Politics and Prayer

Jerry Brown talks with Les Levine

Jerry Brown

Jerry Brown, the former governor of California, was a candidate for the 1992 Democratic Presidential nomination. He was interviewed for Tricycle by Les Levine, an internationally known media artist and longtime Buddhist practitioner. The interview took place in September at Les Levine's studio in New York City. The art is by Les Levine, the photographs by Jeri Coppola.

Levine: Do you have any insight as to what that was about?

Brown: It's about complete giving. Mother Theresa always talks about Jesus. She takes your hand and says, "What He did for me and what He does with me, He does to you. What you do to the person in front of you, that's what you do to Jesus." There's a oneness, a nonseparation among all people-that's God. That's the ultimate reality right there-that's the practice.

Levine: A Buddhist could say that what you do to the person in front of you is what you do to your mind. You could take that position, because you become your action.

Brown: I think at the level of practice, there shouldn't really be any differences. Buddhism became a lens for me to look at what Christianity was saying. There are just different ways of approaching the same essential way of being in the world. Religion at its best always brings out not just enlightenment, but service in the community-both understanding and giving.

Levine: And in Mother Theresa, you have someone who's giving all the time.

Brown: Yes, and that's the basis of what her organization is doing. It's aimed at helping the poorest of the poor.

Levine: She has a quality of extraordinary brightness, like a bodhisattva.

Brown: I've heard her speak many times and it's quite powerful. Most people I hear sound like a presentation; with Mother Theresa, it is much more basic and authentic.

Levine: We seem more interested in the artificial in America than in the authentic. We seem to be good at images.

Brown: Of course there's celebrityhood-you do something, and soon it becomes a story, and then you're reenacting the story about what it was that you did. You become a commodity. Unless you forswear all these accoutrements of power, you can't tell whether someone's sincere or not. So I guess there's a real genius in this vow of poverty and chastity and obedience. Without possessions, there's no doubtfrom all visible signs-that there's no racket going on. You can't say that about too many things. There seems to be a lot of secondary gain, even in religious institutions, both Buddhist and Christian.

Levine: When you were governor, you lived in an apartment and drove a used car. Were you making an image? Why did you do that?

Brown: You see, my father lived in the old Victorian governor's mansion that all the other governors of this century lived in, and when the Reagans came along, they didn't like it. Nancy convinced them to build a new governor's mansion, which Joan Didion described as "Safeway Modern." I brought a lawsuit to stop it. Among other things, it was built on an Indian burial ground. The lawsuit was lost, the unfinished mansion was ready, and I calculated it would cost about $500,000 a year to operate. So I said we don't need that, and I'm going to get an apartment just across the street. This was the time of the energy crisis and I said we ought to get something simpler to drive. The first car out of the state car pool was a '74 Plymouth. It seemed appropriate. But I think it's hard to be totally artless as a politician-image is so important. The whole business is the contrivance and manipulation of imagery.

Levine: The job of a politician is to make images with words.

Brown: Or with images. "There's a bear out there"-that was the Reagan thing with the Russians.

Levine: So a '74 Plymouth becomes imagery to somebody?

Brown: It sure does. It's a statement-you don't find many governors driving Plymouths.

Levine: And what statement does it make?

Brown: For one thing, that you don't need a bigger car. Without driving the Cadillac, you can get to the same place. That was the point that was being made. It was the time of Watergate and the perception of politicians as living on the gravy train. I wanted to move off the gravy train-which we did. Not completely, by any means, but we were moving in the right direction. In my campaign this year, we're asking Congress to roll back its pay, to enact term limits, to put a binding "none of the above" on the ballot so people can vote against them. All these things are aimed at cutting down to size what has become a bloated and excessive political institution.

Levine: Do you think that imagery in itself actually has much of an effect?

Brown: If it's just imagery it doesn't have much of an effect. You would have to live completely according to it-a totally simple life-and I don't think I did that. I had a very simple apartment, but I also had a house in L.A. Being in the business of politics, you have to spend a fair amount of time with rich people. Whenever I would drive up to these expensive homes in my blue Plymouth, I would feel odd, in a line of Mercedes- Benzes and Rolls Royces. It definitely seemed out of place. And I think the people in those homes viewed it as an insult. In effect, it would be much better to have the

Levine: Do you think that if a politician really expressed a strong religious practice that it would frighten people?

Brown: I'm sure it does. Some people are frightened by religion. How do you mean "religious practice"?

Levine: Every president gets up there and says, "God bless America," but then you wonder what they mean by that. What do they think they mean?

Brown: I don't know.

Levine: It seems to me that they can use the notion that they have a religious view of things when they want to. They seem to be anxious to use that, even if it's not so.

Brown: When politicians are talking about religion, if they really had that as the doctrine of their life, they would have to get rid of homelessness and housing projects. And get rid of the fact that we're caging many Americans, particularly blacks, in isolated areas where there's no work or hope, and it's destroying lives. And Native Americans too. If there were a true religious spirit, we would have to radically change the way politics is conducted.

Levine: But much of our nature is already involved in duality anyway, isn't it? You not only have to have a program, but you have to say that the other guy's program is no good.

Brown: There is a lot of duality. There are a lot of epistemological distortions in politics too-people promising things that aren't even things, but metaphors.

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