I Knew a Man Named Larry Thomas

Dan Schnur
Professor at USC’s Annenberg School of Communications and UC-Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies

I knew a man, who over the course of a remarkable career and an even more remarkable life, patiently and persistently taught me the type of lessons that the young and brash can only learn from those with large amounts of experience and character. I knew a man who was not only smart but wise, who was not only kind but gentle, and who was not only generous but selfless. Larry Thomas was all those things, and thoughtful and considerate and clever and shrewd and smooth and unflappable and humble and proud and funny and fascinating. I lost my friend Larry Thomas this week, and if you never knew him, then your loss was far greater than mine.

On the chance that there are any millennials reading this, I promise you that there was once a time in politics when being opponents did not mean being enemies, when you could debate someone without disparaging them. There was a time when most of the best men and women on both sides of the aisle knew that someone who disagreed with them wasn’t evil or stupid or criminal, but rather just another public-spirited individual who happened to have a different idea about how to take on our communities challenges. They were good people with both R’s and D’s after their names, and it should be to the everlasting embarrassment of my generation that we did not uphold those principles as well as did Larry and his allies – and his foes – through their time in the public square.

There are legions of us who learned from him, and who took those lessons with us through careers in politics and government, in the private sector and in academia, and in every other corner of professional, political and community life in California and beyond. We called ourselves “Larry’s Kids”, and we all became better at our jobs and better in our lives because of what he taught us.

When I was young and dumb and way over my head, Larry came to my rescue. I had risen in the political ranks at a perilous rate, and like many young people who ascend too quickly, I contracted a dire case of vertigo. One of my symptoms was to confuse the ability to make sharp-edged statements with the ability to make change: another was to confuse the acquisition of a headline or a soundbyte with the achievement of substantive progress. Larry taught me that quips and wisecracks are means to accomplish a policy or political end rather than the end goal in themselves.

More importantly, Larry taught me that one could be both a good politico and a good person – without having to choose one at the expense of the other. It took me many years to take his tutorials to heart (in retrospect, he may have been a little too patient with this particular student), but I got there eventually. Some of the proudest moments of my career came in later years when as a result of that maturation, Larry would begin to treat me not as an apprentice but as a colleague.

The rest of “Larry’s Kids” may have had different and less daunting challenges than mine, but each one of us had a growth curve of our own to master, and each of us was fortunate enough to have Larry in our corner, quietly and forcefully and relentlessly guiding us in the right direction. Most of us now have kids of our own, either at home or in the workplace or in the classroom, and it is our responsibility to help that next generation understand that politics does not have to be as venal or tribal as we have made it. Larry showed us that you fight to win, but that you play by the rules, and that after the contest is over, both the winners and losers have a stake in the work that still lies ahead.

It’s been said that we stand on the shoulders of giants. But I tell my students that the only thing better than standing on the shoulders of a giant is the first time that someone climbs up to stand on your shoulders. Now it’s time for Larry’s Kids, older and grayer and a little less certain of our own brilliance, to stand up and to help teach his lessons to California’s next generation of leaders. We will miss Larry Thomas terribly, but now we have work to do — in his name and in his honor.

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