The son of Democratic California governor Pat Brown, Jerry Brown (born on this day in 1938 in San Francisco) was certainly one of the most durable yet unorthodox political personalities of the latter half of the 20th century -- the one nationally recognizable American politician who could credibly be called a "maverick" for over 30 years. His ability to remake and renew himself demonstrates resourcefulness on many levels: he travels light, like David Carradine in Kung Fu, sleeps very little, and draws upon a deep well of religious and philosophical inspirations untapped by other politicians. He is the only politician, it seems, who can quote from Noam Chomsky, Martin Buber, Mother Teresa or Gregory Bateson, to name just a few of his heroes, with a pilgrim's zeal.
He originally studied for the Catholic priesthood, but graduated from Yale law school 4 years before being elected secretary of state of California in 1970. In 1974, after 6 years with Ronald Reagan in the statehouse, Brown was elected as the youngest governor of California (at age 34), cultivating an ascetic lifestyle which appealed to California populists: unmarried, he refused to take residence in the new governor's mansion recently completed by the Reagans, instead sleeping on a mattress on the floor of a rented apartment and driving a used car from the state fleet.
Just two years later, he was a late entry in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, running 3rd behind Jimmy Carter and Morris Udall at the convention. Warming up with an African safari with some-time girlfriend Linda Ronstadt in 1979 (his token foreign relations tour), he tried again in 1980, this time running against incumbent President Carter and Ted Kennedy. By this time, his credibility had been damaged by columnists around the country who referred to him as "Governor Moonbeam" for his suggestion that California might develop its own space program (not wholly implausible given today's commercial space industry) and other unfamiliar and seemingly impractical ideals.
He left the statehouse in 1982, having built a modest record of radical change in environmental protection, education reform and affirmative action in California, but his political career seemed to be over when he was beaten by Pete Wilson in a bid for U.S. Senate. Brown used the defeat as an opportunity to get back in touch with his spiritual roots, studying meditation with a Zen master in Japan and then working with Mother Teresa in the slums of Calcutta before returning to head the California Democratic Party in 1989.
In 1992, he launched an angry and entertaining yet quixotic 3rd campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, snarling at the role of lobbying dollars in the political process and barking out his "800" number at every public appearance, claiming the unqualified right to say "I told you so" to Democrats who became disillusioned with Bill Clinton's willingness to sacrifice judgment to the whims of his campaign contributors.
In 1998, Brown resigned from the Democratic Party and surprised pundits by waging a successful campaign for mayor of Oakland, California (getting 74% of the vote), a reflection of his shifting interest from the empty gamesmanship of national politics broadcast to a disconnected electorate, to nurturing, community-based mechanisms for meaningful change. He later re-registered as a Democrat, and was re-elected as mayor with over 60% of the vote in 2002. Proving his staying power, at the age of 68 he was elected attorney general of California just last year, defeating LA city attorney Rocky Delgadillo 63% to 37%.