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Excerpt: 'Basic Brown'

'Basic Brown' by Willie Brown

Sex Scandals and the Socializing Politician

Politicians almost never express regret about their behavior on questions of public policy, but when it comes to their private lives, curiously, they are always ready to apologize. It's bizarre.

Whenever I hear a politician publicly express contrition over some private relationship that has suddenly been exposed, I laugh. And when I hear them promise to seek redemption for having had such a liaison, I just laugh my ass off. This sackcloth-and-ashes routine strikes me as about the most insincere response you could make, and probably the least effective.

Ineffective because the public clearly understands that no disability is created by a relationship between two people that has nothing to do with your public duties and functions.

I don't know why Bill Clinton felt the necessity, at the outset of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, of saying, "I never had sex with that woman." What he should have said to the press was, "This is none of your business. You get nothing out of me. I don't talk about whether I've had a relationship with a lady or not. It ain't your business. Period." Bill Clinton didn't often lose his cool as president, but he did then.

My wife, Blanche, and I have been married for fifty years. We haven't lived together in twenty-five, but we're still close. We talk many times each week. I'll tell you more about her and my family later in these pages. Early on in our marriage, we both recognized a key reality of political life, though.

That reality is this: if you are an attractive person in public life, you're going to have lots of opportunities to have fascinating relationships with women or men. I can think of very few holders of major office in American life, including women, who have not had private relationships along the way. And yet invariably it seems that when these relationships are exposed, the politicians apologize.

Enemies, schemers, the self-righteous are, of course, going to be looking for relationships they think are improper or out of which they think (quite foolishly) they can make political hay. When confronted, you just have to say it's nobody's business but your own.

Personally, I think you ought to glory in any such reputation. My successor as mayor of San Francisco, the talented Gavin Newsom, was caught when a private relationship he had had with a staffer who happened also to be married to one of his top advisors was revealed. He froze. He apologized publicly, especially for hurting his friend, the husband. All well and good, I suppose, but if you're going to apologize for a relationship, apologize to the woman. Frankly, I think he should have leapt at the opportunity to become known as a kind of gallivanting Gavin. I think the public relishes the idea of having someone who's actually alive holding down public office. If you're going to have a reputation, have one for your dashing ways, not for your tears.

A spicy social life really can add to your panache. In San Francisco, the city's hostesses treat me as a star guest because I add flavor to the evening. I've known and appeared with many women during my fifty years of married life and I have never been ostracized or barred from full participation in the social environment because I was with a variety of women. Nancy Bechtle, a superior hostess, enjoys rating my dates. When she invites me to an affair, she invariably asks a day or two before the party, "Whom are you planning to bring? Do we know the name yet?" I always answer her by saying, "I'm still interviewing ..."

In the course of my life, I have never been accused of any abuse or disrespect or disregard or exploitation of any woman — unlike, say, Newt Gingrich. I've never been brutish to anyone personally involved with me. It isn't my style.

Naturally, it's not easy being the date of Willie Brown either! It's hard to find a companion who can handle dating Willie Brown, because that often means being ignored.

When I walk into a party or public dinner or other social gathering, instantly all the attention is focused on me. Everybody wants to BS with me. My poor date may not know anybody else in the room. My wife, Blanche Brown, will tell you that one of the reasons she ceased stepping out with me was that at parties people would push right past her to get to me. They would knock her over. She was, understandably, offended by such rude behavior.

When I go to a party, I'm not there to float around as part of a couple. I'm a working politician. I work the house. I make sure I talk to everybody there who's significant. And I start with the women! No matter what age they are, I make sure I say hello. I make sure I tell every woman there something about herself. I want them to know how conscious I am of their existence. If I've met them before, I am going to let each one know I remember something about her personally. And that I am continuing to pay attention to her. That's purely sincere. You have to like people and let them know you like and remember them. That goes for the guys in the room too. They want to be remembered.

If you're also locked in to entertaining a date in the course of a party — oh man, that is an impossible duty. So before we go out, I try to explain to my dates what the evening will be like. I tell them, "Now let's get it straight. There's gonna be everybody wanting to take a picture of me. And I may not sit at any one table. I may have to leave you at one table — I'll introduce you to friends there, and they'll look after you. But you may not see me for another half an hour. And I may dance with fifteen people before I can get around to dancing with you. But I love to dance, and we will eventually."

Well, some women don't believe this scenario until they see it. And some don't like it. I have to explain again: I'm busy working. I'm sorry you had to get your own drink. But this isn't an evening out for the two of us. It's a work night for me. And if the lady doesn't get it, then at the next possible opportunity, as gently and as sincerely as I can, I exit the relationship. And I explain to her, "Here's why I'm leaving: you're not ready to put up with my selfish interest in my career. I am selfishly interested in my making sure that everybody in that room knows who Willie Brown is. Because that's who and that's what I'm marketing."

I tell my hurt date, "I can't give up that selfishness. I really love hanging out with you. But henceforth if we are to go out, it is to a movie on a Saturday afternoon where there's no social interaction with other people." I actually go to movies almost every Saturday afternoon to see the newest flicks. That makes a perfect date for me. That and hanging out late at night at a new bar or club — after I've done my evening's work.

Now, conversely, I sometimes run into a woman who wants to be too much a part of Willie Brown, Inc., a woman with her own political ambitions who sees me as a vehicle for them. In that case, I'm just as selfish about keeping myself and my business a private preserve as I am in demanding the time to pursue that career. There's no room in one political career for two ambitious people. Just one. In Willie Brown, Inc., there's room only for Willie Brown.

I'm often asked: are politicians temperamentally more exposed to extramarital relationships than others? Well, there is something in power that motivates people, women and men, to be more interested in you than they would be otherwise. You can clearly see that in people's behavior towards you when you have power and when you don't have it. You can clearly see the difference. Power is indeed an aphrodisiac. But a limited one.

The opportunities for relationships that present themselves because you have power should not be dismissed. You can meet fascinating women that way, and the world would be awfully dull if you did nothing but the brokering of interests and social networking that is the bulk of life for a modern politician. How you avail yourself of these opportunities depends on your skills at dialogue, your social graces, the breadth of your comprehension of the world, and the curiosity you have about the way we live now.

You can't sustain an acquaintanceship with just the provisions and tenets that power provides. Oh no! If you rely on your power to hold things together in a personal relationship, you will come off as insufferable, as a bore, as an insincere egomaniac. You'll be no fun; the relationship will be just another tedious set of negotiating games. Your date will have no fun.

My friend and mentor, the late Jesse Unruh, former Speaker of the California Assembly and later state treasurer, was a good-looking man but hardly movie-star handsome. He was often overweight, and he had a face full of character lines. But women loved him. Many enemies thought this was only because Jesse wielded power. But his power was merely a door opener. He was clever, funny, charming, and had a brilliant mind. As a result, when it came to women, he had more potential — which he often exercised — than anybody else in the room.

Power and wit open the doors. If you make a speech to a group and do it successfully, you can spot, before you end the speech, the three or four people in the room who want to talk to you personally. Usually they're women. Often attractive women. And they always wait around to talk to you, to shake your hand, to get an autograph. You simply take it from there. Power only opens the door. But for the relationship to be intense, there has to be absolute fascination on your part with the other person too.

Why do so many of these relationships decline in intensity? That's one of the bizarre questions the media likes to ask when they discover that a politician has some interpersonal relationship that isn't on the resume. Why, the press wants to know, was it fleeting? The press thinks that we must be always looking for a permanent relationship. Well, that's rather puritanical.

The reason why these relationships decline is that they were never built on anything having to do with permanency. They're not permanent relationships — oh, maybe one out of ten might have a shot at permanency — but actually they are fun, quick trips and flights of fantasy for both of you. Frankly, that is the appeal of most interpersonal relationships that politicians stupidly deny: they are flights of fantasy. Totally.

If you want to make a relationship permanent, you can. But don't do so because society suggests you can have only one relationship at a time. I convey to the women who are in relationships with me, "Because we go out, because we date, because we sleep together, that doesn't mean there's supposed to be anything permanent. Do not expect it. Do not demand it."

That sounds mean, but women understand this reality. Level with them and you'll have a friend for life. Out of all the women I've known, I don't have any ex-girlfriends. I have friends. I keep them. These shamed politicians talk about how they want to be "putting a relationship behind them." I think that's so disrespectful. Relationships change, but I don't believe in apologizing for them or for not recognizing what they are.

Excerpted from Basic Brown by Willie Brown. Copyright (c) 2008 by Willie Brown. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster.

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