I’m not the first one to say that the State Capitol is a funny place. We make jokes about politicians. They make fun of each other and, behind closed doors, about us. As the old saying goes, there is nothing wrong with a political joke as long as he doesn’t get elected.
Few remember what specific policy issue Governor Ronald Reagan and Assemblyman John Burton were fighting about three decades back when the verbal sparks started to fly. But the old-timers at Brannon’s Bar, the lobbyists’ watering hole just across the street from the Capitol, remember that when Governor Reagan called Assemblyman Burton a “nut,” Burton quickly responded by calling a press conference in Capitol Park to feed the squirrels. Now, that’s a creative retort.
Governor Reagan wasn’t alone in comparing legislators to one of California’s most lucrative agricultural products. “Foreigners” – normal people who live in other states – say that Californians live in the “Land of Fruits and Nuts.” It’s hard to argue about our hard-earned appellation. Dr. Jack W. Clapper, a psychiatrist and one of the lesser-known candidates for the 1970 Democratic nomination for Governor, told reporters that in his professional opinion “there’s a fair share of nuts in politics.” Dr. Clapper went further by actually estimating that the exact number of legislators who “could profit from psychiatric treatment” at one in sixteen. Some of the lobbyists at Brannon’s Bar thought that Dr. Clapper was being a little too conservative.
It’s easy to make fun of that all too common trait of politicians – long-windedness. Many an accomplished politician forgets that the definition of a “good speech” is one in which there is “a beginning and a conclusion placed not too far apart.” A few years ago, during Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa’s lengthy speech on the opening day of session, a former legislator-turned-lobbyist complained about the length of the proceeding in the Assembly as compared to that which earlier concluded that morning in the State Senate. “The Senate,” he said under his breath, “is already half-drunk by now.”
There are some politicians who are willing to do just about anything to get the media’s attention. Elizabeth Keathley, a Peace & Freedom candidate for Governor in the laid-back 1970s attracted the attention of reporters by campaigning a la natural on a nude beach. She explained to reporters, “let’s put it this way. I held a news conference in April and nobody came.”
When politicians take a wild risk and reach out to voters, the unexpected can happen. Congressman Jerome R. Wadie (D-Contra Costa), a while campaigning for Governor in 1974, asked an older man he was sitting next to at a San Diego park why he wouldn’t shake his hand. “I’m 105 years old. I’ve never touched a politician or been touched by one in my whole life – and I think I owe my longevity to that,” said the man. Perhaps politicians should leave it to the phone company “to reach out and touch someone.”
There are some politicians who try to avoid certain types of voters. “Big Daddy” Jesse Unruh, the longtime Speaker of the Assembly during the 1960s, told a colleague that “the biggest difference between the zealots on the left and those on the right is that the ones on the right smell better.”
Assembly Speaker Unruh, who created the full-time Legislature in 1966 and wanted to boost legislators’ pay, was a little sensitive about taking all the political heat for his colleagues when he proposed that the $6,000 cap on salaries be lifted. One day, as he was enjoying a cup of coffee and reading the newspaper in the Capitol’s cafeteria, a staff member gave him a hard time for not giving the taxpayers their money’s worth. Unruh shot back, “On $6,000 a year, you’re lucky I can read.”
When legislators have a few free moments they sometimes can’t help making fun of each other. Last year, when Assemblyman Lou Correa (D-Anaheim), a card-carrying member of the legislative “Bald Caucus,” introduced a resolution to declare April 22-28 “California Professional Beauty and Barbering Industry Week,” he knew a verbal onslaught was coming. Assemblywoman Rebecca Cohn (D-Saratoga) asked Correa “are you introducing this because you are having a bad hair day?” Assemblyman John Longville (D-Rialto) pushed the envelop of propriety by questioning whether Correa was even qualified to introduce such a resolution. Longville told Correa on the Assembly floor: “Listening to you on this bill is like taking advice from John Wayne Bobbitt on Viagra.” The resolution squeaked by on a 77-0 vote.
Nearly 30 years after Governor Reagan called him a “nut,” John Burton, now head of the State Senate, still enjoys making fun of his GOP opponents. On December 5, 1998, as the Senators returned to Sacramento to begin a new session, Burton, upon noticing that two of the Republican leaders were sporting brand new beards, deadpanned that he was “glad to see the Party of Lincoln was going back to its roots.”
Despite the need for serious and far-reaching policy reforms, I say keep the political humor coming. As my wife’s father Steve Skubik, an old and wise political hand like to say, one hallmark of a free society is the ability of a people and their leaders to make fun of themselves.
October 26, 2001