California’s 70-year-old Attorney General Jerry Brown was looking fit and sounding aggressive, as he usually does at the podium, during the news conference he called last Friday morning inside L.A.’s Ronald Reagan State Office Building. He was answering questions about the indictments of two doctors and lawyer Howard K. Stern for supplying illegal prescription drugs to Anna Nicole Smith, who died from an overdose in 2007.
“My hope,” Brown said, “is that the message goes out that doctors do not have a license to pump innocent and often vulnerable people full of dangerous chemicals.”
But Brown also rambled in a way that might not have been obvious at first because he spoke quickly and without much punctuation, in run-on, stream-of-consciousness sentences.
“Certainly there’s a certain psychic gain here, part of the glitz and celebrity and power. There’s a lot of money floating around. There’s a lot of the high life.”
Brown said these words in reply to a reporter’s question about the motivation of Smith’s “friends” — Stern and doctors Sandeep Kapoor and Khristine Eroshevich — accused of keeping the actress on a rigorous diet of pills and opiates that parked her in a mental haze until she died. But Brown might well have been describing another kind of addiction — a need for some elected officials to stay connected to the political power grid. He’d said about as much to a group of L.A. Weekly journalists during a 2006 interview, when he was campaigning for A.G. With beguiling candor, he told us then that running for office was what guys like him did.
It’s all but certain Brown will run for California governor, an office he held for two terms in the past, in 2010. Was Brown’s prosecution of the gang of three, allegedly responsible — however peripherally — for Smith’s death, part of a precampaign strategy? None of the reporters present asked Brown about a connection to the prosecution and his political ambitions. The most we inquired about, politely, was whether his office would have gotten involved in a case like this if an unknown addict was involved.
“This office has gone after dozens of doctors for abusing the law in ways that we’re talking about today in respect to Anna Nicole Smith,” Brown responded. “She was a very famous person but the abuse in this case is serious. Unfortunately it’s not that unusual. It goes on. And it goes on in a way that I personally feel very strongly committed to putting a stop to.” By now Brown was racing through his lines in that hoarse Robert Duvall delivery he has. The words spilled down from the podium and Brown would leave it up to us to later add shape to them with commas and periods.
“Is it self-indulgence, is it some power trip, is it just getting some contact high off a celebrity? That remains to be seen,” Brown continued. “The law’s been violated, there’s a conspiracy, someone’s died here. ... People think drug dealers on the street corner are the only threat — as a matter of fact, people in white smocks and pharmacies and with their medical degrees are a growing threat. We mean to curtail it the best way that we can.”
People in white smocks. With their medical degrees. Was I the only one in the room who thought the Attorney General’s words sounded less like an anticrime crusade than like Stalin’s invention of the Doctor’s Plot?
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“There is a general tolerance and indulgence of drugs,” Brown said. “Everyone knows a doctor, many people take sleeping pills and then they take another pill, we have drug advertising. The American people are being propagandized to be more tolerant of drugs. ... I personally think this is damn serious and I hope these courts take it more seriously than they have in the past and this is only one in a series of efforts to crack down on doctors. We’ve already gone after a hundred other doctors and we’ll be stepping up the prosecution in the months ahead.”
Brown’s press conference was over in 17 minutes. Not one of the representatives present from the D.A.’s Office or Drug Enforcement Administration took over the podium — how could you follow an act like that?
I thought of an afternoon years ago, when I had briefly interviewed Anna Nicole Smith. It was at the Abbey club in West Hollywood, where city officials had proclaimed that date Anna Nicole Smith Day. Smith was there to choose a drag queen, dressed as herself, who would appear in a straight-to-video film. She was in one of her fat-and-high phases, and because of a roller-skating accident had to be hoisted out of her limo and into a wheelchair.
When Smith answered my questions she stared off and spoke in a faraway voice that sounded like it came from someone not merely stoned but also out on a ledge. It was as though merely saying the wrong word could send her tumbling off it and into a deep void. That happened two years ago, but the circus that surrounded her is still in business.