Former Sen. Cranston of California dies at 86

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Alan Cranston, the California Democrat and fierce crusader for nuclear arms control whose 24-year career in the U.S. Senate ended in 1993 under the cloud of the Keating savings and loan scandal, died Sunday at his home in Los Altos Hills, Calif. He was 86.

He was found slumped over a sink at the family compound in the Bay Area community by his son, Kim. The cause of death was not immediately known.

Although the former senator had been feeling ill the last few days, "he had been in good health. [His death] was a surprise," Kim Cranston said. Cranston was one of California's most enduring senators, an unapologetic but pragmatic liberal who was elected four times and rose to a commanding position in Senate leadership.

"Anyone who knew Alan will remember him with respect and affection," Gov. Gray Davis said.

During Cranston's more than two decades in Washington, he focused heavily on civil rights and the environment. But the centerpiece of his agenda was nuclear arms control, a goal that in retirement led him to team up with former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev as chairman of a San Francisco-based think tank called the Gorbachev Foundation USA, dedicated to nuclear disarmament.

"He was really the last great liberal senator from California," said state Democratic Party Chairman Art Torres. "He was a tireless worker for peace and disarmament and, quite frankly, there's never been a more consistent voice in that arena."

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) praised Cranston's lifelong dedication to nonproliferation and world peace, calling his work on those fronts "inspirational to me."

Cranston decided not to seek a fifth Senate term in 1992, citing his diagnosis with prostate cancer. The former senator, known for a lean physique from years as an Olympic-class sprinter and avid jogger, later reported a full recovery.

But the one-time presidential aspirant had been badly sullied by the scandal enveloping Charles H. Keating Jr., the Lincoln Savings & Loan operator accused of looting the Irvine-based institution and cheating elderly investors. Keating had contributed about $1 million to Cranston, some of it for the senator's election campaign and the rest for favorite political causes.

Cranston intervened with other senators on Keating's behalf, but to little avail. The financier was jailed for securities fraud as a result of an investigation by bank regulators in the late 1980s. Cranston alone among the "Keating Five" senators was reprimanded by a Senate ethics committee for "an impermissible pattern of conduct" with Keating.

Polls showed that if Cranston ran again in 1992, he would lose.

"I don't think he would have left office if it weren't for [the Keating scandal]," Boxer said. "I think he was the victim of a campaign system that was broken and messy."

In the years after he left the Senate, Cranston professed satisfaction with his record, telling The Times in 1996 that he did not "feel any need for redemption."

"I'm satisfied with what I did in the Senate," he said. "I don't look back; I look forward."

First as state controller in the 1950s and '60s and later as senator, Cranston proved himself to be one of California's most accomplished vote-getters of recent times. He took great pride in being the only Democrat in the state's history to win four terms in the Senate.

Although he had an engaging smile, Cranston freely admitted that he was deficient in the charisma category. But he seemed undaunted by this or other handicaps and in 1984 undertook an ill-advised presidential bid. The Democratic nomination went to Walter Mondale.

What Cranston did have going for him was a zest for campaigning, a talent for organization and raising money and a crusading passion for control of nuclear arms.

He was a compulsive worker, and 18-hour days on the campaign trail didn't seem to faze him. One reason was that he was in superb physical condition. A track star during his student days at Stanford University, Cranston ran, jogged and performed calisthenics every morning and adhered religiously to a healthy diet.

Until it became his tragic flaw, Cranston's skill as a campaign fund-raiser -- for himself and other Democrats -- was seen as a major asset. Most politicians find it onerous and demeaning to ask for money. But Cranston relished it.

He knew nearly every generous giver in the state -- of both parties. By managing to maintain cordial relations with banking and business interests, Cranston had significant Republican financial help in his various Senate races.

Gratitude from fellow Democrats aided by his fund-raising was probably reflected in Cranston's being elected seven times as party whip, the No. 2 office in the Senate Democratic hierarchy. But perhaps a bigger factor was his reputation as a workhorse skilled in lining up votes for bills he favored.

Before the Democrats lost control of the Senate in 1981, then-Majority Leader Robert C. Byrd (D-W. Va.) said of Cranston: "He's the best nose-counter in the Senate. He is absolutely superb when it comes to knowing how the votes will fall in place on a given issue."

It was the loss of control of the Senate, forcing Cranston to accept the lesser role of minority whip, and the simultaneous advent of the Reagan administration that caused him to begin thinking of the presidency.

Cranston was a liberal, but a pragmatic one, perfectly willing to compromise. Indeed, some liberals complained that Cranston, ever eager to be perceived as a centrist, sometimes was too quick to compromise.

But on matters of world peace and arms control, Cranston was very much of an idealist. He was one of the founders after World War II of the United World Federalists, an organization that advocated world government, and he later served as its president. (One of the early members was Reagan, then a motion picture actor and a Democrat).

Alan MacGregor Cranston was born June 19, 1914, in Palo Alto, the second of two children of William MacGregor Cranston and the former Carol Dixon, both of Scottish descent.

Cranston's father, a Republican, was a wealthy real estate businessman, and Alan and an older sister grew up in comfortable circumstances in Palo Alto and later Los Altos.

After graduating from Mountain View High School, where he was a track star, Cranston spent a year at Pomona College before transferring to Stanford, where he became a member of the nation's fastest mile relay team. He later specialized in sprints and ran the 100-yard dash in 9.9 seconds. (In 1969, he set the world record, since broken, for 55-year-olds in the 100-yard dash with a time of 12.6 seconds.)

After graduating from Stanford in 1936, Cranston worked as a foreign correspondent in England, Germany, Italy and Ethiopia for the old International News Service, since merged with United Press to form United Press International.

While a newsman, Cranston was sued unsuccessfully by Adolf Hitler for trying to alert Americans to the dangers of the Third Reich by publishing an unsanitized version of "Mein Kampf" in the United States, according to Kim Cranston.

Cranston made much of his news background, but his journalistic career lasted only two years. He returned home in 1938.

He entered public service as chief of the foreign language division of the Office of War Information in 1942. He quit that job in 1944 to enlist in the Army as a private, serving stateside in an infantry unit and being discharged as a sergeant.

In the immediate postwar years, while working as president of his father's Palo Alto real estate firm, Cranston became active in Democratic politics.

Inspired by Adlai E. Stevenson's earnest but unsuccessful presidential bid against Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952, Cranston helped found the California Democratic Council in 1953 and was elected its first president.

The confederation of about 500 local Democratic clubs across the state was designed to break the long GOP stranglehold on California politics. Success came slowly, but it finally arrived in 1958, thanks in large measure to a colossal Republican blunder. That was the year William F. Knowland, then California's senior Republican senator and Senate minority leader, decided to run for governor in the belief it would later enhance his chances for the presidency.

Knowland's power play cowed incumbent GOP Gov. Goodwin J. Knight into abandoning his reelection bid and running instead for Knowland's Senate seat.

An incensed electorate rebelled, and practically the entire slate of CDC-endorsed Democratic candidates won, including state Atty. Gen. Pat Brown as governor, Rep. Clair Engle as senator and Cranston as state controller.

Cranston had wanted to run for senator that year but was talked out of it on the grounds that he was less well-known than Engle. As it was, Cranston barely won the controller's job. But four years later, in a testament to his hard work, Cranston led the entire Democratic ticket, including Brown, in winning reelection.

In 1964, when it was learned that Engle was dying of a brain tumor, Cranston filed for his Senate seat. But he was narrowly defeated in the primary by a last-minute entry, Pierre Salinger, a former San Francisco newspaperman who had become President John F. Kennedy's press secretary and stayed on in the same job under President Lyndon B. Johnson.

Salinger was defeated in the general election by Republican George Murphy, a former Hollywood song and dance man.

Murphy's election signaled the growing strength of California's conservative Republican movement. It crested in 1966, when Reagan, the former Hollywood actor running for governor, led the Republican ticket to a landslide triumph over Brown, Cranston and other statewide Democratic incumbents seeking their third terms.

But Cranston bounced back two years later in 1968. Sen. Thomas H. Kuchel, then Senate minority whip and the only surviving Republican moderate in a statewide office, was defeated for renomination by Max Rafferty, a far-right Republican who was state superintendent of public instruction.

Cranston, who had been predicting that very outcome for two years, had filed for the Democratic Senate nomination and won easily. But the conservative tide was still strong, and Rafferty was a tough foe. The tide turned when it was disclosed that Rafferty, who had campaigned as a super patriot, reportedly dodged the World War II draft by obtaining a 4F classification for flat feet and then had thrown his cane away on V-J Day when the war ended.

Even then, Cranston won with just 52 percent of the vote. But after 10 years of frustrating waiting, he finally was a U.S. senator.

In light of Cranston's political handicaps, people frequently wondered how he had done so well at the polls in California. Part of the answer was luck. Beginning with Rafferty, Cranston was fortunate in having Republican opponents who were too militantly conservative for most California voters.

When Cranston sought a second six-year term in 1974, he was opposed by state Sen. H.L. Richardson, a former John Birch Society field worker. Cranston won that time with 61 percent of the vote.

In 1980, when Cranston won his third term, his foe was Paul Gann, who had won fame in 1978 as the co-author with Howard Jarvis of Proposition 13, which cut property taxes.

Gann, two years older than Cranston and considered inarticulate, was swamped despite Reagan's presidential landslide. Although Cranston's winning margin slipped to 57 percent, he outpolled Reagan in California by nearly 200,000 votes.

Even while Cranston was enjoying his political triumphs, he sustained a series of personal tragedies. In 1969, his first wife, Geneva, the mother of his two sons, suffered a stroke and in 1974 she moved to Palm Springs for recuperation in year-round sunshine. She had disliked Washington and politics, and in 1977 the marriage ended in divorce. In 1978, Cranston married Norma Weintraub, who had long been active in California politics. Although she was afflicted with Parkinson's disease, a disorder of the central nervous system, she delighted in campaigning with her husband. They were divorced in 1989.

In 1980, the eldest of Cranston's sons, Robin, was killed in a Los Angeles traffic accident. Cranston left the Senate defiantly, declaring on the chamber's floor that he accepted his reprimand "with deep remorse in my heart," then denying almost every accusation leveled by the ethics panel.

To the end of his life, Cranston pursued his twin passions of arms control and environmentalism. He also kept a hand in California politics, running the Committee for a Democratic Consensus, which raised funds for candidates.

In addition to his son, he is survived by a sister, Eleanor Cameron, of Los Altos Hills, and a granddaughter.

Times staff writers Mark Z. Barabak, Jill Leovy, Teresa Watanabe and Elaine Woo and researcher John Tyrrell contributed to this story.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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