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The Wordsmith

The phone would ring, and at the other end would be that distinctive voice: high-pitched, deliberate in delivery so I wouldn’t miss any words, and more often than not mightily pissed. “This is Lu Haas,” he’d begin. “Can you believe this crap?” — followed by an explanation of which crap, exactly, defied belief. The phone messages he left invariably began: “This is Lu Haas — H-a-a-s” — as if I knew any other Lu Haas, as if I knew anybody remotely like him.

Lucien Haas, who died last week in his Pacific Palisades home at 86, was the fiercely liberal press secretary and speechwriter for two generations of California’s leading Democrats — from Pat Brown, Alan Cranston and Tom Bradley to Jerry Brown, John Van de Kamp and Tom Hayden. That was the second of three careers that weren’t entirely distinct: He’d started out as a reporter for the L.A. Daily News in the Black Dahlia period of local journalism, and a leader of the local newspaper guild. By the time he was working for Hayden and Jerry Brown, he was also an activist in environmental battles, the nuclear freeze and kindred causes. In his later years, though he still had the air of a hard-bitten city-room reporter, he’d lead nature walks in the Santa Monica Mountains. Imagine a social-democratic John Muir at home in the world of The Front Page, with a pretty fair sense of how to steal the Republicans’ lunch in the San Fernando Valley and run even with them in Fresno, and you begin to get a picture — incomplete and minus numerous idiosyncrasies — of Lu. I remember him at the wedding reception for Tom Hayden and Barbara Williams, which Jody Evans hosted, with great panache but no alcohol, at her Pacific Palisades home. “There’s no liquor,” Lu said in greeting me, with a look and a tone of abject horror. It was a violation of the code of the city room, of all civilized norms.

He took nothing for granted in a political campaign. He once recalled for me his work on Alan Cranston’s first successful race for the U.S. Senate, in 1968. (Lu was to work for Cranston from 1967 through 1980.) Cranston’s chief issue throughout his yearlong campaign was his opposition to the war in Vietnam, and Lu distinctly remembered that on the statewide fly-around on the day before the election, Cranston was interviewed by a San Diego TV reporter, from a major station, who genuinely had no idea where Cranston stood on the war. Lu shook his head with the air of a pro who’d been through too many close — and disastrous — election days: “You can never assume they’ve paid attention,” he’d say. He never did, and because he combined his gut commitment to justice with deep political savvy and the highest levels of a political wordsmith’s craft, he left a much more humane California than the one he came to at the end of World War II, when he was a cub reporter and the state was just starting to boom.

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