How he move

Greg Lucas was a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle covering Speaker Willie Brown’s last seven years in Sacramento.

Willie Brown is the smartest, slickest, smoothest, most sartorially superior son of a bitch to ever grace the world of politics.

Just ask him.

That’s how Brown, a truly extraordinary human being, comes across in the first part of his 350-page remembrance, Basic Brown. The author’s repeated references to himself in the third person and superlative-rich self-descriptions make it feel as though some numb-nuts editor forgot to include the episode where the former mayor of San Francisco sashays down Mt. Olympus to bring fire to mortals.

Without a doubt, Brown is a deliciously flamboyant, wily and prodigiously pragmatic politician. He was the speaker of the California Assembly for 14 years—a feat in itself. As a bonus, he outfoxed Republicans to keep the job another six months after the GOP thought they had the votes to kick him out.

In all, Brown spent nearly 30 years in state politics—December 1964 through mid 1995—and then re-invented himself as a retail politician, serving eight productive years as mayor of an urban city. That warrants a few pats on the back, even though in this book they mainly come from Brown himself.

As a statehouse reporter from Brown’s hometown newspaper, the San Francisco Chronicle, covering him as speaker for his last seven years in Sacramento was a delightful adventure and a major education.

His advice in Basic Brown to understand the routine workings of the system, to intimately know the rules and to always stay curious is dead on: for politicians and reporters.

A gift not highlighted in his book was Brown’s ability to synthesize the as-yet-reached consensus of his often fractious Democratic caucus. That acumen made my colleague and I look visionary when we printed that the position of Assembly Democrats was somewhere they’d yet to arrive. It took a few years to realize Brown benefited by us saying his flock was already where he wanted them to be.

Brown’s book is better read—and he better appreciated—by starting with Part Two. Here, Brown recounts his start in politics, beginning with his departure from Mineola, Texas, where white customers at his shoe stand flipped nickels into spittoons to watch him fish them out.

He describes how his mother and grandmother raised him and notes there was little male presence in his childhood. He details the joie de vivre and taste for clothes imbued in him by his Uncle Itsie, apparently a multipurpose raconteur. And, best, he acknowledges the accidents—and advantages he grabbed from them—that propelled him into politics.

Part Two helps humanize Brown. Learning his roots, it becomes easier to appreciate his justifiable pride.

There is plenty of sound advice for holders of public office. His analogy of a politician being like a nurse is brilliant. “You get to use your brains, your people skills and you get to help people. The physicians are the specialists … but the nurse is the facilitator. … And often you have to get people to take medicine, medicine they don’t want.”

There is far more to Willie Brown than this book reveals. Nowhere is it noted that Brown ultimately regretted what he did in Chapter Two to the “Gang of Five” moderate Democrats. Later, he realized stripping them of all power gave them limitless leisure to plot against him.

Most disappointing is no mention of retinitis pigmentosa, the degenerative eye disease Brown has lived with for decades. His high political profile could have raised millions to fight the disease. Instead, he tried to mask his condition.

It’s understandable a powerful politician would seek to avoid any perception of weakness. That’s blood in the water, sparking attack by one’s fellow sharks, to use Brown’s metaphor.

But now that the public power struggles are over, why not talk about it? It’s just another reason to marvel at this remarkable individual.