Review: Willie’s life lessons for getting, keeping power

How do you write about an icon — when you’re the icon in question?

In his new book, “Basic Brown, My Life and Our Times,” Willie L. Brown Jr. does a pretty good job of it.

Written in collaboration with former Examiner columnist P.J. Corkery, Brown recounts his glory days and not-so-glorious days — beginning in 1951 as a 17-year-old when he first stepped foot in San Francisco, through his rise to power as California’s longest-serving speakerof the Assembly and his two-term mayoralty.

This first-hand, first-rate memoir, kind of a walk-and-talk with “Da Mayor,” is rife with captivating anecdotes that elucidate Brown’s strategic methodology, his political savvy, even his sartorial recommendations.

It also sites Brown front-and-center at many of The City’s most memorialized moments over the last 40 years.

After attending San Francisco State University and Hastings College of the Law, Brown becomes active in the community. Mentors Carlton B. Goodlett, a newspaper publisher and developer, and longtime San Francisco congressman Phillip Burton help him win his first political race (he spends $4,900).

Despite enemies and obstacles, he bides his time and gains knowledge: “I learned from [Assembly Speaker Jesse] Unruh that you could shape the game itself.”

While speaker, he thwarts an usurping “Gang of Five,” (including then-Assemblymember Gary Condit), and emerges unscathed from an FBI investigation (at the same time appearing in “Godfather III”). He’s an early proponent of gay rights.

He ensures passage of a bill decriminalizing penalties for sexual acts (he locks Senate members in chambers until he flies in the tie-breaking vote) and is the last to speak with Mayor George Moscone, minutes before Dan White took his life.

Brown consolidates power in the state Legislature, then, after facing term limits, is elected San Francisco’s mayor. Through it all, Brown proffers both wry and insightful tenets.

On success: “So you work the talent, you work the skills; you wait carefully for the favorable moment. It will come to you; the people will come to you …”

On enemies: “Never make a permanent enemy out of someone you’ve defeated.”

On fame, after a three-minute speech: “I was a national figure. And it was an accident.”

On dressing for political success: “I believe that appearance is power, just like money, ideas and honesty.”

This engaging book goes well beyond Brown’s larger-than-life persona and powerful political friends. Brown’s kinetic tome offers front-row seats into California and San Francisco’s history as well as current politics, and also underscores the sagacity and prescience of a master politician who forged a trailblazing path. It’s a must-read.

FOOTNOTES

Basic Brown: My Life and Our Times

Written by: Willie Brown with P.J. Corkery

Published by: Simon & Schuster

368 pages; $26

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