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 statehouse, 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. In the 1986 election, he held on to his Senate seat by a bare 1 percent of the vote, chiefly by virtue of a last-minute get-out-the-vote campaign organized by Marshall Ganz in the barrios and ghettos of the state. Ganz's effort roused Cranston as nothing had since the CDC. Knowing that the continuing decline in working-class voting would doom the Democrats to perpetual minority status, Cranston hired Ganz to establish an ongoing registration and organizer-training operation for future elections.
Vowing to put people back into the political equation, Cranston looked around for major moneybags to fund the project. And this he found, alas, in the person of Charles Keating, owner of Arizona's Lincoln Savings and Loan, and a longtime foe of abortion and pornography. When a liberal Democrat takes a check from the likes of Charles Keating--and Cranston took $850,000 worth of checks--there is always a price to be paid. In this instance, the bill came due in 1987, when Cranston, along with four other senators, asked the Federal Home Loan Bank Board to ease up on Keating so that he could continue his desperate financing schemes (which included selling more than $200 million in worthless bonds to unsuspecting seniors). Although he didn't know about the flagrant criminality of Keating's enterprise, Cranston surely knew this was very bad money that he was putting to a very good cause. Cranston's solicitation of funds from Keating was one of the more Faustian moments in modern American politics.
Cranston's politics could never even remotely be mistaken for beanbag. Four years before he was elected to the Senate, Cranston entered and lost the 1964 senatorial primary to Pierre Salinger, John F. Kennedy's former press secretary, who then lost in the general election to GOP song-and-dance man George Murphy. The presumed Democratic front-runner had been California Attorney General Stanley Mosk, but Mosk had mysteriously dropped out of the race that spring. Thirty years later, in a 1994 cover story in the L.A. Weekly, Charles Rappleye and David Robb reported that Mosk's sudden exit was the direct consequence of an extramarital affair he'd been having with a young woman deeply involved in the world of organized crime. A political operative for Governor Pat Brown (a Cranston ally) had endeavored to document this relationship, and Chief William Parker's Los Angeles Police Department had reportedly come into possession of compromising photos of Mosk and the young woman. Two sources--one of them a prominent Democratic newspaper publisher--told the Weekly that Cranston had shown them those photos in the spring of 1964 in an effort to get Mosk to drop from the race. Cranston said their memory was playing tricks on them. (Brown then appointed Mosk to the California Supreme Court, where he serves to this day, at age 89, as one of the most distinguished liberal jurists in the nation.)
In the case of Charles Keating, however, the allegations against Cranston came sooner and with a good deal more fanfare. Reprimanded by his colleagues in 1991 for "an impermissible pattern of conduct," Cranston did not seek re-election two years later.
In the eight years since he left office, Cranston's understanding of the dynamics of California politics has been totally borne out. The Democrats have established themselves as the state's majority party over the past half-decade--in large part owing to the establishment of the very kind of ongoing field operation Cranston and Ganz tried to put in place a decade earlier. (Today's operation is the handiwork of the state's new-model, Latino-led labor movement.) The importance of money, of course, has been magnified as well. The vast sums that Cranston raised from the state's leading industries have been dwarfed by the amounts that California Governor Gray Davis and Senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer have amassed to stay in office. Lincoln Savings has given way to the Lincoln Bedroom. The price of doing good has continued to rise.
As has the price of doing nothing at all. Cranston's fundraising zeal has been passed down to a whole new generation of Democrats--New Jersey Senator Robert Torricelli and Davis chief among them--who have none of Cranston's genuine concern for principle. (Davis has actually cited Cranston's fundraising--not his work for arms control or the Sierra Nevada, his fundraising--as an inspiration.) The party's new national chairman, Terry McAuliffe, is a money man, pure and simple. The money has become the end as well as the means. Cranston, for all his flaws, never confused that.
In a way, it was a blessing that Cranston could devote his last years to organizing quietly, efficiently, in order to rebuild the movement against nuclear weapons. His years in power--when he crusaded, successfully, to stop the Vietnam War and to preserve the California desert--came at a steep price to his reputation and his honor. His years before and after power, when he crusaded in vain for world government and disarmament, have no such taint. More than any single figure I can think of, he came to personify the Democratic Party at its most principled--and its most indentured. ¤
A version of this article appeared in the L.A. Weekly.