Running on Empty: An Analysis of the California Election (12/28/78)

The election in California ended with a huge victory for Governor Jerry Brown: he beat Evelle Younger, the state cloddish right-wing attorney general, by 1,300,000 votes. It was all downhill from there. State Supreme Court Chief Rose Bird, whom Brown appointed and the right tried to unseat, was barely confirmed by the voters; liberal black Congresswoman Yvonne Brathwaite Burke lost the attorney general’s office to George Deukmejian, a death-penalty freak, by more than 600,000 votes; and black Lieutenant Governor Mervyn Dymally, a monumentally unattractive candidate, was beaten almost as badly by thirty-three-­year-old Mike Curb, former Nixon bandleader, current head of Warner/Curb Records, and the man who gave us “You Light Up My Life” and “Kiss You All Over.”

It was, to put it mildly, not an easy election to read (voters also turned down a bill aimed against gay teachers and went wild for expanding capital punishment), especially if, like me, you’re the sort who clings to the idea that something coherent must have been going on. Most analysts have turned to such conventional buzz words as “crazy California,” “dissatisfied voters,” “revolt of the middle class,” each of which impinges on the truth without defining it. What I see in this election—and, for that matter, across the nation, where first-rank liberal senators were turned out of office while a couple of new ones were elected—is perhaps more specific and also perhaps more vague: a shift away from a belief in real solutions to concrete problems, and a move toward a politics that can instead supply the electorate with amusement and revenge. And that may say more about Mike Curb’s future than about Jerry Brown’s.


Jerry Brown has just seen his political life reverse itself. In 1974, running for governor for the first time, he started off with a huge lead in the polls against his unexciting but dogged moderate Republican opponent, and, despite the boon of Nixon’s resignation and Ford’s pardon during the campaign, saw his margin shrink to one and a half points by the time the returns came in. Had the race gone on another week, he might very well have lost.

What had happened was quite obvious. The voters caught on to Brown’s smugness, to the flirtatious affair he was carrying on not with them, but with his own image; they saw through Brown’s refusal to commit himself on issues to the possibility of real emptiness behind the bland professions of coyly intellectualized doubt. Like Jimmy Carter, who two years later would see an even bigger lead evaporate against a pathetic campaign by Gerry Ford, Brown had less overexposed himself than failed to stand up to public scrutiny.

Over the next four years Brown acted as something like the “left-conservative” Norman Mailer calls himself. Speaking often, if fuzzily, about the inability of government to reach the essential problems of life, he trumpeted a rhetoric of “lowered expectations,” which everyone knew was a code word for a cutback in essential services relied on by the disorganized poor. At the same time, he hammered out a farm-labor law favorable to the highly organized United Farm Workers. He consistently opposed a cutoff of state-funded abortions for poor women, though he failed to stop it; he vetoed the death-penalty bill, but did little to make his veto stick. Near the end of his term, he finally staked out a position against nuclear power. Slow to the point of refusal to fill vacancies on administrative boards, commissions and the courts, his appointments, once he came under serious pressure to make them, were often imaginative and daring, and included a strikingly large number of women and minorities. In sum, if his positions were hardly those of the empty opportunist he’s often accused of being, they were also not those of a man willing to go to the wall over something in which he believed deeply. After all, if anything holds Mailer’s “left-conservative” stance together, it is the great passion of Mailer’s commitment to ideas he thinks are right or necessary; Brown displays not a trace of that.

He kept the public, and especially the press, off guard. He refused to live in the ludicrous governor’s mansion built by Ronald Reagan, talked absurdly of space colonies, brought gurus to the capitol, outraged what was left of the state Democratic party by ignoring it, passed up junkets to governors’ conferences, and, almost as a lark, made a fool of Jimmy Carter in the later presidential primaries of 1976. He seemed to win without trying, and Carter has been looking over his shoulder ever since.

Now, Jerry Brown could not have been so self-deluding as to think that his successes against Carter represented any profound enthusiasm on the part of the voters for his candidacy: clearly, he was a lightning rod for morning-after nervousness about an evangelical Southerner whose program for the future came down to “trust me.” Brown simply offered the voters a hip enigma as opposed to a square one, and, for a quick moment and for a moment only, the voters went for Brown, simply to let Jimmy know they didn’t exactly buy his act.

What Brown’s victories did prove, however, was that for the foreseeable future electoral possibilities would be rooted in sand. The electorate was slowly fading away, the turnout falling as people gave up on government as an institution of decency and as a mecha­nism adequate to solve problems; those who continued to vote were less and less hopeful and more and more resentful. On a large scale—the scale of the nation, or of a state like California—there would no longer be such things as broad coalitions, natural constituencies, or voter loyalty to an officeholder: all support would be transient, all elections zero based. For a man like Brown, so interested in the blank canvas of public opinion and already showing signs of boredom with the governorship, such lessons could only be intriguing: they meant that if his position was shaky, undefined, indefinable, no one else’s was any more secure.

Then came Proposition 13, California’s crackpot initiative to cut property taxes by two-thirds. Brown opposed it strongly as a fraudulent substitute for authentic tax reform, about which he had done nothing (Proposition 13 was, at the time, trailing in the polls); Younger, not given much chance against Brown, who had retained a good amount of popularity over three-and-a-half years, contrived the mildest endorsement. Just before the June primary, when Proposition 13 would become law by a two-to-one vote, polls showed Brown and Younger dead even.brown pullquoteWhat happened over the next five months turned the 1974 race—Brown’s collapse under the lights—inside out. Never disclaiming his opposition to Proposition 13, but laboring noisily to “abide by the will of the people” and implement it, Brown pulled away from Younger. The enormous surplus in the state treasury (which seemed to grow every time someone took a new look at it) was parceled out so that cutbacks in state and local funding were restricted to the least popular social services. Schools stayed open, police and fire departments remained at full strength, but many public health services went into crisis. No real effort was made to cut government waste or featherbedding. All this did, of course, was delay the day of reckoning—the day the money runs out—for a year or two, but the electorate didn’t seem to mind. Sure, it was a shell game—Proposition 13 itself began as a scam for apartment-building owners—but it was as if the voters were enjoying the election as a shell game, as if they were more interested in rewarding the man whose hands moved fastest than in finding out under which shell the pea was hidden.

Along with a sometimes hilariously inept campaign by Younger (who replied to serious, well-documented charges that he was friendly to Mob interests with the deathless line, “I never said I was tough on crime”), it was the uncompromised dispassion of Brown’s politics that insulated him from what should have been real trouble with the voters. For no matter what Brown does, there is distance involved. It’s not that you can’t pin him down; he gives a lot of straight answers, at least to his own questions. But politically, you can’t pin him to anything.

When Brown vetoed the death penalty, he made it clear that he did so as a matter of conscience; exercising his political powers, he somehow managed to remove himself from the political process, taking no further (or prior) steps to insure the death penalty would not become law, which of course it did. Thus, though the huge majority that this November voted to increase the number of crimes for which the death penalty could be inflicted surely knew that Brown was not on their side, they did not quite associate Edmund G. “Jerry” Brown Jr., Governor, with a position opposite to theirs. They must have seen him as an almost private citizen opposed to the death penalty for personal—even religious—reasons, not as its political enemy.

Something similar happened with the fight over Rose Bird’s con­firmation. Bird was targeted by the right (and by certain agribusiness interests that resented her role in putting across the farm-labor law when she was Brown’s secretary of agriculture) because she had a record as a liberal, because, as the first woman on the state supreme court (let alone its chief), she was vulnerable as a woman, because an attack on her seemed a likely, if indirect, way of weakening Brown’s chances, and because, after Proposition 13 had passed, the right was feeling its oats and needed a new target. Her appointment had been controversial from the moment Brown made it—for the first two reasons noted above, and because (like Earl Warren, William O. Douglas, and many other memorable justices) she had no previous judicial experience before assuming a high court post.

The campaign against Bird involved other issues far too complex to go into here—essentially, and falsely, she was accused of being soft on violent crime—but it was heated, well-publicized, sensationalistic and dirty. She almost lost, and had she done so, she would have been the first justice in the history of the state to have been denied electoral confirmation. Yet strangely, the campaign against her never touched Brown. Indeed, following the course of the election, you would hardly have known he had anything to do with appointing her. Not until the end, when his victory was certain, did Brown open his mouth in support of Bird; none of the resources he had gathered for his re-election, as far as has been reported, were diverted to counter the money spent to unseat her, as, in the very last days, some funds were made available to Mer­vyn Dymally, whose defeat by Curb the Brown camp was already conceding. Almost magically, Brown can make his bed, but no one can make him lie in it.

It was widely observed, after the defeat of Dymally and Burke, the poor showing by Democratic assemblymen, state senators and congressmen, and the near defeat of Bird, that Brown had no coattails. That was because he casually kept them jammed into his pants. The point was not to lose a single vote of the big majority that was in the offing, not to in any way weaken Brown’s chances vis-a-vis Carter in 1980. It was only in late October that Brown’s camp realized that a presidential candidate without coattails, and one who would leave the nation’s biggest state to a right-wing Republican should he win, was less than ideal.

Still, Brown’s victory puts him in a decent position to challenge Carter—if Egypt and Israel fail to sign or keep a peace treaty, if in a year we find ourselves in a severe recession, if Carter reverts to the helpless flailing of the first six months of 1978, and, especially, if someone else—Daniel Moynihan, say—draws first blood. Uncertainty won’t hold Brown back, but the obloquy that attends one who strikes the king but does not kill him surely would.

As for the size of the majority Brown piled up, a clue comes from Younger himself, who in his last desperate days—recalling, perhaps, the slogan of the Firesign Theater’s George Papoon, who ran on a platform of “Not Insane”—proclaimed himself the “normal” candidate, and asked Californians to vote for him because, unlike Brown, he was “unstrange.” “I have a family,” he told the voters, “I have a dog. I’m like you. He’s not.”george papoonHe isn’t, and people have come to like that. California, as an idea, is to a good degree about living as you please, living in new ways. It’s the failure of that promise for most people that helps shape the desire for revenge. Brown exemplifies the promise, even as—cutting social services, decrying prison “rehabilitation” and insisting on “punishment”—he caters to the emotions of failure. One of Brown’s central messages is that the business of government, being ultimately futile, cannot be taken too seriously; that allows people to value him for entertainment. And he is entertaining: he’s interesting, unpredictable, smart, dashing in a cold way. His involvement with Zen, his affair with Linda Ron­stadt, his insistence on privacy, speaks for a kind of personal free­dom, a selfish integrity, that many envy and admire.

He’s a good show, and he provides amusement voters want: the 27.5 percent of eligible California voters who put themselves in his column may desire most of all not to be bored. Revenge—the real stuff—they can get from the other men they elected.

mike curb

California, and, after Carter, the nation—has seen too many “impossible” candidates to write anyone off. George Murphy, the old song and dance man, was a joke, until he was elected to the Senate. “Sleeping Sam” Hayakawa is still a joke, but he is also the Senate’s chief defender of South Africa and Rhodesia. Back in 1966, many Democrats temporarily registered Republican so they could vote for Ronald Reagan in his first primary, because they thought he was too ridiculous to give Pat Brown a hard race for the governorship.

Mike Curb is a pasty-faced little thug, the kind of self-made man who’s certain there is something morally deficient about those who haven’t made it, and he may be meaner than any of his political forebears. Rich, respectable (his biggest hit won an Oscar—what do you want?), and very young, groomed to follow in Reagan’s footsteps, he came close to paying for his moneyed campaign with his own funds. And it was a filthy campaign.curbNothing Curb did in his race for the lieutenant governorship made the words often attributed (but never, as far as I know, definitively) to him—“Watergate is just an attack by the niggers and the Jews and the Commies on Nixon”—seem unlikely. He benefited from the voters’ discomfort at the prospect of having two of the three top electoral offices filled by blacks, and pressed his advantage when he announced that Mervyn Dymally, long under a cloud but never formally accused of wrong­doing, was “a criminal,” “certain to be indicted,” and “guilty of crimes,” and then blandly explained that he came to his conclusions after reading the papers, and refused to take back a word. Here, Curb out-Nixoned Nixon, who pronounced Charles Manson guilty during his trial; Manson had at least been indicted. The idea that this man, the white hope of California’s Reaganites, will hold full gubernatorial powers whenever Jerry Brown might leave the state—power to veto bills, make appointments, grant pardons—is plainly awesome. Though today he speaks in the voice of a California Frank Rizzo, the voice of a goon, the “moderating” process, by which the small-time demagogue gets ready for the big time by learning to speak in code, has already begun: in one of his first interviews after the election, Curb spoke earnestly about his fight against “the right-wingers.”

The funniest comment on his campaign, however, came from the Republican state chairman, who in the wake of Curb’s victory suggested that Curb was so upset by the mudslinging of the race (Dymally had accused him, accurately, of involvement with an old S&M recording—a charge Curb denied, then admitted, and which had no meaning except as a slap at Curb’s goody-goody hypocrisy) that he might never run for office again. That Curb has presidential ambitions is no secret; he’s now in place to go after the governorship in 1982, or, on a long shot, to inherit it were Brown to become president in 1980. For the time being, with no real duties as lieutenant governor, he has an ideal forum: he will be up and down the state, and likely across the country, speaking out against the welfare chiselers, the Communist menace, and the antinuclear anarchists to any group that will listen, and there will be—already are—plenty who will listen.

Curb said a very interesting thing the day after the election. “The people like Brown,” he said, “but I think they want a balance.” It’d be wrong to see Curb’s election as solely a result of Dymally’s blackness, his bad reputation. A lot of people, a lot of Democrats, must have voted for Curb, as a way of balancing their need for amusement with their need for revenge. It doesn’t matter that, without actual power, Curb—acting as the spearhead of those who wish less to live in a community than to be protected from it—will have to function mostly as a symbol, and thus contribute some amusement of his own. The balance can change; it usually does.

Rolling Stone, December 28, 1978

2 thoughts on “Running on Empty: An Analysis of the California Election (12/28/78)

  1. “…a shift away from a belief in real solutions to concrete problems, and a move toward a politics that can instead supply the electorate with amusement and revenge.”

    Prescient much?

  2. “…the spearhead of those who wish less to live in a community than to be protected from it”

    This doesn’t remind you of anybody currently much in the news, does it?

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