A review of Trailblazer: A Biography of Jerry Brown, by Chuck McFadden
@@@ (3 out of 5)
If you wrote a novel about a guy like this, who was the son of a popular and successful governor; dated a rock star; married for the first time at age 67; twice served as governor of the country’s largest state, four decades apart; talked the voters of a notoriously anti-tax state into raising taxes substantially; ran for president three times; spent three years in a Catholic seminary, studied with Zen masters in Japan, and worked with Mother Teresa; and . . . well, you get the point. Would anyone believe this? No doubt they’d think you’d gone, as my British friends say, barking mad.
If, instead, you wrote a biography of this curious phenomenon, you’d need it to be a lot longer than a couple of hundred pages, right? And, of course, you’d need to spend days in face-to-face interviews with the guy, if only to get a solid sense of whether he’s for real. How could anyone possibly do justice to him otherwise? Well, Trailblazer is 248 pages long, one-third of them taken up with notes and other backmatter, and the author never managed to interview his subject. That, in a nutshell, is the problem with Trailblazer, Chuck McFadden’s new biography from Berkeley’s University of California Press of the impossibly self-contradictory Governor Moonbeam.
Don’t get me wrong: Trailblazer is a well-informed portrait of our Governor, written by a man who reported on his ups and downs for many years as a Sacramento political reporter for the Associated Press. As an introduction to Jerry Brown for anyone who doesn’t remember his early days in politics or is too young to do so, Trailblazer works. McFadden, now retired, retains numerous contacts among the working press in California, whom he quotes extensively in the pages of this book, adding considerable insight. His writing is clear, his understanding of the extraordinarily complex politics of this nation-state is impressive, and he brings the story of Jerry Brown up to the present moment. It’s just that a reader would have wished for something more — something new and fresh that a truly in-depth study of the man’s life and work might have brought to light.
If you know little or nothing about our second Governor Brown, you’ll learn that he has long been accustomed to being “the smartest guy in the room”; that, as a politician, the fundamental contradiction in his life is the give-and-take between idealism and pragmatism; that the women in his adult life, Linda Ronstadt in the 70s and his wife Anne Gust for the past two decades, have smoothed over the rough edges in his personality and brought a considerable measure of balance and stick-to-it-iveness to his conduct; and that he may well be one of the most skillful politicians this state has ever seen. Is this enough? You be the judge.