"Until recently, I thought Jerry Brown was trying to tell us 'I am not a kook,' " observed Dudley Dudley, a leading New Hampshire Democrat. "But with this trip to Africa, obviously that's not the case."
As the 41-year-old governor of California returned last week from his headlined odyssey with rock star Linda Ronstadt, politicians and pundits could hardly believe what they had seen. White House aides, who foresee the governor as putative competition for Carter next year, laid the trip to Brown's "weirdo factor." Other commentators saw it as politically self-destructive. When the journey was defended as an effort to meet and shake hands with a variety of African leaders, Chicago's acerbic columnist Mike Royko snapped: "If we're lucky, he'll shake hands with something that might eat him."
By most measurements—as vacation, an idyll with Linda or fact-finding tour—the trip bordered on the catastrophic. From start to finish, it was plagued by the same kind of inept advance work that had embarrassed Brown in New Hampshire on his visit to the first-primary state a week earlier. For a candidate in need of points as a statesman, the safari was a net minus: He studiously avoided political hot spots like Zambia and often puzzled his hosts with curious questions about life in the bush. "Do they really live in that?" Brown asked incredulously at a Kenyan hut made of cow dung, later inquiring of his guide, "Are they happy? Are you happy?"
From all appearances, the governor's romance with Ronstadt—if that indeed is what it is—did not warm up appreciably under the tropical sun. Photographers and reporters, frustrated at their inability to get into Uganda to cover the war, descended on the couple in swarms, staking out their twin-bedded cottages and tents. While Brown discoursed on the state of African sod, Ronstadt hid out in hotel suites and toilets or talked rock over beers with friends in the press corps. "Linda doesn't understand all this environmental stuff," explained a friend at one point. "She'd just as soon leave that to Jerry." Back home Brown's father, ex-governor Pat, expressed hope that their trip would strike voters as proof his son was "a regular man," but it only had the effect of making their relationship seem more ambiguous than ever. As a friend of Ronstadt's in L.A. put it: "Even they don't know what's going on."
Of Ronstadt the trip proved mainly that she makes a better rock star than tryout First Lady. She started off gamely enough—toying with baby pythons at Brown's 41st-birthday dinner in Liberia the first night of the trip. But she dozed off on the divan during brandy and cigars, leaving Brown to mingle alone.
The trip was mostly downhill from there. Brown left for a prayer breakfast without Ronstadt next morning, and when she did arrive—two and a half hours late—the Liberian president's son, A.D. Tolbert, had to coax her out of her car for brunch. Later that day, at Roberts Field International Airport, Linda inquired about immediate flights to anywhere while Brown held a press conference; he had to interrupt it to go out and find her.
Arriving in Nairobi after midnight on Tuesday, tourist class, Linda dashed for a waiting Mercedes as Brown talked to reporters about ecology. Cottages C-3 and C-6 at the Norfolk Hotel had been reserved in the name "Brown/Cohen" by Ronstadt's former manager, Herbie Cohen. He emerged from C-3 at daybreak to tell an army of rambunctious photographers that Linda would sleep all day. When Brown came out of C-6 at midmorning on his way to a meeting with Kenyan President Daniel Arap Moi, the press, to his chagrin, followed him only as far as the car, then returned to wait for Ronstadt. Three hours later she emerged from C-6, head bowed but smiling. After lunch with Linda and American Ambassador Wilbert Le Melle, the governor left for an environmental meeting, she for an afternoon back at the hotel phoning friends in Los Angeles and leafing through a picture book on Africa.
Brown and Ronstadt refused to come out of C-3 the next morning until a photographer lurking behind a coffee bush agreed to leave. They went to a small airport from which the group planned to fly to the remote Northern Frontier District, where Ronstadt stayed in the ladies' room while Brown held a press conference about satellite tracking of soil movement. "Try and explain to her that she's got to come out," he muttered to a photographer. When she did she rushed across the apron to the waiting plane, whispering to the photographer, "Kiss me and we'll start another scandal!" Brown finally snapped, "Let's get out of here." But their flight was delayed while uniformed cops checked out reports that a local hallucinogen had been smuggled aboard.
In northern Kenya the governor solemnly toured the barren desert while Ronstadt popped beer cans for the press and took pictures of them. When one particularly aggressive photographer put a hand on her shoulder, she snarled, "Try that again and I'll hit back." She talked nostalgically of all the "beautiful young singers" she knows. And Brown? "He's a good guy," she allowed, "but we're not alone very much." Asked for the umpteenth time if they would marry, she said: "And be surrounded by this scene all the time?"
On Thursday the group settled briefly into a luxury camp in Tanzania, with Brown and Ronstadt sharing deluxe $154-a-day, three-tent digs. They watched buffalo, wildebeests and cheetahs through binoculars and dined on beef Wellington around a campfire. But by Saturday morning Brown was off again, this time for Dar es Salaam, and Ronstadt was back in the Nairobi hotel. She spent the afternoon in her room and, after a discussion of piecrust recipes with George (Born Free) Adamson, retired at midnight.
On Easter morning, the day persistent rumors had said the couple would marry, Brown went to Mass and Ronstadt flew to London. "Governor who?" she snapped at the Heathrow stakeout team, adding curiously: "Would you marry someone you'd only known for two years?" Brown joined her in London later that day, and together they flew to Los Angeles in apparent truce.
"I don't think she wants that kind of life," speculates Linda's mother, and no one would much blame Ronstadt. Some observers insist the two have never been more than good friends, with fame and shyness in common. "They are sometime companions," a journalist suggests. "She is not known as a one-man woman." Back in L.A. Linda went off on a gig-free interlude of R&R, he turned to deferred matters of state. They included an obstreperous Republican lieutenant governor, Mike Curb, who likes to make waves when Brown is out of state; a black caucus angry that he would leave while a controversial busing bill hangs fire in the legislature; local fallout over the nuclear accident at Three Mile Island; and the looming meltdown of his presidential hopes in the aftermath of his swinging safari. "Nobody in California cares what he does," says a West Coast businessman, "and nobody in the East cares. But there's a whole big country in between." And if Brown left his future in Africa? "There does appear to be a presidential opening," quipped San Francisco's black assemblyman Willie Brown. "It's in Uganda."