Saturday, August 23, 2008

Based On A True Story: "Basic Brown"

I started reading “Basic Brown: My Life and Our Times,” Willie Brown’s autobiography, a couple of nights ago. Although I’m not that far into it, I can already tell that it’s going to be an entertaining and vivid read.

And after reading those first few chapters, I also suspect that a lot of the book is outright, blatant fiction.

The tip-off comes early, in a chapter titled “Willie Brown Is NOT Kidding.” In it, Brown tells the story of the infamous “Gang of Five,” the group of five moderate Democratic legislators – Rusty Areias, Charles Calderon, Gary Condit, Jerry Eaves, and Steve Peace – who had the temerity to challenge Brown’s leadership in 1988, and sought to oust him as Assembly Speaker. To hear Brown tell the story, the crisis was dealt with with one swift, aggressive counter-attack. All it took was for Brown to fool the five into thinking that he was indeed interested in stepping down as Speaker, invite them into his office, and then step outside to make a quick phone call to Lou Papan, Chairman of the Rules Committee, and instruct Papan to strip the five of their chairmanships, fire their staffs, and throw them out of their offices. As Brown tells it, he then ushered the five into an ambush, where they were shocked by dozens of press waiting for them in the hallway and, embarrassed, they bowed their heads, paid their penance over time, and the crisis was averted. Brown comes across as the brilliant strategist, the Machiavellian Prince determined to keep his power, and brutally dispose of those who dare to cross him.

All well and good. Except it didn’t happen that way, and Brown knows it.

Sure, there was a Gang of Five, they did challenge Brown’s leadership, and Brown did eventually triumph over them, in the process doling out some severe punishment and embarrassment. But in real life, the saga dragged out over a period of several months, and on several occasions Brown came perilously close to losing everything. In the end, what really saved him was the fact that the five were about half as smart as they thought they were, and put together not nearly as smart in the ways of politics and leadership as Brown himself. Twenty years later, it’s almost comical to think that the likes of Rusty Areias and Gary Condit thought they could outsmart Willie Brown by making a deal with the Republican members of the Assembly, when Brown himself had written that particular book eight years earlier when he outmaneuvered Howard Berman (himself a pretty smart guy) to become Speaker by cutting a deal with the devil (the Republicans).

The tale that Brown tells is a fascinating one, the only drawback being that it’s only a fraction of the truth. It’s like one of those “based on a true story” movies, where you never quite know whether what you’re seeing is the “true” part or the “based on” part, all the while suspecting that the most dramatic parts fall into the latter category.

I’m sure that I’m going to like this book a lot. I just hope that there aren’t a lot of high school and college kids using it for research papers.

No comments: