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Willie Brown, Well-Suited to Politics

Former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown's new book, Basic Brown: My Life and Our Times, reads like a primer for aspiring politicians. It includes tips ranging from how to negotiate and how to deal with federal investigators to how to dress.

Among his top sartorial tips? No brown suits at night and never, ever go with the blue suit, white shirt and red tie combo.

In reality, few people can pull off Brown's fashion flash: He devotes several pages in Basic Brown to his $6,000 suits. And few politicians would dare copy his political style, either.

Brown left the tiny town of Mineola, Texas, to become one of the most powerful and most flamboyant politicians in California. He was elected to the state assembly in 1964 and stayed there for more than 30 years — 15 of which he served as speaker. And he was the first black mayor of San Francisco.

He is known as both a dealmaker and a dandy. And Brown never makes apologies for that.

"I think the business of living large is really who I am. I really enjoy my life, and I love sharing that joy with others," Brown says.

"What you see is what you get in a Willie Brown," he continues, "and therefore, there doesn't need to be any speculations about who he's with, what he's doing, what he's eating, where he's going, who he's seeing or any of those things. He shows those things to you and removes that as a potential liability and lets you move on to substance."

He advises aspiring politicians against taking themselves too seriously or attempting perfection. He also notes that to be a successful politician, a person must tolerate different views — some of which may prove to be better at building a consensus.

Throughout his career, Brown says that when he's been in a position to select candidates for various positions, he has put women and racial minorities first.

"The only way to actively break that ceiling [faced by women and minorities] is to eagerly and aggressively and affirmatively push for those who have been blocked by that ceiling," he says.

These priorities make the current race for the Democratic presidential nomination — between Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) and Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) — a particular dilemma for Brown, who says he does not support either candidate. But it's a dilemma that he characterizes as "delightful."

Brown writes in his book about the "barbershop test" — that candidates of color must be comfortable in the halls of power but also at the local barbershop, discussing everyday issues such as sports and music.

He says Obama's recent speech on race in the United States was the equivalent of a barbershop test — one which Brown says Obama passed.

Faced with the possibility of a prolonged battle between Clinton and Obama for the Democratic presidential nomination, Brown is confident such a battle would not harm the party.

He explains, "If that battle reduces itself to conditions where personalities — rather than issues — and where the interests of the party take a back seat to the ambitions of a single personality, it could be harmful.

"That is not the case [here], and I think it will only be good for Democrats."

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