January 3, 2001

Remembering Alan Cranston

In 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.

Not 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.

The 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 and there.


A 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.

Alan 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.

Cranston 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.


On 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.

It 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.

When 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.


Alan 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.

It 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.

Alan 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.


Did 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.

It 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.

We 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.


Unfortunately, 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 the State.

I 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.

There 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.

Text-only printable version of this article

Alan Bock is Senior Essayist at the Orange County Register and a weekly columnist for WorldNetDaily. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995). He is also author of the forthcoming book Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana (Seven Locks Press). His exclusive column now appears every Wednesday on Antiwar.com.

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