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June 19, 1997

Full Flaps

His Hour Come Round at Last

A longtime aide to Willie Brown watched the mayor's election night pom-pom gyrations and said that she had never seen him quite that animated before. But Brown had good reason to let loose: the last-minute 49ers turnaround gave his problematic political fortunes a new lifeline, and his demeanor suggested that he knew the last-minute campaign heroics were more aptly Franco Harris than Dwight Clark.

The distinction is important. The deflection which provided victory was the 49ers' threat to depart, spun expertly in the final weeks as an appeal to voters to resist losing a cherished civic institution. Such are the ricochets with which corporate America pinions the country.

Because he knows he prevailed by the skin of his teeth Brown cannot count on his reprieve to be anything but short-lived, at best. The perception, if not the evidence, of his compliance with the corporate agenda is now more firmly engraved than ever. It's been a fast highway out of the urban miasma of the 1960s for him, a straightaway paved with the largesse of his business clientele and the narrow-track calendar of Sacramento, and in returning to the grit of San Francisco he has found the city's problems more complex than when he left and unresponsive to the application of both his lately acquired attitudes and his fabled parliamentary skills.

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Brown carries this conundrum into his hosting of next week's U.S. Conference of Mayors, a setting uniquely disposed to either make or break him as a viable political entity. You've by now grown weary of hearing me proclaim that Brown, as titular sovereign of urban America, has influence of almost unreasonable proportions within the Democratic Party, and that that clout, properly applied, has the potential to eclipse all other forms of internal party debate. No one else, I will reiterate, could tell Clinton to take a flying leap and get a thank-you note from the White House in the overnight mail. This is the reason, after all, that we elected Brown, though it clearly seems we misplaced our trust in his like-mindedness.

We deferred monitoring Brown during his Sacramento hiatus, and ignored the distant rumblings about his neoliberal defection, preferring to update the residue of his early days as a defender of civil rights and voiceless lumpen and blend them with the later dealmaker reputation he'd acquired. Against our better judgment, 18 months into his mayoralty we're still granting him the benefit of the doubt, hostage to the latent potential of his national power base and our need to know we have a political talisman at the ready in our pocket.

It's in the nature of punditry to speak grandly of defining moments in the lives of politicians, and assuredly Brown's moment is upon him next week. If the accretion of past firefights and those beckoning in the remainder of his term have given him pause about the wisdom of his New Democrat conversion, he'll never again have the opportunity the mayors conference will afford him.

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In concert with the municipal Perle Mesta, Charlotte Maillard Swig, Brown will spend more than $2 million to make this event a showcase for the city and his leadership approach. The scheduled mix of formal dinners, entertainment and amenities proffered to Clinton, Gore and the attending mayors has the glaze of an international summit meeting.

Brown is quick to stress that his intention is to parlay as well as partay, and views the conference as an effort to lobby administration officials seriously on behalf of the city. To that end he pushed for the participation of the five attending Cabinet members.

One can only be mystified, to say the least, that the announced lineup of speakers and topics hasn't produced an appropriate gasp from Brown. Vice President Gore will speak on "the importance of sustainable development and joint city/county efforts," de-euphemized as: "We whipped the bejesus out of you in Washington with our cave-ins to the corporations, the military and their congressional cronies and we have no money for you. Local governments are on their own. But you already knew that." The rapacious Frank Murkowski of Alaska (!), the butcher of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the Tongass National Forest (he tied up a bad Presidio bill with more corporate add-ons and giveaways, you'll recall), follows Gore. He'll enjoin "a national conversation on urban parks." Stifle your laughter momentarily, because it gets funnier. Clinton is up next, and the possibility of a reprise of his UC San Diego speech on the crisis in race relations would offer a complementary lead-in to Labor Secretary Alexis Herman's speech on -- how did you guess? -- welfare reform. It appears all that's missing is Fred Rogers intoning, "Ma-a-a-yors, can you say c-h-u-t-z-p-a-h?"

Rather more to the point, any interrogatories ought to be demands for an accounting of how anyone could have thought this merde flambé would pass muster in this city. It amazes me that the press, in observing Brown wielding his insolence as a cloak for his inability to connect with the sensibilities of his electorate, has exercised such restraint. This steaming mound all but oxidizes the language of civility. And as I track it, those not paid to publicly disseminate and who have moved beyond their earlier appellatives for Brown of "sellout" and "out of touch" have become untempered legion: "fraud," "idiot," and "bozo" are among their more common current derogations.

Apparently Brown views this conference as simply some sort of partisan contest (as if there still existed an opposition political party) among mayors for table scraps from Washington. Bear with me once more as I enumerate what should be the obvious alternative: The crafting of a united front of mayors who are privately very livid and whose cities will soon be hit with the consequences of Clinton's blowsy cynicism and cowardice. Men and women on the verge of concluding that the enemy is the corrosive hybrid of money and privilege, fairly begging for peer leadership and open to delivering language equal to the hour: Mr. President, how could you possibly think you could come into this forum after putting us in this fix and expect from us even the slightest bit of politeness and accord? Why are you and your people even here?

This conference has the markings of the ultimate gimme for Brown. It has been placed in his lap at the optimum moment, custom-tailored for the anger he can personally keynote as a prelude to the 2000 election and the search for a genuine progressive candidate unbeholden to the rubric of the one-party state. But of course you're correct in thinking I must be dreaming. The folly is in believing that at the close of this confab Brown will have done anything but bow and scrape, boogaloo and guffaw to no discernible effect save the augmenting of his established buppie self-indulgence.There's not the slightest evidence that he will be reborn as whomever we once thought he was, and as his complicity in the planning of this vacuous extravaganza suggests, all the hats and party favors in the land won't put him back together again.

The language he could have addressed to Clinton will thus redound. Brown will get another ricochet, and this time it's deserved and uncontested: Stay the hell out of our way, Willie. The real work of this city now begins. And the work of San Francisco remains a beacon to the country. It was right in front of you and you never saw it.

--Copyright John Hutchison 1997

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