Jerry Brown apologizes for Lewinsky jokes

Rachel Rose Hartman
Jerry Brown answers a reporter's question.
Jerry Brown answers a reporter's question.

Jerry Brown is running for the 2010 California governorship, but he's spent much of the last week reliving the politics of the 1990s. And Brown's unfortunate lurch into the past culminated Monday with an apology to former President Bill Clinton for taking shots at Clinton's conduct during the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

"Bill Clinton was an excellent president," Brown, the state attorney general, said Monday at a news conference. "It was wrong for me to joke about an incident from many years ago, and I'm sorry."

[Photos: Jerry Brown images]

Brown's 1990s mystery tour began early last week when his GOP opponent Meg Whitman aired an ad reviewing Brown's harsh attacks on Clinton when both men were vying for the 1992 Democratic presidential nomination.  In an effort to wave off that attack, Brown floated a couple of Lewinsky asides in a campaign speech Sunday. Addressing an audience of supporters, Brown said: "I mean, Clinton's a nice guy, but whoever said he always told the truth?" Brown then mocked Clinton: "I did not have taxes with this state," Brown said, clearly referencing Clinton's now-infamous denial of the Lewinsky affair, "I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky."

Here's video of Brown's Sunday speech:

The Lewinsky back-and-forth has overshadowed Brown's bid to discredit the Whitman spot on factual grounds. In footage from a 1992 presidential debate, Clinton is shown saying "CNN -- not me -- CNN says his assertion about his tax record was 'just plain wrong.'"

"Jerry Brown went out there and took credit for the fact that the people of California voted for Proposition 13, which lowered taxes, which he opposed, and now he's going around taking credit for it." Brown's campaign maintains Clinton's assertion is false because that CNN report was incorrect.

You can watch Whitman's attack ad below:

The White House has been using Clinton to boost Democratic candidates around the country. But even before the most recent flap, Clinton wasn't likely to lend his aid to the Brown campaign. There's little chance Clinton was ever going to go the distance for Brown in his competitive gubernatorial race. In fact, Clinton endorsed San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom over Brown in the 2010 governor's race. Newsom later dropped his bid.

California is typically favorable territory for statewide Democrats, but both Brown and Sen. Barbara Boxer are in danger of losing their races in November. Whitman's personal wealth has allowed her to build a big financial advantage despite Brown's support from labor. And as Whitman knew when she released the 1992 ad, Clinton is enormously popular among state Democratic voters, so Brown can ill afford to be shackled to the image of him as a Clinton antagonist -- hence the swift apology for Sunday's Lewinsky gibes.

[Photos: Latest images of Bill Clinton]

This race represents yet another test of an establishment candidate versus a fresh face. Brown is a longtime fixture in California politics, whose father had been governor before his own election to the governorship in the 1970s; he was also mayor of Oakland before his election as attorney general in 2006. Whitman is a political novice, campaigning chiefly on her business background and her status as an outsider.

*UPDATE: Clinton put the incident behind him Tuesday afternoon and endorsed Brown's candidacy for governor, the Los Angeles Times reports.

(Photo: AP/Rich Pedroncelli)

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