bernick_highflyingLast week, Michael Dolgushkin and Shelby Kendrick of the California State Library and I were going through a collection of papers from the 1980s. Unexpectedly, we found issues of the journal, Golden State Report (GSR), for the two year period, 1987-1988.

GSR has been out of business for many years. But in the 1980s, led by respected political writer Ed Salzman, GSR chronicled state government and politics. For a few years I wrote a monthly column for Ed on (what else) employment in California.

To go through these back issues of GSR is to relive an earlier period in California government, and the “high flying, adored” of this time—politicians who achieved high offices in California, a number at early ages. The February 1987 issue has a feature on “The Next Wave of Political Leaders” , with cover photo of Clint Eastwood, then mayor of Carmel. The article singles out, among others, rising media start and former Brown Administration official Bill Press, San Diego’s young Mayor Maureen O’Connor and San Jose’s young Mayor Tom McEnery, and Assemblypersons Art Agnos, Delaine Eastin, and Charles Quackenbush.

The April 1987 issue profiles recently-elected Controller Gray Davis: “Controller Today, Governor Tomorrow?”. The July 1987 issue highlights “Here Come The Valley Boys” with a cover photo of Ken Maddy, the State Senate Republican leader, and featuring Congressman Tony Coelho of Merced, House Majority Whip, and rising Assemblymen Pat Johnston and Bill Jones.

A number of the profiled politicians did go on to higher office in California and lengthy careers. Dianne Feinstein was on the cover of the May 1987 issue, (“Post Burton San Francisco: Everyone Gets into the Act”). Though her future then was described as very uncertain, she won the U.S. Senate race in 1994–in a ferocious battle against both Huffingtons, Michael and Ariana–and has served as our Senator for 23 years. Gray Davis became Lieutenant Governor and then Governor, elected twice, and served steadily for 16 years. Pat Johnston had a lengthy career in the Assembly and State Senate, serving until being forced out by term limits in 2000. Delaine Eastin was elected State Superintendent of Education in 1994 and won re-election before being forced out by term limits in 2002.

But in an equal number of cases, the politicians mentioned as up and comers were out of office within a decade, or failed to advance. Some of those who did not last long in politics were done in by their own arrogance and sense of entitlement; none more so than Art Agnos.

Agnos was elected Mayor of San Francisco in 1987, and immediately talked about as a Governor or Senator or higher. But, as the ancient Greeks observed, “character is destiny”. After one term as the self-absorbed and divisive Mayor, Agnos was soundly voted out in 1991 in favor of a little-known police chief. The 1991 victory of Frank Jordan over Agnos still stands as one of the greatest political upsets in California history. Despite Agnos’ desperate attempts to keep himself in the newspapers, he has not been elected to any office since.

More often, the limited runs in California politics lie in the narrowing process of politics, the pyramid shape of political offices; the advent of term limits by the mid 1990s,; and the difficulty of recovering from an election loss, especially as one ages. Several of the politicians mentioned did try for higher office, but were not successful, and did not run again. Bill Press ran for Insurance Commissioner in 1990, but was defeated by John Garamendi (in a relatively close 36%-28% Democratic primary.

Charles Quackenbush was elected Insurance Commissioner in 1994, but resigned in 2000, over allegations of improper funds from insurance companies. Maureen O’Connor and Tom McEnery both declined to run for higher office after two terms; and despite constant encouragement Clint Eastwood never ran for an office beyond Carmel mayor.

But, if political office might have been cut short for a number, their lives after politics in most cases have been filled with achievements and contributions that, arguably, exceeded their accomplishments in politics. Tony Coelho resigned in 1989, a few years after the GSR article, in connection with a loan from a financial services firm. But his career after Congress was filled with achievements in disability rights measures, in business, and in service on Congressional panels relating to government intelligence operations.

Tom McEnery went on to a prominent role in building the San Jose Sharks, and in restoring historic buildings in San Jose. Pat Johnston has been active in health care policy, and Delaine Eastin active in education policy.

It may be as sung in Evita :

“High flying, adored
I hope you come to terms with boredom
So famous so easily, so soon
It’s not the wisest thing to be.”

But it also may be that in California, there can be a life after politics.

(Our F&H Broadway expert Doug Gordy suggests this version by Mandy Patinkin; is he right?).