow missed this brouhaha).

And I suppose I could use one, too. I thought long and hard before blogging about that conversation with Brown, and there was considerable deliberation and discussion about it within our newsroom, and with outside experts, before I finally hit "publish post," 11 days after Brown made the now-infamous Goebbels comment to me. I don't regret writing it, but I do know that it has hammered home that I have no desire, ever, to become famous. I don't enjoy receiving nasty emails, or seeing people misquote my blog, or mangle basic facts. It is surreal to look up at the airport TV and see one's name crawl by in the CNN closed captioning. I have no idea how so many news organizations and conservative radio hosts got my cell phone number. I have been on the wrong end of the news a few times before, and I never like it. I'm in the business of reporting the news, and bringing interesting stories to people, not becoming part of the news myself, and I am never comfortable in that position.

For the record, I would like to clarify a few points for people. I don't imagine this posting will be read by nearly as many as the last one, but for those who are still interested (and all of my regular, devoted readers - thank you for all the supportive comments!), here are the answers to some of your questions:
  • Yes, the conversation with Jerry Brown was on the record. Every conversation a politician or public figure has with the media is on the record, as long as the reporter identifies himself as such (which I did), and unless the newsmaker specifically asks before the conversation for it to be off the record, and the reporter agrees (Brown did not ask for it to be off the record).
  • This conversation did not take place last Sunday, as Brown's spokesman has said, and as others have reported. It took place on Saturday, May 29, over Memorial Day weekend. I did not give the exact day or date in my original blog, so it's my fault that the timing of the remark wasn't clear. I only wrote "the other day," and I mentioned that it was before the June 8 primary.
  • This was not a private, intimate conversation between just the two of us. As I mentioned in the blog, other joggers came in and out of the scene. At least one of them, a former neighbor of mine, overheard the entire discussion. At one point, Brown was holding forth before a group of five people. He's a public figure, running for public office, speaking publicly in a public place, which certainly makes his comments fair game for reporting.
  • No, I did not record the conversation, since I was on my bike and had no recording equipment with me. I did, however, realize the potential import of what Brown had said. I rode home immediately, going over his words in my mind, and wrote them down as soon as I got home. I have a damn good memory. I use it on the radio every day. More importantly, Brown has confirmed that the conversation took place, and admits making the comments. He only regrets them, and believes they were taken out of context.
  • They were not taken out of context. I'm not sure there's any context that would have made them acceptable to Meg Whitman. She probably would have publicized them even if I had provided ample historical and political context, and explained the entire history of Joseph Goebbels and his "Big Lie" propaganda technique.
  • I never wrote that Brown called Meg Whitman a Nazi, or compared her or her campaign to Nazis. I simply reported his words, in which he likens her advertising approach to the propaganda techniques used by Goebbels. I leave it to others to draw their own conclusions. I am not responsible for the headline-writing or media shorthand of other organizations. You never heard "Brown Calls Whitman A Nazi" on KCBS, because we never said it that way, and that's not how we operate.
  • My blog is quite different from what, and how, I report on the radio. It's sort of an Op-Ed column. It's written in a much more casual, impressionistic way. Sometimes it contains analysis, sometimes even my opinion. It is not an advocacy column; I don't ever take sides or make endorsements. Sometimes it just contains musings or items that don't really fit into what we do on the radio. Other times, it's designed to give our listeners some insight into what goes on behind the scenes, or add some color and detail that didn't fit into the tight time constraints of the KCBS news hour.
  • I have had many, many private or casual conversations with public figures and have never blogged about one before. I have never breached an "off the record" agreement, and I never would. In fact, Jerry Brown himself has said some rather interesting things to me over the years which I haven't bothered reporting, because I didn't consider them blog- or news- worthy. This one, I did - not because of the potentially incendiary nature of the Goebbels reference, but because I believed the blog would give my readers a sense of the Democratic gubernatorial nominee's state of mind. I would have written it even if he hadn't brought up Goebbels. In fact, it wasn't until the Whitman campaign read the blog and e-blasted that section to the world that anyone even noticed or commented on the Goebbels reference at all. I had dozens of reactions to the blog before that, all positive, without a single mention of Goebbels or Nazis.
  • No, I do not have a political ax to grind. I like Jerry Brown. I am not trying to destroy his campaign. I am not a tool of the right. My affection or disdain for political candidates does not affect what I report about them.
There are many lessons to be learned here. One is, you can never predict what will go viral on the Internet. Another is, if you're running for public office in the 21st century - watch every word you say, and where you say it. Just as the rest of us should assume that any email or text we send could end up being viewed by just about anyone, politicians should always assume that anything they say could be recorded or reported. Even a private conversation with a trusted advisor could end up in someone's tell-all book a year later, or used against you sooner than that when that advisor switches campaigns. Jerry Brown isn't the first to learn this the hard way; he's just lucky no one happened to whip out an iPhone or Flip camera and video our exchange, so the world could see him say those words, the way I reported them.

I don't usually use this blog as therapy, or to get things off my chest, but given the extraordinary nature of this situation, I really wanted to make a few things clear. Thank you for your indulgence.

Oh, and by the way, for the few who faulted me for not explaining every single historical reference in that blog - the "Miranda card" mentioned in this one's opening line refers to the warning card the police carry, so they can read you your rights, one of which is to remain silent. It's named for Ernesto Miranda. You can Google it.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Statements From Whitman and Brown Campaigns

The campaign of Meg Whitman has issued the following statement in response to the comments made by Jerry Brown, quoted in my blog posting "Run Jerry Run."

"Just last week, Governor Brown promised he wasn't going to engage in mudslinging, but now he is comparing Meg Whitman to Hitler's Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels. Jerry Brown's statements comparing our campaign to a propagator of the Holocaust is deeply offensive and entirely unacceptable."

--Meg Whitman 2010 Campaign Manager Jillian Hasner

Jerry Brown's campaign spokesman, Sterling Clifford, confirms to the Associated Press that the conversation took place, describing it as "a discussion after a chance meeting while they were exercising. I wouldn't vouch for the accuracy of it, but I also don't want to dispute the accuracy of it. It was jogging talk taken out of context." He says Brown was not comparing the Whitman campaign to Nazis.

UPDATE: Friday afternoon, Jerry Brown issued the following statement: "I regret making the comments. They were taken out of context."

I stand by what I wrote, which is below, under "Run Jerry Run."

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Run Jerry Run

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."