By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
Unz is driven -- ”very focused“ is the phrase he uses as though it were a mantra. He‘s passed through a plethora of identities already: physics whiz, ancient-history scholar, high-tech entrepreneur, and only then conservative reformer. He’s given up his life as a businessman and a fortune of several million dollars to work at politics full time, animated by the somewhat naive belief that sheer braininess (his IQ was once tested at 214, he says) can solve intractable social problems.
He‘s profoundly conservative on taxes, crime and welfare, but also out of step with conservatives in manifold ways: He’s pro-immigrant but anti-multicultural; anti-voucher in pro-voucher times; anti-abortion but nondogmatic, framing his position as a ”personal view“; a free trader who is sanguine about China; an unreligious person among followers who root their politics in religious fervor; a right-wing activist driven only marginally by concern about gays and guns.
I asked two Republican Party strategists who have worked with Unz whether he has an identifiable base of political support -- either in the party or outside of it. ”It‘s ethereal. It’s mystical. It really doesn‘t exist,“ one said. ”No, none at all,“ another replied, pausing. ”But, then, that probably doesn’t matter.“ Few statewide politicians in media-saturated California seem to believe in old-fashioned candidate-to-constituency base building anymore.
At 38, Unz is just getting started. After he finishes off bilingual education nationally and cleans up campaign funding in California, he‘s got a raft of other ideas for additional initiatives he’s been pondering -- on tort reform, health care and taxes. He‘s shopping proposals around to see who will ”invest“ in his solutions and help him bankroll campaigns.
Unz’s success is a generational bellwether of fresh forms of activism amid shifting political identities. But if he is an avatar of political change in a virtual world, his own past and political awakening also pose a riddle about the nature of the ”diagonals“ he‘s come to represent.
When he arrives uncharacteristically late to Jim’s Coffee House one sunny afternoon, Unz is fidgety, suggesting this table, then that one over there out of the sun. He sits, holding himself stiffly as if determined to do his duty. ”These are not things that I really discuss very comfortably,“ he admits. ”I know when you‘re involved in public issues, your private life inevitably comes up.“
He has agreed today to discuss his past. This is the gist of what others have told me makes him so uneasy: When Ron Unz’s mother, a politically active left-wing schoolteacher from Los Angeles, was in her mid-20s, she met an older professor from the Midwest on a flight to Israel. He seemed odd, eccentric even, but clearly brilliant, too, and Esther-Laio Avrutin decided, after he‘d visited her several times when she’d returned to L.A., that she would a have a child with him. When Esther-Laio wrote to her lover to let him know about her pregnancy, the letter was opened by the professor‘s wife -- the existence of this wife came as startling news to Esther-Laio -- and that ended any possibility that, her sister says, they would be married. Esther-Laio’s decision as a single woman to bear Ron by a married man she‘d picked out largely for his brainpower rocked her own family. (Unz turned down repeated requests to interview his mother because of her health, and efforts to reach her directly were unsuccessful.)
After Ron was born in the fall of 1961, Esther-Laio moved back in with her parents and stopped working. During Ron’s infancy, his mother suffered a series of illnesses -- colds and other viruses. Ron was a troubled baby, allergic, as it turned out, to his mother‘s milk. Esther-Laio grew depressed and had trouble sleeping. She worked only occasionally, and after her father fell ill too, she applied for welfare. Throughout Ron’s childhood, the family stayed afloat thanks to the safety net then provided by the welfare state.
Although it‘s all a little fuzzy -- ”It was a long time ago,“ Unz says -- he remembers his great shame about being different, especially about not having a father living at home. His mother, he recalls, was quite candid, open about the decisions she’d made and the reasons she‘d made them.
Esther-Laio’s parents, working-class Jewish immigrants from Russia, were scandalized, though. ”There was massive turmoil“ at the time of Ron‘s birth, says Esther-Laio’s only sibling, Rivko Knox. ”My sister is very bright, very creatively bright, and she thinks of new ways to do things. Ours was a very Orthodox household, and she would get into big arguments with my parents. She would turn on the lights or the radio on the Sabbath, defy their rules. My sister detests rules.“
Both decisions -- to have a child outside marriage and to go on welfare -- were abominations to her parents, Ron and his aunt both remember. ”They thought that she had behaved very foolishly and improperly,“ Unz recalls. ”There was an awful lot of skirmishing.“ Some of the insults had to do with politics. Esther-Laio was pro--free speech, pro--civil rights and anti--Vietnam War. His grandfather ”came from a very politically liberal New Deal type of background -- I imagine he never voted for a Republican in his life -- but he and my mother clashed over political issues a lot during the 1960s, because he was very pro--Hubert Humphrey, pro--Lyndon Johnson, pro--Vietnam War, and she was on the other side.“
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