SAN FRANCISCO — If politics is part theater, one of the best shows on the American stage is unfolding in two neighboring cities by the Bay.
Jerry Brown and Willie Brown, who carved their marks amid the tumultuous 1970s as brash, young Democrats of similar liberal ideology but vastly different styles, seemed destined for oblivion in the 1990s. One a victim of term limits, the other of his own choices.
But like old lions with at least one more roar, each has found redemption as a mayor, one of the least forgiving positions in American politics and an office probably inconceivable to them at the height of their powers. Yet the plot line here is not about old pols surviving lower office, but about former allies who after 20 years find themselves not only occupying a smaller stage than they're accustomed to, but by virtue of proximity, sharing it.
How this will work is unclear, but the jockeying for position has already begun.
Jerry Brown, former governor of California and three-time presidential candidate, doesn't take the reins as mayor of Oakland until January, but already he's charging hard to bring his city out from beneath the shadow of the more famous skyline to the West.
Only trouble is, that more famous skyline is ruled over by the honorable Willie Brown, former Speaker of the California Assembly, now known simply by San Franciscans as Da Mayor.
There is no doubt both Browns relish the limelight, though they seek it in sharply contrasting ways.
Willie Brown lives fast and flamboyantly. With a taste for fast cars, nightclubs, and Brioni suits, his after-work hours are the subject of nearly as much interest and scrutiny as his 9-to-5 duties.
Jerry Brown, on the other hand, cuts a monastic image in black shirt and dark suit, calling loft space near the Oakland waterfront his home.
The contrast is longstanding. When Jerry Brown made headlines as governor in the 1970s by giving up his limousine and traveling in a Plymouth, Willie Brown found it unfathomable. "My body would reject a Plymouth," he said.
"Willie loves being the star, and both he and Jerry know how to make themselves very visible. The dynamics of this will be fascinating," says Bobbie Metzger, press secretary for Jerry Brown from 1976 to 1980 and press secretary for Willie Brown from 1980 to 1984.
Mayor Brown, who tends to be more publicly playful than Mayor-elect Brown, is already having some fun with the strange turn of events.
The day after Jerry Brown's election earlier this month, Willie Brown pronounced with a smile and a jab: "You may find the two of us docking with Mir," a reminder of the "Governor Moonbeam" image that so annoys Jerry Brown.
There has also been engagement of a more serious nature. For the past year, regional and state transit officials have been planning to rebuild a 2.3 mile span of the bridge that connects San Francisco with Oakland, damaged in the 1989 earthquake. The look of the new bridge span, a kind of gateway to the East Bay, has become an intensely emotional issue, loaded with symbolism.
Quick to capitalize, Jerry Brown lunged into the debate days before a final vote on the design, criticizing it as mediocre. Willie Brown, who had been supportive of the design, shifted gears and joined in a call for a delay in any final decision.
Though the design was approved this week, the salient political message seemed to be that Willie Brown had been upstaged by the Mayor-elect of Oakland, something inconceivable before Jerry Brown won that office.
Bruce Cain, a professor at UC Berkeley and former member of Willie Brown's staff, calls the Jerry-Willie relationship "amiable, but slightly distant." He says that is mainly a function of style. "Willie is the insider who builds power through alliances. Jerry is the outsider, who courts the press and public opinion."
The divergent styles may have root in different backgrounds. Jerry Brown, son of a former California governor, had privilege from the beginning. He assumed the governorship in 1974 with a burst of ideas and ambition that made him a visionary to supporters and a flake to critics.
Willie Brown's road began in poor, rural Texas and led to his role as one of America's most powerful black politicians. A consummate insider, he was turned out of office when voters enacted term limits in 1990.
As with most powerful political personalities, there has been friction between them. Willie Brown complained bitterly that Jerry Brown ignored him after earning his backing for his 1976 presidential run. And Martin Smith, former political editor of the Sacramento Bee, says Jerry Brown quietly worked for a competing Democrat when Willie Brown sought and won the speakership in 1980.
Though Willie Brown returned the favor by endorsing one of Jerry Brown's mayoral competitors, sources who know them both say there's no serious enmity between them. In fact, the ease with which they chide each other suggests a comfortable competitiveness.
Sharing the stage through any kind of alliance, though, may be a different matter.
"I don't predict it will happen. Each has pressing problems in their own cities," says Mr. Cain of Berkeley. "Most likely they'll ignore each other."
Each certainly has a full agenda. Willie Brown is widely expected to seek reelection in 1999, and Jerry Brown has high expectations to meet for his first year in office. No one doubts each will command, at minimum, some respect on the national stage. Shortly after Jerry Brown's election, Vice President Al Gore invited him to a White House economic empowerment conference. Willie Brown is well connected in the Democratic Party, and as a close ally of Jesse Jackson, could be drawn into the fray in 2000 if Jackson decides to run for president.
Or this could be the final hurrah for each.
Whatever, it will be fun to watch.