Augean stables

Gov. Jerry Brown could take a lesson from a Greco-Roman fable

Greg Lucas is a Sacramento-based freelance writer

Gov. Jerry Brown holds a 1961 bachelor of arts degree in “classics” from the University of California at Berkeley. He’s the only California governor of the last 112 years whose collegiate focus was the study of languages, literature and philosophy from cultures that rose and fell a millennium or two ago.

For better or worse, he therefore looks at politics much differently than those lacking his unique background. Sadly, none of the modern metaphors, similes and comparisons routinely applied to politicians and the political process harken back to the golden age of Pericles and Cicero.

The closest link with antiquity is the claim that politics is the world’s second oldest profession. Politicians are routinely: Crooks. Cads. Scallywags. Know-nothings. Boodlers. Mudslingers. Hacks. Carpetbaggers. Charlatans. Grandstanders. Parasites.

Oft repeated is the origin of the word “politics”—poly meaning “many” and tics, “blood-sucking parasites.”

Politics is a zoo, a jungle, a sausage factory, a three-ring circus, a psychiatric ward, a cesspool. It’s also numerous undesirable physical locales: Wasteland. Battleground. Pit. Quagmire. Quicksand. John Van de Kamp, when running for governor in 1989, famously pledged to “drain the swamp” of Sacramento.

But none of those are truly grounded in the classical tradition as embraced by Brown.

So, governor, this one’s for you. An image culled from the heart of Greco-Roman mythology that pretty much says it all—except for one small detail:

Augean stables.

Cleaning these stables was the fifth of the 12 labors of Hercules. These stables belonged to King Augeas of Elis, a province in southern Greece. They housed more than 1,000 cows, bulls, sheep, horses and goats, and hadn’t been cleaned in 30 years.

The job of spick-and-spanning the stables was supposed to be both humiliating for Hercules and impossible, since the king’s livestock were “divinely healthy,” a byproduct of which is apparently copious amounts of dung. Augeas, bitten by the hubris bug, tells Hercules he can have one-tenth of his cattle if the task can be completed in a single day. Hercules takes the bet.

Using brain and brawn, Hercules diverts two of the rivers flowing nearby, consolidates them into one surging channel and uses the torrent to sluice out the stables. As a bonus, the acreage surrounding the stables is righteously fertilized.

In 1894’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, cleansing the Augean stables is defined as clearing “away an accumulated mass of corruption, moral, religious, physical, or legal; to reform wrongs almost past the power of man to tackle.”

If a subscriber to the notion that politicians are both full of it and venal, Augean stables is pert near the perfect metaphor for the state Capitol.

Except for one teensy issue: Jerry Brown ain’t no Hercules.

Brown’s central campaign pitch was, in paraphrase, that, while a bit grizzled, his decades of political experience gave him the smarts and the shrewdness to make the stables sparkle. Say, isn’t that the same nasty stench as 13 months ago coming from the center of Capitol Park?