Jerry Brown is a pessimist. He’s in charge of a state with a higher GDP than most countries. He doesn’t believe in legacies. Yet he enacted an unprecedented labor rights law for farmworkers, accrued a $5 billion dollar surplus, and made the state a leader in climate change planning. Previously critiqued for being disorganized, he has become a deal-maker in his old age and learned to prioritize his efforts. He has served as California’s governor for 15 years, and he will soon step down. For The California Sunday Magazine, Andy Kroll profiles California’s hardworking public servant during his final days in office, and he surveys his life’s work (note: not a legacy). He’s trying to start two more controversial projects: twin water tunnels in the Sacramento–San Joaquin Delta, and a high-speed rail connecting Los Angeles and San Francisco.
Brown was playing a part many Californians had never seen — the statesman — and there was something poignant about it. Here was a man who had sought the presidency three times and failed, and now he was on a global stage speaking for more than half of the country who were horrified about where Trump was taking the nation and the world. Did people watch him and wonder, What if? Did he wonder it himself? “He has that suppressed gene for a bigger pond which eluded him,” Orville Schell, an early biographer of Brown, says. “Now he’s finding a way to get into it.”
Brown’s trip often felt like the final world tour of an aging rock star. He flew by private jet. Fans met him in every city. Even an E.U. representative from the far-right United Kingdom Independence Party, who had publicly excoriated Brown, later asked him for a photo. “The Brexit guy wants a selfie,” Brown muttered. His wife and his staff tended to his needs, toting his iPhone and ID badge, lint-rolling him before a TV appearance. Still, the trip took a toll, and by the third or fourth day, he’d come down with a cold and was irritable and tired.
At one point, I asked Brown if he enjoyed the nonstop grind of photo ops and public appearances. “No, I hate everything!” he replied. “Do you think at age 79, if I didn’t enjoy it, I’d be doing all this stuff? Why, because I’m a masochist? If you want an accurate reflection of my existential position, it’s always changing. There are certain things you have to do that aren’t as pleasant as other things you have to do, but if it’s something you want to get accomplished, you will do it. And there will be different levels of joy, from zero to 100 percent.”