That Old Brown Magic: Word Games

Friday August 01, 2003

Intellectuals usually make poor politicians because they are prone to muse publicly about the political process, revealing far too much about its true inner workings and, too often, their contempt for both the process and the general population.  

To survive and prosper, after all, the magician must not be tempted to explain the trick whilst he is in the midst of tricking us. That Jerry Brown—who, I am sure, would dearly want to be remembered as an intellectual—continues to survive as a politician is a tribute either to his considerable political skills or else to our failure to pay attention to what the little man behind the curtain is actually saying.  

In May, following a period in which he said very little in public up here in Oakland about the situation surrounding the state takeover of the Oakland public schools, the mayor traveled down to the Los Angeles Bar Association to tell the L.A. lawyers, in part, what he thought about the situation surrounding the state takeover of the Oakland public schools.  

“Now in Oakland,” Brown explained, in a revealing passage that has to be read twice over, at least, to appreciate how much it reveals, “we had a little problem. The Oakland Unified School District made some improvements and they did a pretty good job, but they spent $100 million they didn’t have… So now there’s a bill and the school district’s going to get $100 million. So when someone says: What do you think about this horrible thing? [the ‘horrible thing’ presumably being the state legislation to allow the state superintendent to take over the Oakland schools], I say, What do you mean? We spent $100 million we didn’t have and now we’re getting a fresh 100 million to start all over again and we get to throw the superintendent out and get a new one, called the state administrator. And we don’t have to have a school board. So I figured that’s a win-win for everybody. Except the school board…”  

And except for Oakland citizens, who must continue to pay for a public school system that no longer has to be accountable in any way to Oakland citizens. But let’s not be picky.  

The more interesting part of the mayor’s statement is his math on the $100 million. Presuming that the Oakland School Board actually spent $100 million that it didn’t have (former Superintendent Chaconas and present school board members have consistently disputed that figure), the $100 million reimbursement from the State of California comes in the form of a loan, not a gift. At some point in the near future it will have to be repaid, which means that at that future point, Oakland-generated money which might be going towards present services will instead be going to service past debt.  

This would seem to be “win-win” only for those who do not see themselves as blending their long-term futures with the future of Oakland, and do not plan to be here when the piper must be paid.  

Or are we being picky again?  

In any event, the mayor, in his springtime L.A. Bar Association address, went on, at some length, to explain some of the politicians’ tricks to the assembled lawyers, for those who might want to take up the craft themselves:  

“There’s a law we passed while I was running for reelection [for California governor],” the mayor explained, “that said every high school will establish strict graduation standards, and no student can graduate without meeting them. So I took out an ad… The ad said we solved the problem of standards and slack performance in schools, because now we have graduation standards...Well that was 1978 and of course, Deukmejian had an education program, Wilson had something, Gray Davis has these exit exams and now even George Bush has a ‘no-child-left-behind’ with the same kind of idea: standards examination. The point I want to make is that if you’ve got a problem, you can milk that thing a long time.”  

I would have thought that he was referring here only to other politicians, but the mayor keeps bringing the subject back to himself.  

“When my father was running for District Attorney of San Francisco in 1943,” Mr. Brown continued, warming to the subject, “he had a slogan [that] said: ‘Crack Down On Crime. Pick Brown This Time.’ I tell you I’ve been using that slogan. I find it still works. Everybody keeps making similar claims: ‘...if you elect me you’re going to crack down on crime’... Between reducing crime and improving education, you can keep that going a long time.”  

The trick for the astute politician, if I am understanding the mayor right, is not to actually solve any of these problems, but to keep up the nice slogans while spending the hundred millions that happen to come your way.  

But then, I’ve never been much of an intellectual, so this is probably going way over my head.  

“Mercy,” as my old editor, Jim French, used to say.