Longtime Politician Tells Others to Learn to Listen

Posted February 15, 2008 at 4:58pm

Willie Brown takes his work very seriously. For 56 years, the lawyer, politician and political strategist has made it a point to walk the streets of San Francisco and get to know people. He wears $5,000 Brioni suits and considers his pocket squares and Borsalino hats the finishing touches of every outfit.

And now Brown — who takes business calls from prominent figures ranging from presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) to California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) — is advising others to follow in his footsteps.

In a phone interview, he said the most important suggestion he offers politicians in his new book, “Basic Brown: My Life and Our Times,” is to learn to listen to the people they represent.

“I believe listening is the one skill that politicians must master,” Brown said. “And you can certainly put that into a training mode if you spend time walking and listening to the constituency. You must develop the ability to listen … because from it may come an answer to a problem with which you’ve been dealing. Besides, it’s fun to exchange words with ordinary people.”

Brown’s advice is intertwined with anecdotes that help to make his point, gleaned in part from 15 years as Speaker of the California Assembly (he served until term limits were introduced) and eight years as mayor of San Francisco. Since leaving the mayor’s office, the Democrat has maintained his political influence as a lawyer and political consultant.

“Hopefully this book will heighten one’s interest, whether a politician or a non-politician, into the world of public policy,” Brown said.

The book could appeal to a broad audience, Brown said, but he especially hopes people in politics will read it because many of them are part of the story. The politicians featured are discussed truthfully, he said.

“We make up a lot of things as politicians, especially if we want to talk disparagingly about another politician,” Brown said. “But in my book, I simply record the facts as they unfolded or as I know them to be.”

He touches on the spectrum of areas that could affect politicians’ careers, including their personal lives. Brown said a politician has two choices in regard to his or her private life.

“Your personal life as it relates to your life, is your own business,” Brown said. “It doesn’t have anything to do with your performance in the office that you hold. So you can choose whether to discuss it or not discuss it.”

“But what you don’t want to do in discussing it is to lie about it,” he continued, “because then the issue becomes whether you lied. … Not revealing is not lying.”

Brown added that he does not talk in depth about specific affairs, including this own, in his book. “I offer advice on how you can have a 40-year successful career and still have a personal life even if it’s not with the one with whom you marry,” he said.

Brown said one of his goals with “Basic Brown” was to tell “everything worth knowing” — all of his lessons and life stories — in a fun, upbeat way to reflect the fun, upbeat life he leads.

“The book is a sum total of a day-to-day, vivid history of the 40-plus years of my being in public life in California, and it’s a very good primer,” Brown said. “I don’t dwell on any single subject and if you want to know more details, you’ll have to go some other place.”