Nathan Gardels is the editor-in-chief of Noema Magazine.
Back in the 1970s, Mike Royko, the solidly Midwest-grounded columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times, famously attached the moniker “Moonbeam” to Jerry Brown, the then 30-something governor of California. What Royko meant to convey was how flaky California itself was to have elected a leader who kept talking about odd things like the environment, computers and the state having its own satellite.
In the end, the joke was on Royko as America and the world evolved inexorably toward the young governor’s vision. Forty years on, when Donald Trump occupied the White House, Brown, governor then again, was considered the most sensible leader with the best quality of judgement around. Now, out of office for good as an elder statesman, Governor Moonbeam has landed. He has found his existential anchor, retiring like Cincinnatus to the family ranch founded by his pioneer great-grandfather who made his way, wagon train and all, to the Golden State over the treacherous Donner Pass.
For many years after I worked with Brown in the 1970s and early 80s, I often thought that the times he was ahead of would pass him by. I couldn’t have been more wrong. The times he presaged only caught up with him.
I sat down recently with Brown at his ranch just outside the tiny town of Colusa, California in the mostly agricultural Sacramento Valley. I sought to plumb what wisdom this “philosopher-prince,” as he was also called by the less disparaging in those Moonbeam days, has drawn from the long course of his political vocation. We talked about how not only he, but the state, nation and world, have changed over the decades.
In this first installment of that conversation, we discuss the importance of the earthy virtue of place and the necessity of being grounded somewhere instead of just floating out there, nowhere, in the detached cosmopolis of global society.