LOS ANGELES, Nov. 23, 2009 — -- More than 30 years after he was the subject of a book called "Jerry Brown: The Philosopher Prince," the former California governor is once again running for the state's top job on the theory that the biggest problem is a lack of imagination.
"I've been thinking a lot about our state. The state of politics. The state of our imagination," said Brown, who is currently California's attorney general.
Brown's test-drove his spiel Thursday on the Sunset Strip in West Hollywood while speaking to a group of young progressives called Generation Change.
Brown's pitch is a stark contrast to the approach being used by Republican Meg Whitman, the former eBay CEO who is Brown's likely opponent next year when Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is barred by term limits from running again.
To understand the contrast between Whitman and Brown, think of PowerPoint versus stream of consciousness.
Whitman promises to focus her entire governorship on just three issues: creating jobs, cutting spending and improving education. She says her three-point agenda is necessary not only to put two million Californians back to work but also to expand the Republican share of the electorate among Latinos, women and young voters.
She says the state legislature has become a "bill factory." She wants to put "a moratorium" on new regulations. Instead of letting legislators freelance and introduce more than 2,400 bills per year, Whitman is promising to wield her veto pen and compel legislators of both parties to get on board with her agenda.
"Which one of you would like to be on 'The Education Team'? Which one of you would like to join the 'Making California a Better Business Team'?" Whitman said last week when asked by a supporter how she would deal with the state's Democratic-controlled legislature.
Brown, of course, has his own policy ideas: He thinks the economy is overleveraged and that the military is overextended; he wants to spend more on universities and less on prisons; by 2020, he wants one-third of the state's electricity to come from renewable sources.
The difference with Brown, however, is that his policy predilections are almost afterthoughts. The thrust of his message is that California needs to change its thinking.
Where Whitman takes questions from her audience, Brown asks them questions.
"How do we organize the society? I say 'we,' but there is really no 'we' in charge. I always like to say: Who is 'we'? Is it the Legislature? Is it the governor? The president? The Congress? You and me? Is it Generation for Change? All of us contributed in small ways to what our society is like," Brown said.
He then turns to his personal story.
Brown, who served two terms as California governor, from 1975 to 1983, has made three failed runs for president and one unsuccessful bid for the U.S. Senate. That's in addition to stints as California attorney general, mayor of Oakland, secretary of state for California and community college trustee.
But it's what he has done outside of politics that he emphasizes.
"I've been doing things besides just running for office. I've done that more than anyone alive," Brown said. "I've done a lot of things. I've lived in Mexico for several months. I've lived all over South America. What else have I done? I took Linda Ronstadt to Africa once. I went to Calcutta and worked in an orphanage with Mother Theresa. I went to Japan and practiced zen meditation for six months.
"The essence of that is you meditate not on all of your achievements but on the essential emptiness," Brown said. "That is pretty big for a politician. There are no politicians with a sense of their own personal emptiness -- even though most of them are rather empty."
What about California's intractable budget problem?
The impolitic Brown says it's actually "not a problem" if you think about it in relation to the size of the state's economy as a whole.
"We have got a $20 billion deficit," Brown said. "Last week, it was only a $15 billion deficit. The good news is that state wealth is $1.6 trillion. ... So the deficit is only one percent. Any of you can solve a one percent problem. So that is not a problem."
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Brown, who is 71 years old, is even making light of his age.
Speaking to an audience of young professionals, which included many who were not yet born when he served as governor, Brown said, "Most people I have run against are dead. The stress is pretty intense. It is intense. I am a very stressful person, and these people running against me may discover that."
Even though Brown has not formally declared himself to be a candidate for governor, his fundraising prowess has cleared the Democratic field, and Whitman is already swinging away at him.
"People in California have had it with career politicians," Whitman told ABC News last week.
In a race against Whitman, a businesswoman who has never before held public office, Brown is beginning to paint her as naive.
"These other people think they know what they are getting into," Brown said. "They don't know. It is really tough."
The mercurial Brown closed his remarks by telling his audience that he will be painted as someone who is "changing all the time."
Rather than deny it, the "Philosopher Prince" seeks to own it.
"One of the things I have been accused of is changing all the time," Brown said. "You will hear that a lot when they take out ads: 'This Brown is constantly changing his mind.'
"Well," he continued, "if you are alive and if you are listening and you are growing, you will change, because the world is changing, and if you still were where you were before, you are dead."