Jerry Brown Moonbeams Up To 'American Masters'

PBS’s “American Masters” turns to politics Friday night for what appears to be the first time in the show’s 37-year history.

The first politician to be so honored with an “American Masters” documentary (according to the TV Blog scan of the subject list on Wikipedia) is Jerry Brown, 85, whose story is told in a 90-minute episode appropriately titled “Jerry Brown: The Disrupter.”

Very generally speaking, the “American Masters” subjects taken up since the show premiered in 1986 have been drawn largely from the worlds of entertainment and the arts -- authors, composers, painters, TV personalities, actors, dancers, movie stars, movie directors, Hollywood moguls, folk singers, rock stars and many more.



With that history in mind, why Jerry Brown? Maybe he was a “master” of politics. Or maybe he wasn’t.

As the documentary points out, like others who have spent their lives in politics, Brown had successes and failures. 

The son of a California governor (Edmund G. “Pat” Brown, 1905-96), Jerry Brown was elected to that same office for two, eight-year terms that were 28 years apart -- 1975-83 and 2011-19.

Indeed, his life’s journey in politics included one successful campaign for California secretary of state (1971), four successful campaigns for California governor, three failed campaigns for president (1976, 1980 and 1992), one failed campaign for the U.S. Senate (1982), two successful campaigns for mayor of Oakland (1998 and 2002) and one successful campaign for attorney general of California (2007).

If you’re keeping score, that’s eight successful election campaigns and four unsuccessful ones -- 12 in all -- which may very well represent a “mastery” in the art of politics.

“Jerry Brown: The Disrupter” places Brown -- a liberal, progressive democrat -- squarely in the context of his times, both publicly and privately.

The documentary positions the Browns as the closest thing California has ever had to a political dynasty.

Dad Pat Brown, also a democrat, was a well-liked governor from 1959 to 1967. Between the end of his term and the start of his son’s, Republican Ronald Reagan was governor of California from 1967 to 1975.

For those of us old enough to remember when Jerry Brown burst onto the national scene in the 1970s, this “American Masters” revives memories of the era and its popular culture.

Elected governor at age 36, the single Jerry Brown became a political rock star who socialized with real rock stars and other celebrities.

Most famously, he dated Linda Ronstadt throughout most of the 70s, a decade in which Ronstadt was arguably the biggest female pop star in America.

The documentary depicts Brown as a man who zigged when others zagged and in the process, frustrated some and charmed others.

His mind was always at work, say multiple witnesses interviewed in the film, which positions him as ahead of his time in areas such as diversity, gender and racial equality, and alternatives to fossil fuels.

Brown is credited with ushering in the construction of wind farms and encouraging the use of solar panels in the 1970s, decades before they became popular everywhere else. 

His ideas seemed so futuristic at the time that Chicago columnist Mike Royko nicknamed him “Governor Moonbeam,” which Brown took to be a compliment.

The show’s interviewees include Brown’s wife, Anne, a sister, Kathleen Brown, and former governors Gray Davis and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

As for Brown himself, it is apparent that an attempt was made to interview him for his own “American Masters” episode, but he appears only briefly.

This might be why the documentary begins with a contentious scene between Brown, in the present day, squaring off with an off-camera interviewer.

“Just describe yourself,” she says in an exasperated tone as he continually objects to her line of questioning. 

“No, I can’t do that,” says Brown, still zigging when others zag.

“American Masters: Jerry Brown” airs on Friday (September 15) at 9 p.m. Eastern on PBS.

1 comment about "Jerry Brown Moonbeams Up To 'American Masters'".
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  1. T Bo from Wordpress, September 15, 2023 at 2:09 p.m.

    Pat Brown was so well liked he lost to Reagan by a million votes in the California of 1966.

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