One of Brown’s favorite sayings is Age quod agis, a Latin phrase he learned while training to be a Jesuit priest. It means: Do what you’re doing. Don’t traffic in nostalgia. Don’t fantasize about what’s next. For a man who has heeded these rules, it is striking how much he has devoted his last days to leaving his mark on California. He, of course, wouldn’t put it that way.
“I’ve probably thought more about this than almost anybody you’ve ever met,” Brown tells me. We’re back to talking about legacy. “It’s a term that journalists use because you can’t say you’re doing this to do good — that sounds too Pollyanna-ish. You can’t say you’re doing it because you’re going to enrich your friends, because that would sound illegal. You can’t say you derive pleasure from it, because that wouldn’t fit the norms of our political culture.” Legacy, to him, is simple. “It’s a way to make people feel they’re a little more important than they are and their life is not as empty as it actually is.”
In his first stretch as governor, Brown’s unorthodox approach was viewed less charitably. He was erratic and undisciplined, enthralled with the maxim (coined by the British thinker Gregory Bateson) that the new comes from the random. He kept strange hours, staying up until 3 a.m., and stranger company. His aide-de-camp was Jacques Barzaghi, a French filmmaker who famously said of Brown’s 1992 presidential run: “We are not disorganized. Our campaign transcends understanding.”
Brown preached the virtues of “creative inaction” and would put off decisions until the last moment. Or he would fixate on issues of small importance and leave larger ones to fester. Tony Kline, who served as Brown’s legal affairs secretary in those days, tells the story of a bill landing on Brown’s desk that would ban the sale of meat from a certain species of Caribbean turtle. Kline, who remains good friends with the governor, says Brown spent half a day immersed, researching turtle meat, while other bills went untouched. “It would drive us a little crazy,” Kline says.
After a decade and a half away from elected office, Brown ran for Oakland mayor in 1998 and won. It was here that friends say his political education began in earnest. He spent the next eight years learning firsthand what it was government did. He read the police reports, spoke at funerals, and wrestled with Oakland’s underperforming public schools, later opening two charter schools of his own. “He’d say that as the governor, you’re flying at 35,000 feet,” Gil Durán, Brown’s former press secretary, says, “but as mayor, you’re right in the street.”
At his final state budget press conference, Brown told a room full of reporters: “The next governor is going to be on the cliff. What’s out there is darkness, uncertainty, decline, and recession.”