Alan Cranston was always an organizer, one of the best of the post–World War II generation. Soon after the war ended, he founded and built the United World Federalists, an expression of postwar one-worldism that valiantly battled the Cold War Zeitgeist. During the past eight years since he left the U.S. Senate, he founded and built the Global Security Institute, a group dedicated to the abolition of nuclear weapons, in which cause he enlisted such notables as Jimmy Carter and, improbably enough, onetime cold warrior Paul Nitze. When he died, on the final day of last year, he was planning an initiative campaign for nuclear abolition.
Cranston never lacked for a worthy project, and no one knew better how to organize people and organize money on behalf of the cause. It was his greatest strength; it was his downfall. And his career stands as a cautionary tale of noble ends and rotten means and all that‘s gone wrong with the business of politics in America.
In a sense, Cranston’s greatest decade was the ‘50s, before he held elective office, when he organized the California Democratic Council, the statewide movement that filled the gap created by the death of the old big-city machines with neighborhood clubs of issue-driven, middle-class liberals. The amateur Democrats (as James Q. Wilson termed them) of CDC were early supporters of civil rights and the very first organized Democrats to oppose the war in Vietnam.
1958 was the CDC’s great year. Mobilizing tens of thousands of volunteers, they swept Pat Brown into the statehouse, gave the Democrats control of the Legislature and elected Cranston state controller. For a moment, the California Democrats seemed poised to become a vibrant liberal-labor alliance, a mass-based, ideologically coherent entity — what political scientists could call a party.
But the moment passed. The clubs proved to be merely the first of many postwar political movements — including the Goldwaterite California Republican Assembly and Tom Hayden‘s Campaign for Economic Democracy — to rise and fall with the changes of political season. Patronage had ensured that the old machines would persist in good times and bad; ideological passion offered no such guarantees. But elections still had to be held and voters mobilized, and the solution that Cranston and his fellow California pols developed was to substitute money for people. Soon they had perfected what political activist Marshall Ganz termed capital-intensive campaigns — money in, message out, a politics without volunteers or precinct walkers.
Cranston became the foremost fund-raiser of them all. Most of the politicians I have known — and, in my pre-journalist days, worked for — hated fund-raising. Cranston liked it, finding in it not a Scrooge-like glee but the satisfaction an organizer takes in the performance of his task. When I worked on his 1984 presidential campaign, I saw him making one fund-raising phone call after another, altering the text slightly with each successive call, making his pitch, moving on with dispatch, never betraying even the slightest sense that there might be a better way to spend an afternoon.
In 1968, he was elected to the Senate as an anti-war candidate, and there, for the next 24 years, he fought any number of battles for nuclear de-escalation, environmental and civil-libertarian causes, workers rights and social welfare. At the same time, he was the most reliable business vote within the party, the go-to guy for corporate California. Cranston’s career was inextricably linked with the boom industries of postwar California — home building, savings and loans, aerospace, high-tech — and he was always finding a way to funnel a contract or cut a tax break to these very special constituents. And to raise money from them in return.
Austere, gawky and charismatically challenged, Cranston was never under any illusion that he could win re-election save by outspending and out-organizing his opposition. In the 1986 election, he held on to his Senate seat by a bare 1 percent of the vote, chiefly by virtue of a last-minute get-out-the-vote campaign organized by Marshall Ganz in the barrios and ghettos around the state. Ganz‘s effort roused Cranston as nothing had since the CDC. Knowing that the continuing decline in working-class voting would doom the Democrats to perpetual minority status, Cranston hired Ganz to establish an ongoing registration and organizer-training operation for future elections.
Vowing to put people back into the political equation, Cranston looked around for a major moneybags to fund the project. He found him, alas, in the person of Charles Keating, owner of Arizona’s Lincoln Savings, a longtime foe of abortion and pornography. When a liberal Democrat takes a check from the likes of Charles Keating — and Cranston took nearly $1 million worth of checks — there is always a price to be paid. In this instance, the bill came due in 1987, when Cranston, along with four other senators, asked the Federal Home Loan Bank Board to ease up on Keating so he could continue his desperate financing schemes (which included selling over $200 million in worthless bonds to unsuspecting seniors). Cranston didn‘t know about the flagrant criminality of Keating’s enterprise, but he surely knew this was very bad money that he was putting to a very good cause. Alan Cranston‘s solicitation of funds from Charles Keating was one of the more purely Faustian moments in modern American politics.
Cranston always played the most hardball politics around. Four years before he was elected to the Senate, he entered and lost the 1964 senatorial primary to Pierre Salinger, John Kennedy’s former press secretary, who then lost in the general election to GOP song-and-dance man George Murphy. The presumed Democratic front-runner had been state Attorney General Stanley Mosk, but Mosk had mysteriously dropped out of the race that spring. Thirty years later, in a 1994 cover story in the Weekly, Charles Rappleye and David Robb reported that Mosk‘s sudden exit was the direct consequence of an extramarital affair he’d been having with a young woman deeply involved in the world of organized crime. A political operative for Governor Pat Brown (a Cranston ally) had endeavored to document this relationship, and William Parker‘s LAPD had reportedly come into possession of compromising photos of Mosk and the young woman. Two sources — one of them a prominent Democratic newspaper publisher — told the Weekly that Cranston had shown them those photos in the spring of ’64 in an effort to get Mosk to drop from the race. Cranston said their memory was playing tricks on them. (Brown then appointed Mosk to the California Supreme Court, where he serves to this day, at age 89, as one of the most distinguished liberal jurists in the nation.)
In the case of Charles Keating, however, the allegations against Cranston came sooner and with a good deal more fanfare. Reprimanded by his colleagues in 1991 for ”an impermissible pattern of conduct,“ Cranston did not seek re-election two years later.
In the eight years since he left office, Cranston‘s understanding of the dynamics of California politics has been totally borne out. The Democrats have established themselves the state’s majority party over the past half-decade, in large part due to the establishment of the very kind of ongoing field operation he and Ganz had tried to put in place a decade earlier. (Today‘s operation is the handiwork of the state’s new-model, Latino-led labor movement.) The importance of money, of course, has been magnified as well. The vast sums that Cranston raised from the state‘s leading industries have been dwarfed by the amounts that Dianne Feinstein, Gray Davis and Barbara Boxer have amassed to stay in office. Lincoln Savings has given way to the Lincoln Bedroom. The price of doing good has continued to rise.
In a way, it was a blessing that Cranston was able to devote his last years to organizing quietly, efficiently, to rebuild the movement against nuclear weapons. His years in power, when he crusaded, successfully, to stop the Vietnam War and to preserve the California desert, came at a steep price to his reputation and his honor. His years before and after power, when he crusaded in vain for world government and disarmament, have no such taint. More than any other single figure I can think of, he came to personify the Democratic Party at its most principled — and its most indentured.