Foreign Aide

by Franklin Foer | February 18, 2002

Gray Davis is facing a tough year. His reelection, once deemed near certain given California's overwhelming Democratic tilt, has been thrown into question by an energy crisis and a moderate, well-known, well-funded Republican challenger. And considering the boon that a GOP victory in the Golden State would represent for the national party, expect the White House and the Republican National Committee to mount an all-out effort-- la the demonization of Tom Daschle--to savage Davis's reputation. But what's more surprising is that Democrats haven't really rallied around their man in his moment of need. For many liberals, Davis embodies the corporate centrism that has hijacked the party since the Clinton era. "[A] minimalist governor in a state, and at a time, of maximalist needs and opportunities," decreed American Prospect Executive Editor Harold Meyerson. "I fear that there's no telling how far right he'd go," says liberal State Senator John Vasconcellos. The critics are correct that Davis represents a troubling trend, but that trend isn't ideological. Davis's scripted, timid, money-driven brand of politics isn't a function of strongly held beliefs--when circumstances warrant, he just as easily shifts left. It's a function of his background. Davis represents the apotheosis of a new political breed that crosses ideological lines: the staffer-turned-politician. Once upon a time, the idea that working on a politician's staff constituted a useful apprenticeship for elective office would have been difficult to imagine. As recently as the 1950s, even top aides were little more than glorified executive assistants. "Early on, there was no such thing as staffers. Congressmen had clerks," says American University political scientist Susan Hammond. "And, in fact, their jobs were largely clerical." The real business of electioneering was left largely to party and machine operatives. When candidates needed money, they didn't spend hours schmoozing with lobbyists at cocktail parties; they asked party leaders like Sam Rayburn and Tom Pendergast to open their coffers. And when they ran for reelection, they didn't take six months off to campaign; they relied on their patrons to do the hard work for them. The system may have been undemocratic and corrupt, but it served both sides well. The big-city bosses and state party chairmen got control over patronage and other parochial concerns. The legislators had time to spend on broader issues and fewer concerns about the immediate electoral implications of the votes they cast. Thanks to campaign reforms and fractious intramural spats over ideology, the parties and machines began to weaken and collapse in the 1960s and 1970s. At the same time, the expanding welfare state meant politicians needed greater expertise in a broader range of policy areas. For any individual pol, therefore, the demands of both governing and campaigning dramatically increased. Legislators responded by hiring more staff--in 1961 the average congressional office housed six aides; today it houses 18. The staffers both picked up the political slack left by the machines' demise--enforcing message discipline, crafting images, raising money--and tracked an increasingly complex and diverse set of policy debates. The result was that, to a greater and greater extent, the business of governance and the business of campaigning were conducted from the same offices, often by the same people. And since staffers ran this new system, it's little wonder that they soon began seeking office themselves. In 1960, 15 members of Congress had staff jobs on their resumes. Today 131 do, including both Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (former legislative assistant for Senator James Abourezk) and Minority Leader Trent Lott (former administrative assistant for Representative William Colmer). Former staffers have helped usher in the scripted, processdriven, poll- obsessed political style that today defines American politics. And no one personifies this style better than Jerry Brown's old chief of staff, Gray Davis. The political apprenticeship of Gray Davis began in 1973. Returning from Vietnam, where he had repaired radar, he set out on the partner path at a five- name Los Angeles law firm. But he couldn't shake the memory of watching poor and black soldiers fight and die in disproportionate numbers half a world away. "That struck me as totally unfair," he told one reporter. Guided by this burst of conscience, he steered away from his parents' country-club Republicanism, quitting his comfortable job to volunteer his services to Tom Bradley's insurgent campaign against law-and-order Los Angeles Mayor Sam Yorty. But if his choice of the black, liberal Bradley bespoke Davis's idealism, his particular duties on the campaign suggested a nascent streak of political realism. Under the tutelage of the financier Max Palevsky, Davis became the campaign's finance director, mining Palevsky's substantial Rolodex for donations. Following Bradley's 1973 victory, Davis mounted his own campaign for state treasurer--a remarkably ambitious goal for a 31-year-old with a slight resum. Davis was trounced in the primary, but the campaign brought him into contact with his party's gubernatorial candidate, Jerry Brown, and he quickly returned to the familiar role of campaign aide. Arriving just after Brown's primary victory, Davis didn't initially crack the inner circle--a realm reserved for far-out thinkers like the French filmmaker Jacques Barzhagi and Small Is Beautiful author E.F. Schumacher. But Brown understood that, given his well-earned reputation for flakiness, he needed an anal-retentive counterweight. And so, upon his election, Governor Moonbeam tapped Davis to be his chief of staff. Though Davis was certainly more fastidious and less bohemian than his beret- wearing colleagues in the governor's office, he wasn't any less committed to social change. He proposed a progressive pay structure for his staff, "to provide some economic assistance to the lower-paid employees in the office who don't get the recognition that some of the others of us do." To drive the point home, he took a 7 percent pay cut himself. Davis also exhibited a candor that might surprise people more familiar with his current political demeanor. In a mid-'70s conversation with the journalist Orville Schell that he now surely regrets, Davis mused on the record about going to see the skin flick Deep Throat after a disastrous press conference. "In those days, Gray was human," says the writer Joel Kotkin, who used to drink whiskey with him at a Sacramento watering hole called The Broiler. But spontaneity and idealism were not part of Davis's job description under Brown; micromanagement and cynicism were. "His job was to make the trains run on time," says "Crossfire" co-host Bill Press, a former Brown policy adviser. "Jerry knew he needed someone like Gray to handle the neglected details." Davis set the governor's schedule, placated miffed legislators ("Gray has to eat shit every day," a staffer told Jerry Brown's biographer Robert Pack), and vetted memos and press releases for gaffes-- all the while trying to prevent Brown's cadre of pseudo-intellectual visionaries from distracting the governor. "He was the wet rag of the staff," remembers one Brown aide. "It was clearly frustrating for him that he couldn't assert more control on an operation that was always flying off the handle." Nor was he universally popular with his colleagues on the governor's staff, many of whom mocked him as a tight-ass behind his back. But while brown and his bull-session buddies daydreamed about colonies on the moon and genetically engineered tomatoes, Davis dealt with the administration's political survival. When business lobbies threatened to finance a Republican challenger in 1978, Davis called to reassure them that Brown wasn't a socialist. He encouraged Brown to block a proposed tax rebate that would have disproportionately benefited low-income workers, arguing that the state couldn't afford it. More than most of his contemporaries, Davis understood the political zeitgeist. Describing the growing importance of television in Joel Kotkin and Paul Grabowicz's 1982 book California, Inc., Davis enthused, "[P]eople really care about who is Suzanne Somers's favorite governor.... Who will Charlie's Angels endorse for President? That question might well be a serious one." Indeed, it was Davis who skillfully packaged Brown as the populist outsider the post-Watergate era demanded. Taking Davis's advice, Brown ditched his limousine for a blue Plymouth. And it was Davis who broadcast the fact that Brown slept on a mattress in a small apartment rather than living it up in the governor's mansion. "He was very sophisticated about modern campaigning. He understood how to handle TV and image," remembers Bill Boyarsky, a veteran Los Angeles Times correspondent who covered the Brown era. Even as Davis was managing Brown's image and reputation, he was using his post to cultivate his own. Although he had a press secretary next door, Davis took calls from the Los Angeles Times himself. According to the Times, he'd call reporters back as many as four or five times, constantly editing and reediting his quotes, even down to the placement of punctuation. And when stories didn't quote him by name, he'd raise hell: "Since when is my name spelled A-I-D-E?" he once fumed. It worked. "Gray became a ubiquitous figure. He was always in front of the cameras," says University of Southern California political scientist Sherry Bebitch Jeffe. "The joke was that Gray was the governor." Almost as soon as the Brown era closed in 1982, Davis set about making that joke a reality. First he did a four-year stint in the state assembly, where he won national acclaim for conceiving the idea of placing photos of missing children on milk cartons. (Davis managed to milk this for all its self- promotional worth: Missing-children billboards across the state also prominently featured his own name.) In 1986 he ascended to the office of state controller and, in 1994, to lieutenant governor. Along the way, he built the most extensive fund-raising network the state had ever seen. And, in 1998, he finally achieved his goal. "It's taken me twenty-three years to traverse the fifteen feet from the chief of staff's desk to the governor's desk," he joked. But his mind-set hasn't made the move at all. Unhindered by a flaky boss or resentful colleagues, he's governed the state like the ultimate political staffer, with control over the smallest details. Davis personally approves nearly every press release to leave his office. Internal memos, he insists, must never waste expensive official letterhead. If anonymous leaks from ex-staffers appear in the press, Davis hunts down the perpetrators himself. ("He smells them out," says Democratic consultant William Bradley.) And Davis has tried to interview personally hundreds of administration appointees, including mid-level ones. This penchant for micromanagement may be one reason that, three years into his administration, Davis had 87 judicial posts left to fill. Whereas Brown favored near-endless internal debate, Davis stifles the slightest dissent. "Nobody has their own agenda. There's only one agenda. It's Gray Davis' agenda," Davis told his Cabinet in the early days of his administration. When his environmental chief, Mary Nichols, discussed withdrawing a court brief filed by former Governor Pete Wilson in an obscure lawsuit over water rights, Davis dressed her down as the Cabinet filed out of a meeting. He later told reporters, "Their job is to think like I think." Nor is this view limited to members of Davis's own administration. He once blustered that the legislature's "job is to implement my vision." On another occasion he suggested that his judicial appointees should resign if their rulings contradicted his policies. "My appointees should reflect my views. They're not there to be independent agents." But if there's an activity in which Davis most betrays his staffer background, it's fund-raising. For most politicians, raising money is an unpleasant necessity; for Davis, it's an obsession. According to adviser Garry South, in campaign mode Davis has spent as many as twelve hours per day in pursuit of donors. When he visited ground zero last October, he tacked fund- raisers onto the trip. At the end of the 2000 legislative session, when hundreds of bills waited on his desk to be signed, a TV cameraman caught the governor sneaking through the bushes to avoid cameras staked out in front of a Sacramento fund-raiser's home. During one two-week period in December, Davis took in an average of $159,000 per day in contributions. (By contrast, New York Governor George Pataki, who also faces a tough reelection, last year averaged $26,000 per day.) Davis's $39.5 million war chest earned $900,000 in interest during the first six months of 2001--almost enough to finance an entire congressional campaign. And while Bill Clinton's presidency may have popularized the "permanent campaign," Gray Davis's governorship has perfected it. No adviser wields greater influence over Davis's policies than South, his chief political strategist. "As far as I can tell, he's really Gray's only adviser," one Democratic consultant says of South. The result is policy gimmickry that would make Dick Morris blush. Because Wilson profited from a backlash against crime, Davis has staked out an ultra-hard line on the issue, at one point declaring Singapore, where first-time drug offenses routinely merit hangings, "a good starting point in terms of law and order." The state appeals court has reprimanded Davis for exceeding his authority by intervening to prevent the parole of 40 prisoners. When the state legislature, influenced by mounting evidence on the inefficacy of "three strikes and you're out" laws, voted to study the impact of California's version, Davis opposed it. And when legislators of both parties unanimously agreed to eliminate mandatory expulsions for elementary school students carrying weapons or toy guns to school, Davis vetoed the bill. In 1998, after polls showed education to be the issue foremost in the mind of the electorate, Davis made it his "first, second, and third priority" and convened a special session of the legislature to pass his education agenda. There was only one problem: He barely had any education agenda. Even teachers opposed his "crown jewel" initiative exempting them from state income taxes. (Teachers feared that Davis's proposal would foster popular resentment toward them, which in fact it did.) Ultimately, Davis scaled back his proposal to a $1, 500 tax credit. When the measure passed, Davis aides lined the path from the governor's office to the press conference with children plucked out of tours of the state capitol. "Great stage managing," says Kotkin, "but without any ambition." A year or so ago, California was booming, and Davis and his hypercautious, hypercalculated political style seemed unstoppable. Al Gore considered him for the second spot on the Democratic ticket. Newspaper articles frequently mentioned him as a "potential presidential contender." But then something funny happened: Crisis hit. First, Silicon Valley tanked. Then came the state's energy crisis. Unsurprisingly, Davis has reacted more aggressively to the politics of the blackouts than to the blackouts themselves--importing Gore's chief flacks, Chris Lehane and Mark Fabiani, to help spin the problem his way. Davis even outwitted Karl Rove, admonishing George W. Bush to his face at a joint press conference last June. Before Enron became a household name, Davis was blaming the crisis on Texas "energy cowboys," "snakes," and "gougers." But, his shrewd p.r. strategy notwithstanding, Davis--afraid of demanding painful sacrifices from either the electorate or the electric companies--took months to propose a remedy. And his solution failed miserably. Locking the state into a lengthy, overpriced contract with Pacific Gas and Electric, Southern California Edison, and other power producers, he did nothing to address the underlying problem of long-term shortages. What's more, his deal could send the state deeper into debt. Then, in early November, Davis tried to get out in front of the terrorism issue. An FBI memo warning of "uncorroborated information" about attacks on unspecified bridges quickly morphed into a grandstanding gubernatorial announcement about "credible" evidence of impending strikes on four named targets. In his State of the State address, Davis boasted shamelessly that "[n]o state has done more than California to protect its citizens and vital assets since the terrorist attacks." Last November Los Angeles Times writer Mark Z. Barabak blasted Davis's response to September 11 as "driven more by politics than by principle." By January 2002 Davis's approval rating was at 39 percent, down from 60 percent one year before. And, as of last week, he trails his likely Republican opponent, former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, by seven points. The irony is rich. Riordan is, in many ways, the anti-staffer. He spent most of his life outside politics, winning his first election, as mayor of Los Angeles, at age 63. A sort of cross between John McCain and Paul O'Neill, Riordan is prone to statements like "Gosh, I don't have a clue how to answer that." And he often seems to make up his highly unorthodox political positions--support for gay civil union, for instance--as he goes along. But Riordan's somewhat bumbling style proved popular in Los Angeles because it underscored his authenticity and his independence. And it sets Davis's bloodless maneuvering in stark relief. Post-9/11, earnestness is in. At the very moment Davis and his fellow staffer- politicians have reached the peak of their power, the electorate, it seems, finally craves more.

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