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Copyright © 2003 Express Publishing Inc.
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For the week of August 20 - 26, 2003

Opinion Columns

Alan Cranston and
the pendulum

Commentary by DICK DORWORTH

In my opinion Cranston was a fine politician because he was a fine man and an independent thinker.

During the drought years of the mid-1970s I taught skiing in Squaw Valley, Calif. One of the consequences of the drought was that there was no snow on the bottom of the mountain. At the end of the day of skiing, everyone rode the 120-passenger tram back down the mountain. It was always packed. On one of those rides I wound up eyeball to eyeball with a pleasant, balding, distinguished looking gentleman who I had never seen before but whose self-assurance was both evident and appealing. We began chatting and he said his name was Alan. I noticed we were being monitored by several people around us, something I attributed to the incongruity of our respective appearances--a distinguished looking gentleman and a ski instructor with shoulder length hair and a beard to mid-chest. I later surmised that I was the only person in the car who didnít know who he was. When we reached the bottom we were enjoying our conversation and did not want to end it. He asked what I was doing. I was going to the sauna, a favorite practice after a cold day on the mountain. He asked if it would be alright to join me and of course it was.

We had sweated and talked of many things for quite some time before I got around to asking what he did for a living. "Iím a United States senator," he replied with the gleeful smile of one who enjoys a good sandbag. He was Alan Cranston, the California senator, and to say I was surprised is an understatement, but we had a good laugh at my expense. Cranston turned out to be one of those rare political animals more interested in people than in having people interested in him. He was curious about me and how I managed a non-mainstream lifestyle light years different than his. At the time I was a single father raising a five-year-old son, earning our living by teaching and coaching skiing, guiding climbing, giving slide shows and, when desperate, the occasional construction stint. He said he wanted to know how and where I lived and he invited himself to dinner at my house, to which I happily agreed. He showed up the next night with a friend (Ginger Harmon, who now lives in Ketchum) and his son, Kim. He came in, took off his shoes, stretched out on the floor in front of the Franklin stove and made himself at home. We ate and drank and talked until late that night and began a friendship that greatly enriched my life and gave me some perspective on the world of power and high end politics, and, therefore, more tools with which to live my own American life.

Cranston had been an outstanding track and field athlete at Stanford University from which he graduated with a degree in journalism. (At the age of 55 he set a world record for his age in the 100 yard dash, and he kept himself fit and healthy until his death at the age of 86 on the last day of 2000.) He worked as a journalist in Ethiopia and Italy in the years before World War II. Because he believed Americans did not properly understand what Adolph Hitler was really about, Cranston translated and, with William Hearstís help, published Hitlerís "Mein Kampf" into English, an act for which he was successfully sued by Hitler for copyright infringement. He also incurred the wrath of Mussolini for his journalism, which in itself is a good indication that his work was both accurate and good; but he soon decided to abandon journalism for politics because, as he put it, "I wanted to be in the middle of the action and not just writing about it."

It takes a certain sort of person to relish the middle of the action in the political world, and Alan was that kind of man. Born to the trade, one might say. In my opinion Cranston was a fine politician because he was a fine man and an independent thinker. I donít say this because I agreed with his worldview and his politics, which I did (and do). I think Barry Goldwater, for instance, was a fine politician, as are James Jeffords and Ben Nighthorse Campbell, whose politics and worldviews I do not embrace. Politics in a democracy is a rough, unsanitary and, according to Alan Cranston, self-regulating business. I often think of a couple of things he told me about the political world, and, despite the Charles Keating scandal which tarnished the end of his political career, I think he had it mostly right.

He once said that a good politician "always aims here," pointing to the level of his head, "knowing in advance heíll only get here," pointing to his waist," or, maybe, with luck, here," pointing to mid-chest height, "but if he doesnít try for here," pointing again to his head, "heíll wind up with here," pointing to his ankles."

Cranston viewed politics as the art of compromise in pursuit of the middle path that most benefits the most people, not, as all too many politicians seem to do, as to the victors belong the spoils of unimaginable power at the expense of the many.

He once told me that political power in America is a pendulum. That is, it is a mistake, folly really, for political power to get too far to the right or too far to the left because, he said, it always eventually swings back just as far in the opposite direction and that such extreme oscillation is unstable and dangerous to both the citizenry and its government. He had that right.

For obvious reasons, Cranstonís pendulum analogy is worth considering in todayís far (one might reasonably even say far a field) right political policies that are governing America. Itís worth considering what caused it to swing so far to the right in the first place, for itís about to start its inevitable move to the left any election now.



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