Going the Distance

updated 03/30/1992 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/30/1992 AT 01:00 AM EST

JERRY BROWN IS HAUNTED BY IDEAS. ON A radio show in Chicago, he is upbraided by a black activist who demands monetary compensation for centuries of African-American suffering. Stunned, Brown offers no real response during the show. Leaving the station, he stares contemplatively out the window of his staff van and says softly, "There is so much anger, so much hatred." He wonders, "If we were to consider reparations for blacks, which generation would you begin with?" Finding no answer, Brown reflects in silence for the rest of the trip. Says Mark Nykanen, one of his press secretaries: "Riding around with Brown is like being in a sensitivity session."

When Brown launched his presidential bid in front of Philadelphia's Independence Hall last October, the whole undertaking seemed like a feeble joke. He didn't have the usual organization, no paid consultants or researchers or speech writers, no advertising and, above all, no campaign kitty. As most political pros saw it, Brown's ballyhooed contribution hot line should have been designated 1-800-GET REAL. But then again, this was "Governor Moonbeam," the man who once proposed that California start its own space program and who in 1986 spent six months studying Zen meditation in Japan. All in all, the consensus went, not the sort of growth rings you find on presidential timber.

And yet, in his offbeat way, Brown, 53, is writing a new handbook on how to wage a guerrilla presidential bid in the modern era. Relying on old-fashioned appeals to voter resentment against business and political elites, as well as on new wrinkles like his 800 number, he has waged an unexpectedly successful campaign. Again and again in his stump speech he hammers home his theme. "People are being ripped off and lied to," he declares. "We can take back the power from the elite few and give it to the people."

After winning the Colorado Democratic primary earlier this month, Brown last week surged to a second-place finish in the Michigan primary, with 26 percent, thanks largely to the support of disaffected blue-collar voters. "I didn't think that this was possible, but now I see it," Brown exulted. Others are more tempered, but still impressed. "It's comforting to think of Jerry as a flake, because then you think you don't have to deal with him," says Bob Shrum, a political consultant who worked in Sen. Bob Kerrey's failed presidential campaign. "But people are so mad at conventional politicians that maybe some are deciding it's all right to be odd."

In one sense, of course, Brown's attack on corruption and his call for jobs and national health care are standard populist fare. But his tactics seem, at least in hindsight, shrewdly innovative. Take his television campaign. Early on, Brown and his advisers decided against spending much of their limited resources on expensive (and superficial) 30-second spots broadcast in prime time. Instead they produced a 30-minute infomercial, which included interviews with voters and Brown speaking to their concerns, designed to be aired mostly late at night on local cable outlets. Likewise, Brown's 800 number for contributions, and his pledge to accept no more than $100 from any individual, drew initial ridicule. But so far, Brown has collected more than $1 million from the hot line, which has allowed ordinary citizens to feel connected to the campaign while freeing him from the process of chatting up rich contributors.

To be sure, not every aspect of Brown's insurgency has gone according to plan. At times the campaign appears hopelessly ragged and confused. During one barnstorming foray into Mississippi, Brown's two chartered planes landed at different airports. The daily schedules are seldom mapped out more than 24 hours in advance, and some state organizers are impossible to reach. But the minimalist approach is also a source of some charm. Brown has no Secret Service (he turned it down) or police escort or entourage of consultants. He spends the night at the homes of supporters, often raiding the refrigerator when he arrives and frequently making do with accommodations in a child's bedroom.

Not that he seems to care. For Brown, this is not a campaign but a crusade, which becomes clear to anyone who spends time around him. Rarely if ever does any sort of private persona emerge; whether addressing a rally or chatting casually, Brown returns to the same themes, often using the same phrases over and over. Standing in the kitchen of an Illinois supporter at 1:30 A.M. last week, with his exhausted aides slumped all around, he munched on a turkey sandwich and launched into a spirited diatribe against his own party. "The Democratic Party doesn't serve the people anymore," he said. "We never arrived at the point where we deal with suffering."

The bitterness of Brown's denunciations of establishment politics may stem in part from the fact that he is a product of that system. As the son of popular California Gov. Pat Brown, the former Jesuit seminarian learned to hate the traditional back-room dealing at which his father excelled. Elected Governor of California himself in 1974, he became the stuff of folklore by refusing to live in the Governor's mansion and instead sleeping on a mattress in a $250-a-month Sacramento apartment. Though his well publicized relationship with Linda Ronstadt softened his image somewhat, he never shed his reputation as a detached dreamer. Says Republican strategist Lyn Nofziger: "He's not only not a typical politician, he's not a typical person." Yet friends insist that behind his chilly facade Brown is actually warm and loyal. He is very close to his parents, Pat and Bernice, who in 1988 helped him buy his pricey house in the exclusive Pacific Heights district of San Francisco.

Campaigning, he is consumed by the lives of people of backgrounds far different from his. "I don't work with my hands," he says after meeting with factory workers on the North Side of Chicago. "I've never faced what these people are facing." He is offended now by the notion of politics as usual, and that tradition, with its fat-cat contributors and political-action committees, he sees embodied in Democratic front-runner Bill Clinton, with whom he has tangled in bitter debates. The fact that Clinton gets such heavy media attention makes Brown bristle all the more. "Every time I turn around, I see Clinton hugging his wife," he says with exasperation. "That's hard to compete with, especially if you don't have a wife."

As Brown himself surely realizes, he has virtually no chance of winning the Democratic nomination. Even so, he is succeeding in getting his message to voters, and the role of prophet is plainly one that suits him. In the days before his strong showing in Michigan, he appeared utterly serene. Flying into Chicago, Brown found that the airline had lost his luggage, meaning that he would have to wear the same clothes two days in a row. Serenely, he just shrugged it off. "This is a revolution," he said, grinning. "Who needs a shirt?"

CIVIA TAMARKIN in Chicago and LINDA KRAMER in Washington, D.C.

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