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Jerry Brown, trying to defend his record, trashes Bill Clinton [Updated]

September 13, 2010 | 11:25 am

Jerry Brown has spent much of his race for governor assaulting the character of his Republican rival Meg Whitman. But now, in a jaw-dropping bit of rhetoric, he's extended his criticism to a former Democratic president, Bill Clinton. And he did so by referring obliquely to Clinton's dalliance with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.

“Meg Whitman. She stops at nothing. She's even got Clinton lying about me. That's right. No, did you see that? Where he said I raised taxes. It's a lie,” he told a crowd at an East Los Angeles event Sunday. “… I mean Clinton's a nice guy but whoever said he always told the truth? You remember, right? There's that whole story there about did he or didn't he. OK, I did… I did not have taxes with this state.”

The last line was a play on Clinton’s defense against the brewing scandal in early 1998 that he had a relationship with Lewinsky. At the time, Clinton asserted, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.” Clinton subsequently admitted to an improper relationship with her and faced impeachment proceedings.

[Updated at 3:04 p.m.: Brown apologized at a hastily called news conference. "Bill Clinton was an excellent president. It was wrong for me to joke about an incident from many years ago, and I’m sorry," Brown said before attempting to steer the discussion back to questions about Whitman's honesty.

"She hasn’t told the truth about my record as governor. She hasn’t told the truth about my record as mayor. She hasn’t even told the truth about her own record," Brown said. "I’ve made my share of mistakes, and my inappropriate joke about President Clinton is one of them. But from me you’ll always get the truth."]

Brown and Clinton have a tense history because of the 1992 presidential primaries, during which they  tangled as they vied for the nomination. After Clinton racked up enough delegates for the nomination, Brown declined to endorse him at the party’s convention. Last year, Clinton returned the favor by endorsing Gavin Newsom in the California Democratic gubernatorial primary. Newsom quickly dropped out because he couldn't raise enough money to compete with Brown, a fixture on the California political scene for four decades.

Clinton became an issue in the gubernatorial contest last week, when Whitman began airing a 30-second television ad that features 1992 footage of Clinton, then a presidential candidate, trying to refute Brown's claim that he lowered taxes as governor. The video came from a Democratic primary debate that featured both men.

"CNN. Not me, CNN says his assertion about his tax record was, quote, just plain wrong," Clinton says in the ad. "He raised taxes as governor of California…. He doesn't tell the people the truth."

As the Times reported Friday night, the CNN report was based on erroneous data.

The Brown campaign has called on Whitman to take down the ad; the Whitman campaign has refused, saying it remains factually correct because taxes on average did go up during Brown’s tenure as governor from 1975 to 1983.

-- Seema Mehta in Los Angeles