Indentured Public Servant

By Meyerson, Harold | The American Prospect, February 12, 2001 | Go to article overview

Indentured Public Servant


Meyerson, Harold, The American Prospect


Alan Cranston was always an organizer--one of the best of the post-World War II generation. Soon after the war ended, he founded and built the United World Federalists, an expression of postwar one-worldism that valiantly battled the Cold War zeitgeist. After he left the U.S. Senate eight years ago, he founded and built the Global Security Institute, a group dedicated to the abolition of nuclear weapons, in which cause he enlisted such notables as Jimmy Carter and, improbably enough, onetime cold warrior Paul Nitze. When Cranston died on the final day of last year, he'd been planning an initiative campaign for nuclear abolition.

He never lacked for a worthy project, and no one knew better how to organize both people and money on behalf of a cause. It was his greatest strength. It was his downfall. And his career stands as a cautionary tale of noble ends and rotten means and all that's gone wrong with the business of politics in America.

In a sense, Cranston's greatest decade was the 1950s, before he held elective office, when he organized the California Democratic Council (CDC), the statewide movement that filled the gap created by the death of the old big-city machines with neighborhood clubs of issue-driven, middle-class liberals. The amateur Democrats (as James Q. Wilson termed them) of the CDC were early supporters of civil rights and the very first organized Democrats to oppose the war in Vietnam.

The CDC's big year was 1958. Mobilizing tens of thousands of volunteers, the council swept Pat Brown into California's state-house, gave the Democrats control of the legislature, and elected Cranston state controller. For a moment, the California Democrats seemed poised to become a vibrant liberal-labor alliance--a mass-based, ideologically coherent entity. What political scientists would call a party.

But the moment passed. The neighborhood clubs proved to be merely the first of many postwar political movements--including the Goldwaterite California Republican Assembly and Tom Hayden's Campaign for Economic Democracy--to rise and fall with the changes of political season. Patronage had ensured that the old machines would persist in good times and bad; ideological passion offered no such guarantees. But elections still had to be held and voters mobilized. The solution that Cranston and his fellow California pols developed was to substitute money for people. Soon they perfected what political activist Marshall Ganz termed capital-intensive campaigns--money in, message out, a politics without volunteers or precinct walkers.

Cranston became the foremost fundraiser of them all. Most of the politicians I have known (and, in my prejournalist days, worked for) hated fundraising. Cranston liked it, finding in it not a Scrooge-like glee but the satisfaction an organizer takes in the performance of his task. When I worked on his 1984 presidential campaign, I saw him making one fundraising phone call after another, altering the text slightly each time, delivering his pitch, moving on with dispatch, never betraying even the slightest sense that there might be a better way to spend an afternoon.

In 1968 he was elected to the Senate as an antiwar candidate; and there, for the next 24 years, he fought a number of battles for nuclear de-escalation, environmental and civil-libertarian causes, workers' rights, and social welfare. At the same time, he was the most reliable business vote within the party, the go-to guy for corporate California. Cranston's career was inextricably linked with the boom industries of postwar California--home building, savings and loans, aerospace, high-tech--and he was always finding a way to funnel a contract or cut a tax break to these very special constituents. And to raise money from them in return.

Austere, gawky, and charismatically challenged, Cranston was never under any illusions that he could win re-election save by outspending and out-organizing his opposition. …

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