In the life of the political leader, there sometimes comes a defining moment, an episode in which he creates himself indelibly and for all time. For Los Angeles Mayor Sam Yorty, that moment came on the morning after the mayoral primary in April, 1969. On primary night, two-term incumbent Yorty had performed abysmally, pulling down just 26 percent of the vote, lucky even to make it into the June run-off against Councilman Tom Bradley, who had won an impressive 42 percent. Confronted with the prospect that his political career was over, Yorty decided he would rather poison his own city than let its voters retire him.
And so he embarked upon the most vile and demagogic campaign in the history of modern L.A. He red-baited Bradley; he black-baited Bradley. Los Angeles, he said, had become “an experimental area for taking over of a city by a combination of bloc voting, black power, left-wing radicals and, if you please, identified Communists.” Tom Bradley, he said, had sinister ties to Angela Davis, the Black Panthers and Dorothy Healey, the local Communist leader. And if voters didn't believe Yorty, they could turn to the community throw-away papers that ran stories his campaign produced under the banner headline, “Reign of Terror Seen if Bradley Wins.” And if they wanted the evidence of their own eyes, there were those convertibles parading through all-white neighborhoods in the Valley, adorned with Black Power signs and Bradley-for-Mayor stickers, the back seats filled with young black men (in the pay of the Yorty campaign) clenching their fists to scare the bejesus out of white L.A.
And scare the bejesus they did. It was all preposterous, of course: Career cop Bradley had no contact or affinities with the Panthers or with Angela; the Communist Party's period of modest local influence had come and gone 20 years hence; Bradley's long record of integrationist activity made him anathema to black-power advocates; and the New Left radicals of 1969 viewed an old-line liberal like Bradley as just another establishment pol. It was preposterous, but it worked. In the June run-off, turnout soared to a record 76 percent, as Yorty pulled the vote of every frightened white in town. When the votes were in, he'd held on to his job by a 53-47 margin.
In the Yorty bid for re-election, the George Wallace campaign sanitized of its overt racism came to the city. After Yorty's success, it was safe for Philadelphia's Frank Rizzo and Boston's Louise Day Hicks to roil their cities by campaigning against blacks. Yorty also brought McCarthyism into the age of the New Left: Just as McCarthy had found spurious links between Adlai Stevenson and Alger Hiss, Yorty had demonstrated an enterprising pol could find similar links between a Tom Bradley and a Huey Newton. After Yorty, it was safe for Spiro Agnew to link liberal Democrats to the Weather Underground or whomever else would sound scary to Middle America.
Yorty's '69 campaign came as no surprise to anyone who'd followed his career. As early as 1964, he was issuing blanket denunciations of civil rights workers. The Watts Riots, he proclaimed, had nothing to do with social conditions and everything to do with Communist agitation and Great Society programs (up and running for about a month when Watts erupted). As mayor, he reinforced every racist and reactionary tendency in Bill Parker's LAPD.
The decorous thing to do at this juncture would be to describe Yorty as a historic artifact – the last leader of all those Midwestern provincials who flocked to L.A. in the first half of the century and lost control of it somewhere during the second half -and let it go at that. Sam Yorty, however, was not merely a product of history but a maker of history as well, and no one in the past half-century made the history of this city as bitter, contentious and divisive as he.