Jerry Brown is the Zen master of political reincarnation, but in the latest lap of the California governor’s race, he stumbled badly over one of his own past lives.
Political rookie Meg Whitman, the Democratic candidate’s Republican rival, made Brown look like the novice, confounding him with a tough new ad featuring old TV footage of former president Bill Clinton hammering him in a debate during their famously bitter 1992 presidential primary contest.
The ad set off a sharp exchange between Brown and Whitman over his record during his first turn as governor. But their volley over taxes and integrity was instantly eclipsed on Monday; Time magazine’s political blog obtained and posted a new tape of Brown, speaking at a campaign event over the weekend, in which he personally insulted Clinton, questioning the former president’s honesty and mocking him about the Monica Lewinsky sex scandal.
“I mean Clinton’s a nice guy, but who ever said he always told the truth?” Brown was caught — probably by a Whitman campaign operative — saying at the event. Reprising Clinton’s famous Lewinsky-era line that he “did not have sexual relations with that woman,” Brown added: “You remember, right? There’s that whole story there about did he or didn’t he? Okay, I did — I did not have taxes with this state.”
Fortunately for Brown, Clinton is the forgiving sort. The cheap-shot comments, which quickly went viral, threatened but did not derail a behind-the-scenes deal Democratic leaders negotiated with the ex-president to endorse his erstwhile foe and assail Whitman for misappropriating his words from 1992.
But Brown’s clumsy handling of the embarrassing incident not only pushed him back on defense in his battle against Whitman but also served as a case study of the vicissitudes of campaigning in a real-time, 24/7 YouTube political environment that was not even imaginable in 1978, the last time the 72-year-old attorney general ran for governor.
Here’s how the deal went down.
THE AD: Whitman’s ad highlighted an exchange from a Clinton-Brown debate before the New York primary in 1992. Citing a CNN report regarding Brown’s claims about his 1975-82 record as governor, the future president said: “CNN — not me, CNN — says his assertion about his tax record was, quote, just plain wrong. He raised taxes as governor of California … He doesn’t tell the people the truth,” words captured in Whitman’s ad.
THE FALLOUT: Painting Brown as a big-government liberal is a central thrust of Whitman’s effort, so Brown’s campaign swiftly denounced the ad as a “lie,” citing state records, both to back their argument that taxes had not increased under Brown and to challenge the accuracy of the original CNN report.
At that point, things got weird.
The CNN report was prepared by Brooks Jackson, who back in his cable days specialized in fact-checking the accuracy of campaign claims. He’s since left the network to run a nonprofit outfit called factcheck.org, which does the same type of reporting. Amid news stories about the Whitman-Brown set-to, Jackson surfaced to say that in rechecking his original checking, he’d found a factual error, and that Brown, not Whitman, was correct.
Then things got really weird.
WHAT WAS HE THINKING? Political reporters spent the weekend sorting out the claims and counterclaims. Stories in Sunday editions of several major papers concluded that Whitman’s ad makes false charges, feeding Brown’s demand that she take it off the air.
The same day, however, Brown tossed into a speech to campaign workers what he thought were a couple throwaway laugh lines at Clinton’s expense, a foolish move given that Whitman “shadows” follow him around to record virtually every word he says.
Early Monday, Time posted the tape of Brown. At that point, sources said, state party chair John Burton, among others, worked feverishly to keep on track their effort to get Clinton to jump into the campaign on Brown’s behalf. Clinton, who in his 1992 election became the first Democrat in decades to win California, remains popular in the state and his failure to speak up for Brown could aid Whitman in wooing moderate and independent voters.
Despite Brown’s blunder, Clinton at press time backed his party: “I strongly support Jerry Brown for governor,” he said in a statement. “(T)he tough campaign we fought 18 years ago is not relevant to the choice facing Californians today. Jerry and I put that behind us a long time ago.” At least for now.