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If you like Willie Brown's story, you might also like:
David Boies,
Ben Carson,
Rudolph Giuliani,
Daniel Inouye,
John Lewis,
Ralph Nader,
Rosa Parks,
Anthony Romero,
Barry Scheck,
Alan Simpson,
Antonio Villaraigosa
and Andrew Young

Willie Brown can also be seen and heard in our Podcast Center

Teachers can find prepared lesson plans featuring Willie Brown in the Achievement Curriculum section:
What is a Leader

Willie Brown's recommended reading: The Prince

Willie Brown also appears in the video:
Making a Better World: What is Your Responsibility to the Community?

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Willie Brown
Willie Brown
Profile of Willie Brown Biography of Willie Brown Interview with Willie Brown Willie Brown Photo Gallery

Willie Brown Interview (page: 4 / 6)

Former Mayor of San Francisco

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  Willie Brown

Many people have brains, talent, even opportunity, but they don't achieve what you have. Why do you think you have succeeded?

Willie Brown Interview Photo
Willie Brown: I think circumstances in the world of politics contribute substantially to whether or not you can be successful. You can be the most talented person around. You can be the most attractive person around. But the circumstances may not be there for you to be successful, because the public still ultimately determines what happens to you politically, by virtue of the casting of their vote. And you cannot ever predict what will move the public in one direction or another.

We politicians do focus groups, and surveys, and telephone persuasion, but believe me, people make up their minds on quirks. They make up their minds many times on things unrelated to anything that you have said or, in fact, done.

How would you explain to someone why what you do is so exciting and so important to you?

Willie Brown: First, it's really important to me because it's the career that I've chosen, and you want to do well in whatever career option you may exercise. But even more important than that...

The excitement comes from the joy you see on other's faces when they react to your having solved a problem for them, or responded to their needs. It's almost as if magic has occurred in their lives. And that, more than anything else, re-energizes and causes you to want to re-up for a lot more than you currently do, or you're capable of doing. And in many cases, you don't really solve the problem, what you do is you give them hope that together you can work it out. And that little thread is the source of my energy and the source of my interest, and probably the source of my excitement.

Did you start out with an agenda? Did you have a plan for how you wanted to change the world?

Willie Brown Interview Photo
Willie Brown: I wanted to do certain things, but you run into situations in your law practice that really constitute an injustice. For example, the first client I ever represented was a hooker. My office was in the Fillmore, which was a black section of town, where there was no such thing as corporate law, or mergers and acquisitions. None of that was available to me. You took whatever came through the door.

The first person that came through the door was this hooker, and she was livid that she was being arrested again. And these guys she was doing business with were not being arrested, they were being marched in to testify against her, and she thought it was unfair, because they were doing the same thing she was doing. And I said, "You're absolutely right."

Suddenly, for me, it was a constitutional issue. Of course, I got slapped down at every turn because the system says, "You don't touch the respectables. You only go after the people who are not so respectable." All of a sudden, I'm in a situation where I have a cause. I believe that whether you're a criminal, or you're not a criminal, you're entitled to the same rules and regulations. And we virtually changed that in San Francisco.

I started getting cases dismissed on the basis of selective prosecution. One of the first times anybody ever used that, I think. And that was very exciting for me, and it was one of the steps that I could tell you that turned what was my job into a magical set of circumstances. Because the word spread throughout the hooker community: "There's a guy down there on Sutter Street who has come up with something that keeps us out of jail. Gets our cases dismissed." And it was fun to watch the delight on these peoples' faces, particularly when they could pay you a hundred bucks in cash, offer you something in trade, in return for having represented them. It was like magic, and I loved it.

[ Key to Success ] Passion

What setbacks have you suffered?

Willie Brown Interview Photo
Willie Brown: I lost the first election, as you know, in 1962. That didn't disturb me, it was just a momentary blip on my screen. I went back and I won. I lost the first race for Speaker in 1974, but that didn't deter me. I just retooled, went back and put together an odd combination of 23 Democrats and 28 Republicans to elect me to the speakership several years later.

Those were probably the only political career bumps that I have had. I've had some bumps on the personal side. I have been stiffed on good cases, lots and lots of times. Some of those times that I was stiffed I had literally encumbered the fee for life sustaining purposes, which constituted a bit of a financial disaster for me.

But beyond that, there have really not been any significant career downsides, because I have been very careful to orchestrated and structure the situation where I minimize the potential for those failures. I think you have to do that in your exercising of career options. You should be realistic. You should be kind of like a cat. You've never seen a cat attempt a jump or crawl, or anything else that that cat isn't almost certain he or she can achieve. I think if I came back as an animal, I'd probably be a cat.

Did you every have any fear of failure?

Willie Brown Interview Photo
Willie Brown: I think all of us should have self-doubts. I don't think you can succeed unless you know that there's a challenge that forces you to reach way down and really overcome.

You have to be practical too in that regard, by the way. Because if not, you will be fooling yourself. I did not fool myself. I knew I was never going to play first string quarterback as long as Theodore existed. As a matter of fact, I came to the conclusion I was never going to play in a game as long as Theodore existed. And I adjusted my sights accordingly.

In career options, you'd better be prepared to make your sights realistic with what are real possibilities, rather than a wish list of non-achievable things. I am never going to be Michael Jordan, that is a guaranteed no-no. I don't have the physical properties, etc. So to think I'm going to be a great basketball player, as my friend Billy Crystal or Spike Lee said he wanted to be at one time, is crazy. That's a little bit nutty to pursue it in that fashion. Can I be president? Of course.

How do you deal with criticism?

Willie Brown: Criticism -- particularly that which comes from the public press -- can terrorize you, can make your life miserable. Particularly if you live on acceptance. If every day of your life you want to be loved in this business, you'd better quit the business. Or you'd better hire a legion of therapists to keep you sane, because you are guaranteed to displease 49.9 percent of the people on any given day.

[ Key to Success ] Courage

Hopefully, never more than 50.1, but 49.9 percent on a given day. Sometimes it's just a few, on a committee. Sometimes it's more than a few, in a group or organization. Many times it's lots of your constituency, and you are going to be criticized.

You're going to be vilified. You're going to be accused of every high crime and low misdemeanor there is. Your sanity is going to be questioned. Your integrity -- to its soul -- is going to be questioned. Your just unadulterated honesty is going to be questioned. And if you let any of that interfere with you, if you let that define who you are, you should get out of this business. I don't let anybody define who Willie Brown is, except Willie Brown. I stopped speaking in the third person a long time ago, but to make this point, I'd have to do it that way. No one defines me for me. I've got the self-confidence that what I do and how I do it is consistent with what's in the best public interest. All I have to do is sell it. And so far I've been able to do that. That's my shield.

[ Key to Success ] Courage

In the mayor's campaign, the newspapers, in my home town were against me. Every Sunday, these guys were not just against me, these guys were actively trying to defeat me. They were using their daily ink sheet to take everything that I had done for the last 31 years and interpret it from a selfish standpoint, or a greed standpoint.

They couldn't make the case, because I don't own anything. They couldn't make the case because I've been inspected in every fashion, but that didn't stop them. They wrote more fiction than Robert Ludlum writes in any of what he does, or that Mr. Stine writes in any of what he does. They should have gotten the fiction award of the year. But there was just enough factual support, unrelated to their conclusions, to give them credibility, and for them, the clear conscience of journalistic honesty.

It got so bad that I wouldn't read the Sunday paper, because there was always a front page story about Willie Brown, with a box showing how he voted 30 years ago, etc., etc., etc. And some of that stuff should stick to you, but I had determined at the outset of my campaign that I was going to shake the hands of every voter in San Francisco. That I was going to look every voter in the eye in San Francisco. And that I was going to market Willie Brown directly to the voter, thereby shielding any definition that anyone else would attempt to impose upon me. And I did that, it stood me in great stead. And I still don't read the Sunday paper.

[ Key to Success ] Perseverance

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This page last revised on Nov 11, 2013 20:18 EDT
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