A Short Inaugural That Smartly Took the Long View

Gov. Jerry Brown

The big fiery sound bite came at the end, with Gov. Jerry Brown's voice rising to quote from the state song: "California, Here I Come. Right back, where I started from." But the short -- 14 minutes by my count -- speech that came before it deserves scrutiny because it had a smart message and a long view.

That message was delivered with Brown's characteristic good humor, but it was, boiled down, a very tough message not to politicians but to the people of California. That message: get your act together, people.

This was wonderfully direct, particularly for a politician who has been so vague (a history I described today in this essay at Zocalo Public Square).

Brown pointed out, correctly, that the state has faced bigger challenges in its history than today. Everyone living here has, in their family history, a tale of ancestors who overcame far greater difficulties than even the considerable economic and other difficulties that Californias are confronting in 2011. Brown made the point by reading from the diary of his great-grandfather, a 19th century settler who made a difficult trek by wagon across the country to California.

"Every Californian is heir to some history of overcoming challenges far greater than those we face today,” Brown said, adding that Californians needed to look beyond their narrow situation if we are to improve the state. We need a mutual “devotion to CAlifornia above and beyond our narrow perspectives."

This is a vital message because California's current predicament wasn't created by governors. It was created by the people themselves, because the state gives so much power to voters. So any fix must be led by voters. Brown seemed to be saying that the voters need to buck up, and make hard choices. For his part, he promised to do the same: "At this stage in my life, I have not come here to embrace delay and denial."

One theme, not explicitly stated but quite present, was that Brown himself has grown, matured and cleaned up his act -- just as Californians must do. In his first inaugural in 1975, Brown made an opening joke about his father, Gov. Pat Brown who is widely seen as the great builder of late 20th century California, not believing he would be there. In this speech, he gave straightforward, heartfelt nods to his father and his father's records.

Jerry Brown acknowledged at one point he had not understood something his father had told him about loyalty--specifically loyalty to California, as described by the philosopher Josiah Royce, a Californian who wrote an important early history of the state in 1886. Brown, who ran twice for president during his first governorship, seemed to be conveying that he would be more focused on the state this time.

There were some wonderful grace notes. After introducing his 99 year old aunt in the audience, Brown, who will turn 73 in April, quipped to an audience full of California politicians: "By the way, those who are hankering after my job, it may well be a while. I’m willing. The genes are good.”

You can take that as a joke--or an announcement that he's running for re-election.

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