“I would say sometimes he is exhausting,” 55-year-old Anne Gust Brown told the New York Times, as she scratched her corgi “Sutter” behind the ears. “Sometimes,” she added, seated in the state capital courtyard, “I have to foist him onto other people and say, you go talk to someone else about that, because he has a sort of insatiable appetite about these things.”
Anybody who has spent more than a photo-op minute in the company of Jerry Brown knows exactly what his diminutive, dark-haired wife of eight years is talking about with “these things.”
I got my chance to learn in the spring of 2002. Mayor Jerry Brown of Oakland had arrived at Yosemite’s Ahwahnee Hotel to deliver a keynote address to the Local Government Commission.
It wasn’t exactly a speech — it was sort of a rhetorical ramble liberally sprinkled with quotes from Adam Smith, Francis Fukuyama and C. Wright Mills. Brown also included a soupon of self-deprecating humor, a formal recognition of the tough job local elected officials do, and such “the emperor is wearing no clothes” truisms as “politics is nothing more than raising money to buy enough votes to win.” I believe he employed the word “sustainable” 24 times.
Just before his stint at the podium, however, he sat next to me furiously scribbling notes he never used. I found it odd that so few recognized him before he arose.
Still, Brown had changed. Since his fruitless run for president against Bill Clinton, his waist had thickened, his shock of chestnut hair had thinned to a friar-like fringe, and he was decked out entirely in black. While the piercing brown eyes were still striking, the once-vibrant countenance appeared doughy and pale.
I was, however, to get more up-close-and-personal face-time in the cafeteria of the Yosemite Lodge. Since Brown, Gust and several of her relatives plopped down at the next table from me, I was able to indulge in an hour of delicious eavesdropping.
You didn’t have to be a body language expert to discern that the former two-time California governor, three-time presidential candidate and then-mayor of the state’s eighth largest city was incredibly uneasy making small talk. He kept picking up his conference materials and clutching them to his chest — an involuntary effort that seemed to grant him a modicum of comfort.
Obviously bored with the humdrum that passed for table talk, he also appeared bewildered that none of his breakfast-mates had heard of Arthur Schopenhauer.
When Gust’s family started to gang up on him, persistently pestering him to go hiking, he threw up all manner of excuse, and, in desperation, launched into an impromptu lecture about the cannibalistic Donner Pass Party.
Yet, to me, it seemed obvious — even at a table sticky with maple syrup and crowded with plastic trays — Gust was more of a dynamo than she seemed to be. While rock legend Linda Ronstadt may have inspired the ’70s-era “Pop Politics of Jerry Brown” once deconstructed by Newsweek, Anne Gust had accomplished the impossible. She had gotten Governor Moonbeam to grow up.
Brown’s political Wendy shook up his hippy-dippy dream world, reminded him that governing at the local level meant dealing with practicalities like potholes and pensions and, most importantly, reshaped him into the hard-edge realist who might, someday, confront California’s unmanageable budget woes. Gust played no small role in Brown’s transmogrification from philosopher to pragmatist.
A decade later, the New York Times’ Jennifer Medina agrees. Gust “is the first person to whom advisers turn if they need to anticipate the long list of questions the governor is likely to pepper them with ... she is one of the few people who can predict his often unpredictable thinking. And she is the one most likely to tell the governor it is time to end the Socratic seminar and make a decision.”
Gust, who wed Brown in 2005 at a ceremony officiated by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, swapped the title “first lady” for “special counsel to the governor.” And instead of pushing women’s issues as her predecessors had, she opted to head up the successful Proposition 30 campaign and keep contributions flowing into Brown’s $10 million war chest.
As the Brown entourage was vacating the cafeteria in 2002, I watched closely as the “waste not, want not” mayor of Oakland paused to pop a leftover piece of bacon and a couple of discarded over-toasted crusts — from one of the kiddies’ plates — into his mouth.
What I hadn’t realized is that his wife is equally parsimonious. When the governor took office, not only did Gust surrender the first lady’s wing but also led the effort to penny-pinch the governor’s staff by 25 percent. Furthermore, she boasted that she regularly cut Brown’s hair herself and they split an entree whenever they dine out.
Now that I find exhausting.