Monday, May 22, 2006

Reporters' Relations With Politicians, It Varies

At a book party yesterday, I ran into Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who was absolutely furious with me for writing in a blog last week that people should vote against him for reelection.

I did so, without any personal antipathy toward Zev, who I've gotten along with peaceably for years, and also without any hope that his minor opposition could conceivably win. But I do think Yaroslavsky has been in office for a long time, and I'm sure that, with his intelligence and energy, he could find a second career that would make him even happier than his present one.

The relationship between reporters and politicians, in my experience, can be both fractious and friendly. My best relationship ever in state politics was with the late Jesse Unruh, but I also got along well with Ronald Reagan, Pat Brown, Ken Cory, John Garamendi and others. Less so with Jerry Brown, who had lived across the hall from me in Berkeley when I was studying for a Master's Degree, and who, later, may have presumed he could count on me. When he was governor, he became impatient with me, remarking that "Reich can take a thread and weave a suit." But we have a passable relationship now, and I'm pretty sure to support his bid for state Attorney General.

I was on the same wave length with Unruh, and we were on such familiar terms that we could talk very candidly with one another. When Jerry Brown's parole board was talking about freeing Sirhan Sirhan, the Palestinian terrorist who assassinated Robert Kennedy, I called Unruh up and asked him whether he was going to oppose it. "Right now," said Unruh, who may have saved Sirhan's life the night of the assassination. "I'm going to go right across the street and can assure you that Sirhan will not be released." He's in prison, still.

I was hopeful for awhile that Unruh would come back and run for governor, as he had in 1970. But he patiently explained to me, "If I ran again for governor, I'd have to stop drinking, marry Chris, and be nice to the press, and I don't want to do any of those things." Later, Unruh did marry Chris, but he died at only 64, from prostate cancer. My 1987 obituary in the Times was possibly the best I ever wrote.

With Reagan, I was not close, but we were friendly, and I particularly had great respect for the political acumen of his wife, Nancy. She helped conjure up his use of the Panama Canal issue that enabled him to come back in the 1976 primaries, sweeping the South and nearly besting President Gerald Ford for the Republican nomination. I used to talk with Nancy Reagan about campaign strategy, which we most often agreed about. Reagan, when he was governor, would occasionally give me a ride on the state plane back to Los Angeles on weekends. I will always remember the great stories he told, the best about how he had gotten the part of George Gipp in the film, "Knute Rockne, All American." According to Reagan, the producer of this film at first didn't want to give him the part, because of his slight build. Reagan said he had gone out and rented a football uniform, showed up in the producer's office and this time got the part. It gave him his most useful political nickname, the Gipper. When he became President and was the victim of a foul assassination attempt, his brave response proved he had become like the galvanic Gipp. he had once portrayed.

With Pat Brown, I used to have many happy lunches, during which we would discuss state politics. On the night President Nixon fired Archibald Cox in 1973, I telephoned him at home, and he aptly predicted that Nixon had cut his own political throat, that the political pressure would get to him and that he wouldn't last long in the Presidency. Nixon resigned just 10 months later. I used Pat's prediction in a roundup story of California reaction to the Saturday night massacre.

I'll always remember, as a young reporter working for UPI in 1962 the respectful and emotional welcome reporters gave Brown on the tarmac at a Sacramento airport just after he defeated Richard Nixon in the governor's race. Reporters loved Brown. As Times state political columnist George Skelton has said, he was probably California's greatest governor. My best memory of him was when he went out on the Capitol steps to greet an evangelical minister who had led a cavalcade to Sacramento to demand that Brown order the students at UC Berkeley to halt plans to have Frank Wilkinson, a noted left winger, speak on the campus. The governor was blunt: "As long as I'm governor of this state," he said, "the students can invite anyone they want to speak on the Berkeley campus."

With Ken Cory, I started out very negative. I didn't like his campaign ad, that he was the man the oil companies feared the most, because I didn't believe it could be true. And later I thought Cory something of a charming rogue. But I respected his political judgment about how elections would go, and we often talked. He was one of my favorite insiders on what was going on in California politics. Cory also died of prostate cancer, and I went to see him at his home in the Sierra foothill town of Loomis shortly before he died. By that time, he and I were fast friends.

Similarly, I have always gotten along well with John Garamendi, regarding him as an honest man. It's too bad he comes from such a small town that he has never been able to develop the contacts, or the reputation with the public, he would need to become governor.

Sometimes, however, I did not become more friendly with politicians as time went on. I covered Eugene McCarthy in the 1968 presidential primary campaign, but concluded toward the end that he was a rather bitter personality, not always consistent. And, after giving Jimmy Carter such favorable coverage early on, I later on felt he was an awful President, unable to decide which side of the bed to get up on each morning. After his Presidency was over, he came to Los Angeles occasionally, but I never went to see him.

On April 25, 1980, I was standing at the desk in the Lausanne Palace Hotel when I heard on the BBC that Carter's rescue mission for the American hostages in Iran had failed. Juan Antonio Samaranch, the International Olympic Committee president, came by at that very moment and asked me what I thought it meant. "It means," I boomed out, "that Ronald Reagan will be President of the United States." This turned out to be right on the money. Not all my political predictions are.

One time, Lloyd Bentsen, the Texas senator, came out to California when he was running for President, and when he got back to Washington after the weekend, told the Times' Congressional correspondent, John Averill, that he had "run into the worst son of a bitch" as a reporter he had ever encountered. Averill immediately said, "It had to be either Reich or (Richard) Bergholz." Fortunately for me, Bentsen said it had been Bergholz.

I had a difficult relationship with the touchy Bergholz, though we became friends toward the end of his life. One time, I climbed on Reagan's plane in a Florida primary campaign, when Bergholz was covering Reagan, and I asked Reagan whether there was anything I could take back to California for him, since I was flying home that night. "Bergholz," Reagan said. He found Bergholz as difficult as I did.

Well, those are a few memories. I'm not sure Yaroslavsky will stay angry at me. Fundamentally, I respect him, and he is very good at calling elections. He told me weeks before the end of the Recall campaign that he was sure Arnold Schwarzenegger would be elected governor, retiring Gray Davis, and he was right.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I remember Dick Bergholz fondly from when he was covering GOP politics in the late 60's and 70's (YR's, State Central Committee, Brown vs. Flournoy and Leg races). No b.s., no misquotes or back-stabs; and he did have an acerbic sense of humor. RIP.
Plus, didn't take himself too seriously (unlike the author of this blog sometitmes did).

5/24/2006 4:19 PM  

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