I. As the World Moves Right
The first thing — the first political thing — you should know about the Weekly is that we popped onto the scene just six months after the passage of Proposition 13. That is, we were conceived as a Left paper — sometimes New Left, sometimes Old, sometimes greenish, sometimes red — and dedicated to pushing the dominant liberal order leftward. And lo and behold, the dominant liberal order had been kneecapped by a right-wing onslaught and was unceremoniously crumbling while we were still in journalistic utero.
On our 20th anniversary, we find ourselves chronicling a world that is well to the right of what anyone could have imagined back in 1978. ä The era of big government has been officially interred. Welfare is history. The safety net has been shredded. And California, since the enactment of Howard Jarvis’ handiwork, has been winning the race to the bottom — the quality of our schools, our public spaces and, at times, our public life sinking to levels we had naively believed might still be found in the backwaters of the South, but never in the Golden State.
A lot we knew.
To make matters more perverse, it is largely politicians and parties of the center-left who now preside over this brave new world, placed there by voters yearning for some brake on the marketization of health care, security, culture, everything. The easy moral clarity of our first decade — when bad things happened to good people because bad administrations (Reagan’s and Bush’s) made them happen — has given way to the exquisitely complex distinctions of our second decade — when bad things, and a smattering of good ones, happened to good people because administrations we reluctantly supported cut deals with the forces that seek to make bad things worse.
In short, it’s been a golden age of lesser-evil endorsements.
Our first dozen years, though, was a time of unconflicted indignation at Reaganism, its Robin-Hood-in-Reverse economics and its Big Stick adventurism. If nothing else, we saw it coming. “His [Reagan’s] advisers are considering serious military buildups to put down popular uprisings in places like El Salvador,” founding editor-publisher Jay Levin wrote in his 1980 presidential-endorsement editorial (which gave the advantage to Jimmy Carter over Reagan on issue after issue, then ended with an out-of-left-field recommendation of third-party candidate Barry Commoner). For the next decade, the Weekly turned administration policy in Central America into its signature issue. Here’s a hopeful Levin on Contragate, in the issue that appeared during the first week of congressional hearings into the Iran-contra scandal:
Oliver North could be implicated in multiple murder (of journalists, of all people) and be extradited to Costa Rica to stand trial. Approval of drug smuggling by the contras could be found to reach into the highest quarters of the Air Force, the Defense Department, the CIA and the White House . . . Any conspiracy indictments could reveal a significant Reagan role in the contra affair, and refer the matter to the House for the consideration of impeachment.
(Ah, for an impeachment that would have been about something! Looking at Whitewater in 1994, even before the Lewinsky affair arose, I noted that “in the 20 years since Watergate, we’ve progressed from a scandal that Americans are unable to explain to Europeans, to a scandal that Americans are unable to explain to themselves.”)
The Weekly’s powers of prophecy in matters Reagan went beyond Central America. Here’s Phil Tracy on “Why I Love Ronald Reagan,” in the January 23, 1981, issue — three days after Reagan’s first inaugural:
Unless everything I believe is 180 degrees off base, Reagan is going to really screw things up with a brilliant series of right-wing blunders. Kiss and make up with all our old Latin American dictators. Double the defense budget and completely ruin the economy.
In fact, the doubled defense budget was the one part of Reaganomics that brought about the California boom of the ’80s — and, when the Cold War ended, the California bust of the ’90s. Having thus created an immense deficit, the right then proposed to slash social spending to bring our finances into order. Which, at the expense of schools, infrastructure, public health and the like, it did.
Beyond question, the Weekly’s best-known political story during our first decade was “George Bush, Loverboy,” an account of ä then–presidential candidate George Bush’s extramarital affairs that ran in our October 14, 1988, issue — timed to coincide with the final Bush-Dukakis debate, which took place at UCLA. The story detailed (well, actually, it didn’t detail; it alluded to) two extramarital relationships that Bush was alleged to have conducted, one with his appointments secretary, another with an unidentified woman who was a friend of one of the story’s unnamed sources.
In fact, the story had about as much hard sourcing as the creationist account of the origins of the Earth. It quoted “two impeccable sources . . . people of stature in their respective fields.” One, “a long-standing resident of Washington,” recounted how a friend of his who worked in Bush’s office told him about Bush’s affair with his secretary (whom his friend characterized as “an incredible bitch” — imparting a happy air of verisimilitude, at least, to an otherwise skimpy account). The second source, who was identified as a figure in the film industry, said that his friend had also had an affair with Bush. (That’s not a synopsis of the source’s account; that’s the totality of it.)
Fast-forward four years to the next presidential campaign, and a candidate we found far more compelling than Bush. If there’s been a better pol than Bill Clinton in the ’92 campaign, I haven’t seen him. Here he is in a Westside Chicago church on the Sunday before the Illinois primary, locking down the Democratic nomination, adjusting his stump speech to the cadence of the black congregation, and the three-piece band that plays throughout his talk, touching on themes of sin and redemption (it was just after the Gennifer Flowers dustup) that were to dog his entire presidency, and touching the congregation — and the constituency it represented — more deeply than any political leader of his generation:
“The church is not a place for saints, but for sinners,” he begins, “but all of us are called to do the Lord’s work.” Amens echo again — and the organ and drums, too; apparently, they will accompany Clinton throughout. Clinton then adapts his stock speech to the sensibility and rhythm of the church. He omits his statistics on rising income inequality and conveys their sense in short rhythmical sentences: “It is honestly true, more people are working harder for less.” He cites experiments in tenant-managed projects, model schools, community-development banks. After each, he says, “If it can be so, why can’t it be so everywhere else?” The drums roll, the guitar and organ riff for a second, the amens rise. “We are tired of being divided by race! [Music and amens.] We are tired of being divided by gender! [Music and amens.] We are tired of being divided by income! [Music and amens.]” And then, raising his voice, he closes with scriptural passages about faith and redemption; he shouts it over the music and the congregation’s own shouts, and he leaves the crowd in ecstasy.
In the 1992 Democratic presidential primary, the Weekly offered its readers three, count ’em, three endorsements — one for Clinton, one for Jerry Brown, one for nobody (an early example of Third Way thinking). By November, we offered only one, for Clinton (as we had for Dukakis four years earlier and Mondale four years before that). And then, over the next four years, as universal health coverage was picked apart by the business lobbies, and as a welfare-to-work bill became a welfare-termination-with-or-without-work law, we reassessed. The following passage appeared on the occasion of Clinton’s second inaugural:
Is Clinton simply a victim of a more conservative time, a Roosevelt manqué born 60 years too late? Not quite. It is impossible to imagine Clinton telling the nation, as Roosevelt did, that he welcomes hatred of any kind, let alone the hatred of the most prominent elements in American society . . . A pit bull when he campaigns against rival politicos, Clinton turns into a pussycat when major economic powers threaten his program.
Who, asked Yeats, can tell the dancer from the dance? And whatever we’ve thought about this pol or that over the past 20 years, the world has been moving — and pushing pols rightward — to a relentlessly capitalist beat.
II. The City Is Changed Utterly
But while the world has been growing meaner, Los Angeles has grown more fascinating, complex, potentially progressive — and quite unrecognizable by the standards of 1978. A largely white and middle-income city has become a largely nonwhite city with a thriving professional class, not much in the way of a middle-income population, and a vast number of working poor. And looking back, if we say so ourselves, it’s been the Weekly, more than any other outlet in town, that has chronicled and analyzed these changes, and laid out a series of progressive solutions to the problems that have come in their wake.
In the ’80s, we took out after the downtown developer lobby (and its City Hall friends) that was overdeveloping much of the city even as South-Central couldn’t entice a supermarket chain to open up a single ä franchise there. We supported a campaign to legalize the sidewalk vending that had sprung up in the new immigrant communities. Rubén Martínez covered the Rev. Luis Olivares and his battles to grant sanctuary to undocumented immigrants pursued by the INS. Olivares himself co-authored a piece for the Weekly in which he defended the immigrants who “have come to Los Angeles — to live furtively, fearfully, often miserably, in the shadows of the glistening towers of downtown.” And often in very crowded conditions: At the rate of residential density that the government said existed around MacArthur Park, we calculated in another piece, 164 people could live in Aaron Spelling’s new Holmby Hills mansion.
A year before the Rodney King beating, Joe Domanick documented the ongoing brutality of the LAPD. As a cowed City Council refused to remove Daryl Gates in the wake of the King beating, we noted the members’ transformation “from moral midgets into moral dwarfs.” We chronicled the death of aerospace and the rebirth of the sweatshop, and no one who read our local coverage week in, week out could claim to have been surprised by the riots of 1992.
In 1989, the Weekly sponsored the “Remaking L.A.” conference at UCLA, which drew 1,000 activists from the city’s neighborhood and social-justice movements. In a special issue of the paper preceding the conference, we expressed concern that “remarkably little attention has been given to one of the foremost questions of L.A. life: What is the scenario for upward mobility among the huge population of immigrant and native poor?” Over the past two years, we’ve charted the successes of L.A.’s new labor movement (with its new and largely Latino leadership) in winning landmark contracts and a living-wage ordinance that only now are providing an answer to our question of 1989. This fall, we co-sponsored another conference — this time called “Progressive L.A.” and held at Occidental College — that looked at the prospects for building a citywide “growth-with-equity” coalition, linking development permits to guarantees of good wages for the people who’d work at those developments.
Through it all, we’ve examined the ongoing spectacles of local politics. Here’s Ron Curran writing in 1984 on a legendary City Council scoundrel: “Art Snyder is the Stanley Kowalski of the City Council. In a sphere increasingly populated by Gucci-smooth, mediagenic political ballerinas, Snyder is the classic street fighter . . .”
At times, we’ve been frankly prescriptive. In our “Remaking L.A.” issue, Mike Davis and Michael Sorkin submitted “50 Modest Proposals for Remaking L.A.,” among which were:
• Stop construction of Metro Rail and devote the funds to light rail and improvements to the bus service [which, if implemented in 1989, would have made billions of dollars available to upgrade the part of our transit system that people actually use].
• Dispatch the Crips to Universal City to annex it to increase the city’s tax base.
• Municipalize ownership of the Dodgers [who, alas, were not only not municipalized, but Murdoch-ized].
III. Endorsements R Us
Since our founding, the Weekly has been the only citywide paper that Angelenos could count upon to provide endorsements in federal, state and local races. (The Times tends not to endorse in party primaries and many district races, and in a pinch has been known to support Pete Wilson for governor.) A look back at past Weekly endorsements dispels the belief clung to in some circles that the Weekly has drifted rightward across the decades. In fact, there have been far more third-party endorsements in the ’90s than in the ’80s. What holds constant across the years is the paper’s sense that merely endorsing many of the Democrats it has felt compelled to support is not enough. (1984: “Elect Mondale in November. Protest in December.” 1992: “We plan to be a thorn in President Bill Clinton’s side over the next four years. That’s why we’re endorsing him.”)
Some endorsements actually display the cold fury we’ve felt at the necessity of supporting some particularly egregious candidate. Here’s a passage from our 1994 endorsement of Senator Dianne Feinstein, who in her first term in the Senate had gone back on her commitment to support universal health coverage and otherwise covered herself in obloquy:
And yet, and yet . . . Feinstein is merely a profile in cowardice. Michael Huffington is the reductio ad absurdum of the debasement of American democracy . . . Feinstein isn’t really running against a candidate, finally, at least not as the term is commonly understood. She’s running against a bank account and an ad agency, behind which, somewhere in the distance, lurks a rather lost soul who clings to those conservative homilies he can commit to memory as he is swept along by the ambitions of his wife.
And here’s an appreciation of our current mayor, from our 1997 endorsement of his challenger, Tom Hayden:
While President Clinton and New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani spoke out against 187, Riordan, who presides over the city where 187 stands to have the most disruptive impact, said not a syllable against it . . . In a sense, his deficiencies as a democratic leader match L.A.’s deficiencies as a democratic culture. Only a city in which participatory politics has virtually vanished could have Riordan as its mayor.
But it’s Pete Wilson who wins the Erich von Stroheim award as the Man We’ve Loved To Hate. Here’s the opening of our 1994 gubernatorial endorsement of Kathleen Brown, in which we speculated that the Nixonian genius for wedge issues had been inherited by the incumbent governor, who was then steering Proposition 187 to enactment: “Did Richard Nixon’s soul, if we may speak in oxymorons, enter Pete Wilson’s body when the governor eulogized the former president at his memorial service last spring?”
Still, a look back at past endorsements also points up how L.A. has changed for the better. In 1992, we wrote the following endorsement of a commendable candidate in a hopeless state Senate race: “Democrat Rachel Dewey, a physicist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, is an articulate feminist social democrat running against GOP veteran Newton Russell in Glendale and Pasadena. God bless her.”
By 1996, however, the once solidly Republican Glendale-Burbank-Pasadena triangle had been so transformed by new immigrants, newly mobilized by the political programs of the new-model labor movement, that the Democrats captured that district and the two Assembly districts within it. What was God’s work a mere four years earlier had been transformed into a temporal insurgency (but not a temporary one — the Democrats held those seats in this month’s election).
And how, you may wonder, does the Weekly arrive at its endorsement decisions? We don’t interview candidates in every race we endorse in, but we do when it’s necessary. I figure that during the ’90s, we’ve interviewed roughly 250 candidates — and there have been moments when the deliberative mien of our editorial board, stretched thin in the best of times, has come close to snapping altogether. There was the candidate who told us the political figure she most admired was former California Secretary of State March Fong Eu — or, as she called her, “March Foo Young.” There was the candidate who’d been charged some years before with firing a gun into an apartment where he believed his then-wife was holed up with another man. He reassured us, however, that “the bitch wasn’t even there.” Manning the frontiers of democracy so you can cast an informed ballot, the Weekly marches on!