Jerry Brown’s wisdom and oratory still needed in Sacramento

An oddity in the long history of commencement addresses at California universities: a dearth of sitting California governors doing the talking.

Six years ago, former Gov. Jerry Brown spoke to UC -Berkeley political science grads (he graduated from the university in 1961). Four years prior to that, Arnold Schwarzenegger did the honors at the University of Southern California, the alma mater of three of his five children and home to his namesake policy institute. (Arnold’s opening joke: “I haven’t heard applause like that since I announced I was going to stop acting.”)

A review of Berkeley commencement speakers dating back 155 years shows one incumbent governor, Henry Haight – the state’s tenth governor – who spoke in 1871.

Some choice.

Here’s what Haight said in his lone inaugural address: “The opposition to giving the negro and Asiatic the ballot is not based upon prejudice or ill will against those races, but upon a conviction of the evils which would result to the whole country from corrupting the source of political power with elements so impure.”


And you thought Donald Trump was bad.

Berkeley, as the University of California’s flagship, should get with the times and get Gov. Gavin Newsom in front of a graduating class, pronto.

bill whalen new
Bill Whalen

There’s an earnest conversation to be had about the purpose of higher education in California, the role of enlightened minds in our snap-judgmental society and, as Newsom personifies, the moral justifications of pursuing wealth and seeking approval.

I’d also like to see Newsom’s predecessor give an address in Sacramento – not to a graduating class at Sac State, but instead to a joint session of the Legislature and California’s state constitutional officers.

Since he left office in January, Jerry Brown has said little about matters California-related. I’m not counting his passions for climate change and nuclear proliferation.

The former governor has set aside time at his Colusa ranch to record an oral history – maybe he cares about his legacy more than he lets on – but otherwise it’s been radio (and print and television and Twitter) silence as Newsom pared back two of Brown’s passion projects: high-speed rail and the Delta twin tunnels.

The point of Brown returning to Sacramento isn’t to second guess his successor. Rather, it’s to warn about what lies ahead for this new power arrangement.

Since California’s economy awakened earlier this decade, a Sacramento rite of spring has been Brown using the annual budget May Revise to warn against spending run amok. Brown also dashed cold water on the Legislature’s more ambitious ideas, like single-payer health care.

Newsom talks the cautionary talk, but will he walk the walk given the gusher of revenue at his disposal and lawmakers wanting to test the limits of his “woke” activism? We’ll know the answer once Newsom has signed a new budget into law and offered his thoughts on hundred pieces of legislation.

A few years ago, Brown likened his pending retirement to that of the Roman consul Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus – in Brown’s words, “a fellow ... who saved the Republic, and then he went back to the plow.” Brown added: “I like to be on my plow. Maybe I’ll be sending out pronouncements from the plow.”

About Cincinnatus: Historians debate whether he was plowing a field or digging a ditch, but the consensus is that within 15 days he managed to leave his farm, lead Roman army to victory over a neighboring tribe, then return to the plow.

The drive to and from Colusa, bookended around a Capitol address, won’t take up 15 days of Gov. Brown’s retired life. And in this case, the enemy isn’t a warring Italic tribe. It’s an age-old Sacramento foe: lawmakers on a sugar high in flush economic times.

Nemo dat non habet, as the frugal Brown would say in Latin. “No man gives what he does not have.”

Bill Whalen is a Hoover Institution research fellow and former speechwriter for Gov. Pete Wilson. Whalen can be reached at whalenoped@gmail.com.
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