BASIC BROWN: MY LIFE AND OUR TIMES, by Willie Brown, Simon and Schuster, 351 pages, $26

Willie L. Brown Jr., an American political legend, was active in California politics from Lyndon Johnson's presidency to George W. Bush's — 40 years.

For 30 years, he served in the California Assembly, almost 15 years as speaker, and he served two four-year terms as San Francisco mayor.

Known as a specialist in tactics and strategy, he engineered the election of numerous other political figures, both in California and elsewhere. Bill Clinton once called him "the real slick Willie." More than most politicians, Brown knows how to work both sides of the aisle to secure bipartisan support for any project.

A liberal Democrat, Brown's political philosophy led to such controversial legislation as gun control, legalized abortion, gay rights and school funding. Brown always believed that even the most high-minded legislation needs ruses and tricks by an expert before it can emerge as law.

In "Basic Brown," the living legend talks about his own experiences with insight and humor. The result is a book that is unique for its storytelling. As the 74-year-old Brown puts it, "The fact is, 'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington' is a fantasy. Righteousness does not, alas, prevail on its own. You'll have to learn to be a listener, a diplomat, a deal maker and a warrior. If you're really good, you'll learn to be an honorable cutthroat as well."

Born a Texan, young Brown moved to California and attended San Francisco State University, then took a law degree from Hastings College of the Law. When he started to practice, his first clients were "pimps, prostitutes and small-time crooks," the only clients he could get.

But even as a young man, Brown had a deep interest in "justice for all," so he started playing with politics in 1961 by promoting fair housing ordinances. By 1964, he had acquired a seat in the California Assembly. In 1980, he became its first black speaker by cobbling together a patchwork of supporters.

He worked successfully with governors as diverse as Ronald Reagan and Pete Wilson. Brown, who is known for his sartorial splendor, is considered by many to be a phony, someone who was not, in fact, "born in a log cabin." Rather, Brown writes, he was "born under a log cabin ... in segregated rural Texas in the Depression."

Brown looks back with relish on his years as speaker of the California Assembly, saying the proper word was "Ayatollah" and that he would still be in that chair were it not for "term limits, a destructive idea introduced by mean-spirited wretches from Southern California who sought to deprive the people of San Francisco of the right to re-elect me as their assemblyman. You know, even Ronald Reagan opposed term limits."

Just one of the many anecdotes Brown tells concerns an assembly member who wanted to introduce legislation to outlaw goose feathers in California. Allegedly, the head of the association of California pillow makers reported that he had been approached by a member of the assembly and told there was a move to ban goose feathers as a "health hazard."

The assembly member told the pillow man that he would crush the movement if the association used some cash to "feather his personal nest." When Brown learned of it, he writes that he took that legislator "to the proverbial woodshed and shook some sense into him before he could get himself, the house, and these constituents in trouble."


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