The Unhappy Warrior 

Gray Davis: The rise of America’s most calculating politician

Wednesday, Oct 23 2002
Photo by Slobodan Dimitrov

IT'S LABOR DAY, 1998, AND GRAY DAVIS IS AT Qualcomm Stadium, home of the San Diego Padres, to throw out the first pitch of the game. It seemed like a tailor-made campaign stop. After all, he was the captain and shortstop on his high school baseball team, and had been flying high on the campaign trail, drawing roaring crowds of enthusiastic supporters. But he is nervous, worried about what might go wrong. For the third time, he leans over to me, a journalist, and says, "Please be sure to remind me to have the announcer introduce me as 'lieutenant governor of California and Bronze Star winner.'" He figures if the crowd hears he won a Bronze Star, which he did in the Vietnam War, he's less likely to be booed.

We make our way onto the field, and the future governor warms up with the Padres, a team owned by his friend John Moores, who's donated $100,000 to the Davis campaign.

Finally, wearing a blue Padres cap and windbreaker, Davis stalks to the mound. He's introduced just as he wishes, his military-veteran status and home-team garb inoculating him against any boos. Come the wind-up, Davis fires a perfect strike across home plate, to loud cheers. He smiles for the first time in 10 minutes.

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Four years later, Davis once again ends up at Qualcomm Stadium after a long day of campaigning, at a union-organized tailgate party. This time the crowds around the state have been smaller and less passionate. Will he again throw the first pitch? "I'm going to rest on my laurels and not press my luck." He didn't want to chance it, knowing that this time he might have been booed, Bronze Star and all.

Davis has many reasons to be cautious. He has never really been the popular choice. He wasn't the choice of the cognoscenti for governor in 1998; he wasn't even the first choice to be then-Governor Jerry Brown's chief of staff in 1975, the job that made his entire career possible. To make it to the top, Davis has had to work hard. He rarely took bold steps, preferring small, measured ones instead.

This is the way of Gray. A man so disciplined that he set out on a course to the governorship a quarter-century ago and, year in, year out, did all he could to achieve it.

In 1985, when Gary Hart was the Democratic front-runner for president, Davis had a 45-minute private meeting with the then-senator, peppering him with questions about the then-campaign and the 1972 primary victories of George McGovern, whose campaign Hart had managed. Afterward, Hart said, with a kind of awe, "I have just met with the most calculating politician in America."

Disciplined, cautious and remote, always remote, so much so that his top adviser has not been to his home in Los Angeles since 1998. I had been acquainted with him for nearly 20 years when, one day while I was speaking to one of his advisers on a speaker phone, he popped into the aide's office and said hello, then mentioned that his brother was there too, visiting from Japan. Brother? Japan? Later, when asked what Davis' brother is up to now, gubernatorial press secretary Steve Maviglio said: "I didn't know he had a brother."

Gray Davis is, to all but a few, an enigma. An important ally says: "You can spend two hours having dinner with him and walk away wondering who he is and what he believes."

The aloof Davis acts like someone who wants to be loved, but who is afraid to try because he doesn't think he can be. So, in classically American materialist fashion, he substitutes what to him is the next best thing: money. Not money for himself, for he owns very little other than a condo in West Hollywood and Israel savings bonds. No, it's money for his political committee, a chimera of identity which some think is more important to him than his own personality. Given the central role that money has played -- both in winning the office and in holding on to it this year -- it is perhaps not surprising that he confided in 1998 that if he lost the election, he would become a merchant banker, eschewing the more customary law-firm route for out-of-office politicians with law degrees.

In fact, the most interesting thing he does is raise money, and lots of it, sometimes in questionable ways. His widely noted money-raising mania has made him California's all-time champion, with his re-election campaign closing in on an astonishing $70 million. His obsession with money raises serious questions about the integrity of his "pay-to-play" administration, where few are heard in Gray Davis' Capitol without anteing up.

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