If Jerry Brown had been elected President, he could hardly have collected more brickbats in four years than bounced off his battered candidacy in the past four months. By the time he finally said quits, after the Wisconsin primary, he had been called, just for openers. "Governor Moonbeam" and "all style, no substance" and a cautionary case of "mellow-speak." He was attacked by "Doonesbury" and by Joseph Kraft, who judged him an "amateur." He was accused, almost simultaneously, of being a "fanatic" and an "unprincipled opportunist." His philosophy of "canoe politics" (first you paddle a little on the right, then you paddle a little on the left) became a self-exploding joke.
On the weekend before the Wisconsin primary Francis Ford Coppola came to the lawn of the State House in Madison to stage a media happening for Brown, and a mind-boggling evening was anticipated by all. Spotlights probed the night, as if searching for a misplaced Beverly Hills marquee. A lonely helicopter chugged in circles -- would the Governor descend like a deus ex machina?m Free soup was served to strenthen the spectators for the excitement that would surely follow.
But then Governor Brown merely walked on, in a double-breasted trenchcoat over a banker's suit and tie, and delivered his more or less standard speech. As for electronic blitz, at first even the microphone failed. After 20 minutes or so, Brown ended by reciting the pledge of allegiance. And that, according to the reports, was that. No sound-and-light. No Roman candles. No rock band piercing the frosty night.
With all respect to Coppola, the event might have been titled "Apocalypse Not Now." Those who accused Brown of being symbol-happy did not hesitate themselves to see the rally as a symbol of the fizzling of the "politics of the '80s" for which Brown had appointed himself spokesman.
What went wrong?
The liberals did not much like the Brown who paddled to the right, into the waters of Proposition 13.
The conservatives certainly felt uncomfortable with the Brown who once marched three miles with Cesar Chavez and teamed up -- only for a dip or two of the paddle, of course -- with Tom Hayden and Jane Fonda.
Women may be disenchanted with Carter and doubtful about Kennedy, but they did not exactly deliver the vote for Brown, even though his record as Governor of California might have recommended him. Of 3,500 appointments, he named 1,007 women, including three cabinet members and 11 department heads.
Under Brown's administration tax credits have been allowed for households adopting solar energy; special rates apply to those keeping their consumption of gas and electricity at a minimum level; and Southern California Edison is building a windmill. But the conservationists did not really flock to Brown either.
The media, normally in love with articulateness for the sake of articulateness, stopped quoting Brown, dismissing him as a "flake" -- a rap that stuck despite all the banker's suits and ties and one of the shortest haircuts in the race. He came off as the last of the hippies -- a '60s person who forgot to grow up.
Nobody over 30 seemed able to trust him.
For all his troubles he collected one delegate.
He accepted his overwhelming rejection as just that -- without blame, without alibis. "It is sometimes a difficult thing to look at reality," he said. "But it is also very liberating."
More mellow-speak, scoffed his critics -- and who wasn't his critic by now?
We have arrived at that stage of irascibility with all candidates when we are prone to cry: "None of the above!" It is the season when the survivors begin to flatter us even more than usual in an attempt to appease our free-floating displeasure. We are, they assure us, a great people -- maybe greater than ever. If we just hang tough abroad and roll up our sleeves at home, the GNP will soar and inflation will drop and the American Dream will float back on the track. The words fall soothingly on the agitated ear.
We are certainly in no mood to be lectured on how complex the world has become, and why all problems are global in the end, and therefore, Q.E.D. politics as usual and business as usual and perhaps daily life as usual are as obsolete as the gas-guzzling car. And that, finally, is what Brown has been telling us: It's not going to be easy. On this point is he wrong?
For now we can forget Brown, the often annoying, sometimes silly candidate. But should we forget the message with the messenger? Or, as we return to the orthodox simplicities of election-year politics ("Trust me, elect me, I'll fix it"), should we demand that the remaining candidates take the future as seriously as the "flake?"