some ways it is a mistake for a journalist to meet politicians.
They are in the business of being charming and ingratiating, and
most of them who have had even modest political success, of whatever
stripe, are pretty good at it. It is easy to be swayed by some of
them, to be flattered that they seem to pay attention to you, to
take your questions and ideas seriously.
many in the media anymore remember what Malcolm Muggeridge said
about journalism, that the only fun of the game was the opportunity
of meeting the powerful movers and shakers of the world without
feeling the necessity to take any of them the least bit seriously.
But it is the best fun, although as the politicians have become
more professional at dealing only through focus-group-tested soundbites
it is not as much fun as it used to be. But a reasonably frank and
open politician can still quite often be a delight for this cynical
newshound to talk with.
trick is to have the attitude, as Jesse Unruh, once the virtual
boss of California politics from his Assembly Speaker position,
said was essential to political success when dealing with contributors
and lobbyists: "You have to be able to take their money, drink
their booze, screw their women and then go out and vote against
them the next day," Mr. Unruh once told me in an interview
after he was essentially retired but still keeping his hand in here
journalist willing to be charmed by a politician must be able to
attack him in print (or whatever) the next day with accuracy
and integrity, of course, and perhaps with a warning beforehand,
but without much hesitation. If more journalists had the attitude
journalism in this country would be a lot better guardian of freedom
and much more interesting. There have always been those who would
rather be players than journalists, of course, and the breed shows
no sign of dying out. But it is possible to be a decent journalist
who plays it straight in print and still maintain a cordial (if
careful) and sometimes even warm relationship with politicians.
But it's always a balancing act.
Cranston, who died at 86 on the last day of the year 2000, understood
the game. So perhaps I feel a bit more inclined to feel a certain
nostalgic warmth toward a politician with whom I disagreed on almost
every policy issue that came to the fore during his career because
he was willing to play it with me several times during my tenure
at the Orange County Register and he was pretty good at it.
So take all this with whatever rations of salt are appropriate.
I actually enjoyed talking with the guy.
had a long and interesting political career, of course, that spanned
a good deal of the century just ended. He earned his first notoriety
translating "Mein Kampf" in the late 1930s and subsequently
being sued for copyright violation by its author, Adolf Hitler.
He garnered his last notices for a Senate reprimand in 1993 even
as he defended his actions for corruption in the Keating Five scandal.
GOVERNMENT THE KEY
the occasions when he visited the Register editorial board
he was under no illusion that we were going to endorse him (we've
never endorsed any political candidates, of course) or that we wouldn't
criticize his policy preferences next day. But he still had enough
of the old-fashioned intellectual in him to enjoy a little give-and-take,
and he hoped that if he turned on the charm we would at least get
the facts right when we blasted him for whatever big-government
nostrum he was peddling that week.
is likely that the most important political lodestar for Alan Cranston
was the World Federalist Society, whose presidency he assumed in
1948. I think that at some level (although the amount of self-deception
had to increase over time) he really believed that a world with
an enlightened world government would be a world at peace and with
most inhabitants reasonably content with life. The World Federalists
ranged from naïve and hopeful idealists who really thought
the UN was both a good first step and the last best hope to really
enthusiastic statists who saw citizens as impediments unless they
were automatons to apologists for the Soviets.
he visited the Register editorial board a few years ago,
he professed to being a libertarian, or at least being with us on
certain issues relating to freedom for the individual. Most politicians
do that if they have taken the time to read some of our editorials
and columns. And on some civil-liberties issues, he may have justifiably
used the term. But for most of his 24-year career as a California
senator, he fought for ever bigger and more intrusive government.
He was a champion of a naïve world government movement and
of a naïve view of nuclear disarmament, probably based on a
naïve view of Soviet communism.
IDEOLOGUE WHO KNEW HOW TO PLAY THE SYSTEM
Cranston was an example of a political ideologue who learned how
or understood how to play the system, and people from almost any
ideological stratum can learn something (but hopefully not everything)
from him. He was perhaps the most left-wing politician to achieve
success in California politics in recent years plenty of
conservatives were convinced he was really a communist and a good
deal of right-wing energy was devoted to "proving" this
during his career but he also knew how to do constituent
service and take care of the interests that were really essential
to his career. And he really knew how to come across as reasonable
and open-minded, the very picture of moderation, your slightly eccentric
but goodhearted Uncle Al.
is a mistake to picture him, as most of the obituaries have, as
a devoted idealist who somehow fell into bad company with the Keating
crowd. It's more complicated than that. I've been around long enough
to remember that when he was state controller, before he became
a U.S. Senator, he had to live through a scandal involving the alleged
selling of spots as inheritance appraisers that ended up with the
appraisers being removed from the controller's department. But that
was the way politics was played in the California Democratic Party,
and while Alan Cranston had an ideological agenda he also knew how
to play politics.
Cranston managed to gain a reputation for being a peacenik of sorts,
an opponent of US involvement in a number of conflicts from Vietnam
on. At the same time, however, he fought for federal funding of
the B-1 nuclear bomber, (along with "B-1 Bob" Dornan,
the conservative Republican who disagreed with Cranston on almost
every other issue). The B-1 bomber, of course, was made in California.
ANACHRONISTIC APPROACH TO PEACE
Alan Cranston really long for peace and have a soft spot in his
heart for freedom? I think perhaps he did. But he was a peacenik
of his time and place who held on to certain beliefs that may even
have been idealistic once no matter how many times events should
have tempered them.
is a little difficult now to remember, but the rise of Hitler and
fascism really shaped a generation into some bad ideas, the most
mistaken of which was that communism was the natural enemy of fascism
rather than its evil twin. One hates to discount the possibility
that some in the world federalist movement actually believed that
a just and dispassionate world government that would somehow be
above petty politics and parochial hatreds could be formed and would
rule wisely and with equity. Shucks, while almost anybody would
dismiss such a belief as naïve in light of the political shenanigans
the "world community" of accredited diplomats and experts
have pulled, some people believe that to this day.
still have a lot of teaching to do if we are to convince many who
sincerely yearn for peace that the state as an institution is the
chief obstacle to peace and the major fomenter of war, and building
a Superstate is unlikely to be the answer. One can understand people
believing such things in the early days of the 20th century,
but it is difficult to credit the notion, what with the experience
we have had in the last half-century of "benevolent" states
waging cruel and unjustifiable wars.
WHO CAN BE REACHED
some of the peaceniks of yesteryear have become the warmongers of
today. We'll see how many come back now that it is a Republican
administration charged with implementing the interventionist policy
in Colombia and negotiating the mess left in Bosnia and Kosovo.
But criticizing those of another party who are in charge of wars
now is hardly the same as understanding that War is the Health of
never expected to reach Alan Cranston at a level that would be likely
to change his position on a public policy important to his political
career, and he never expected to change my mind about the necessity
of regulating that pesky marketplace a little more aggressively.
But he was fun to cross swords with, and still possessed of a fairly
agile mind well into his 70s. And at some level he was opposed to
almost all war, though he was more than a bit confused about how
to move beyond war.
are many who believe as he did, however, who don't have so much
invested in a political career and who might be reached with arguments
about fundamental principles and consistency. It should be one of
our missions in the antiwar movement to reach them and engage them
in whatever ways are possible.