When he was in college, Pete Wilson was nicknamed “the pear.” One of his roommates composed a cartoon strip called “The Adventures of the Pear,” poking mild fun at the serious, plumpish young man whom people have often tended to underestimate.
“He never struck me as the political type,” said John Almquist, the roommate-cartoonist.
Coming to the end of his first term in the U.S. Senate, Wilson, who is 55, does not have his name on a piece of celebrated legislation. He did not play a starring role in a nationally televised congressional hearing. He was not touted as a possible Republican vice presidential candidate.
Nevertheless, Wilson has made a mark in Washington, where he is better known for the way he fights than what he fights for. As a freshman senator, he has bucked senior members of his own party, and he has defied President Reagan on more than one occasion.
Wilson has waged most of his battles on behalf of home state causes, some of them quite parochial. In the process he has taken some drubbings and has been ridiculed as “pork barrel Pete.” But in California he has cultivated a grateful constituency that includes influential Democrats. And, in Washington, he has come to be known as a tough customer.
“Wilson is no lightweight. You count on his being prepared, on having solid arguments. I wish he were a lightweight because his positions in the Senate would have far less standing,” said a senior aide to a Democratic senator who frequently does battle with Wilson over arms control issues.
Wilson himself referred to that toughness when asked in a recent interview to appraise his skills.
“I think I am a reasonably good strategist, but I think the most significant thing is just the will to win, the willingness to make a fight.”
One Democrat who mistook Wilson for a pushover is former Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr., who ran against Wilson in the 1982 Senate race.
Brown thought he could embarrass Wilson during a campaign debate with a question about a U.N. resolution on the small African country of Namibia. Wilson’s political career had been confined to California, where he served in the Assembly and in San Diego where he later became mayor. Brown figured him for a bit of a hick.
Brown lost the Senate race to Wilson, and to this day he has not forgotten Wilson’s ready grasp of the Namibian situation and many other matters that came up during the debate.
“He’s a tough competitor, as I found out. A good debater, better than I thought he’d be,” Brown told Wilson’s current Senate opponent, Lt. Gov. Leo T. McCarthy, during a conversation at the Democratic National Convention in Atlanta this summer.
This year, the McCarthy campaign has been trying to cast Wilson as an enemy of the common man. McCarthy aides have described him as a country club Republican and a right-wing zealot. Recently, they have hit on the phrase, “Pete Wilson, a senator for them; Leo McCarthy, a senator for us,” backed up with television ads insinuating that Wilson is a pawn of defense contractors and big corporations.
If the ads have not hurt Wilson--and polls say they have not, yet--it is because Wilson has proved to be an elusive target who is not often identified with controversial causes.
Regarded as a hawk on defense, a conservative on economic matters and criminal justice, a moderate on the environment and even something of a liberal on certain social issues, Wilson is a hard man to label.
Variety of Friends
In Washington, Wilson’s friends range from Republican moderates such as Sens. Bob Dole of Kansas and Warren B. Rudman of New Hampshire to conservative hard-liners such as GOP vice presidential nominee Dan Quayle.
In California, Wilson commands the respect of the party’s conservative core without sounding like an ideologue. At the same time, he has broadened his base. He has courted environmentalists, Jews and urban Democrats in various ways--by working against oil drilling off the California coast, by his unswerving support of Israel and by attending to the problems of the state’s big cities.
He got along so well with Democrat Dianne Feinstein that the former mayor of San Francisco still has not endorsed her own party’s candidate in the Senate race.
“From the moment Mayor Feinstein met Pete Wilson, she found him very helpful to the city of San Francisco. When we had a problem with the federal government, we went to Wilson and he immediately took care of it,” said a former aide to Feinstein who asked not to be identified.
Uneven on Environment
Wilson’s enthusiasm for environmental causes comes and goes. He refused to take a stand on Proposition 65, the toxics initiative that passed overwhelmingly in 1986. He withheld support this year from legislation that would grant wilderness status to 9 million acres of California desert.
But his efforts to block the Reagan Administration from allowing more oil drilling off the California coast has won such high praise from environmentalists that the Sierra Club was criticized for declining to endorse Wilson this year.
Crisply tailored, always proper and slightly aloof, Wilson, a former Marine, retains the proprietary air of an officer reviewing his troops. He is seen as an informed proponent of some of the nation’s most expensive weapons systems. One Washington defense analyst described Wilson as “Mr. SDI” for his aggressive advocacy of “Star Wars,” the Strategic Defense Initiative.
“He was the first mainstream Republican to come on very strong for SDI,” the analyst said.
Liberal Views Also
But Wilson, who has supported the Equal Rights Amendment and opposed prayer in school, also speaks with conviction about young women’s right to have abortions.
“I don’t think it’s a smart thing, a wise or a good thing, or one that encourages respect for the law to require a 16- or 17-year-old girl who does not want to carry a pregnancy to term to seek back-alley treatment or to seek to abort herself with a coat hanger,” Wilson said during a recent interview.
His friends from college say Wilson’s conservatism was always grounded in economic and foreign policy concerns.
Wilson attended college in the early 1950s in the midst of the anti-Communist Joseph McCarthy era, when liberals in many walks of life were ostracized. Yet Wilson’s friends say that while he had strong suspicions about the Soviets, he was disgusted by McCarthyism.
“I was about as close to being a Communist as you could get, but I always regarded Pete as fair and thoughtful,” said Thompson Bradley, who lived across the hall from Wilson at Yale. “I never agreed with anything Pete said about politics. But I liked him. He was a generous person, and he wouldn’t tolerate bias.”
Accused of ‘Elitism’
Early in the 1988 campaign, the McCarthy camp harped on Wilson’s “elitist” background. The son of an advertising executive, Wilson grew up in a well-to-do neighborhood in St. Louis and attended private schools. Wilson’s adversaries also tried to liken him to Vice President George Bush, another Yale graduate whose education and sheltered upbringing are symbols of Eastern privilege.
But Wilson’s college career was nothing like that of Bush. While Bush captained the baseball team and graduated Phi Beta Kappa, Wilson spent four comparatively obscure years, a hard worker who did not make a splash on campus.
His former roommates said they were surprised when Wilson went into politics because, as one of them said, he had struck them as “too private” and “too thin-skinned.”
These days, the people closest to Wilson say he has never had the politician’s knack of showing off his most endearing qualities. They say his generosity, his sense of humor and his musical talent--he is an unabashed crooner of show tunes--are too seldom on display.
Otto Bos, his current campaign manager and Wilson’s Man Friday for 11 years, is forever talking about Wilson’s lighter side. Bos is a repository of Wilsoniana, like Wilson mimicking a Scottish burr, Wilson capering with the San Diego Chicken of sports arena fame. He tells of the morning Wilson’s bellowing woke up hotel guests before dawn as he rehearsed a singing part for a Riverside musical review . . . and of Wilson’s midnight ramble through the streets of New Orleans with friends during the Republican National Convention, smoking a cigar and reciting poetry.
“People think of Wilson as this Yalie in a button-down collar and a Brooks Bros. suit, but he really isn’t that way,” Bos said.
But as Wilson’s staff got ready for the 1988 campaign, they had reason to worry that his public image was a potential liability.
Not Widely Known
Four years after he was elected to the Senate, one statewide poll indicated that a third of the voters in California did not know who Wilson was. His campaign staff responded with an early public relations blitz--$1.5-million in TV commercials last spring that portrayed Wilson as a sensitive, accessible politician. It helped him build a lead over McCarthy in the polls. He has held onto that lead, but his level of support has never been overwhelming. One poll, conducted by his own staff and accidentally leaked, showed that only 39% of the voters wanted to reelect him.
Under 6 feet tall and blandly handsome, Wilson does not stick out in a crowd. He speaks in a gravelly monotone and can get lost in the winding corridors of his own locutions. “Pete can come to know a subject too well,” said one of his aides.
His manner gets on some people’s nerves.
“He comes across as though he’s teaching you, as if he feels that if you could only understand you’d agree with him. It reveals a sense of self-importance that doesn’t go down too well around here,” said an aide to a Democrat who is on the Armed Services Committee with Wilson.
Speaking Needs Work
Members of his own staff agree that Wilson is not the most engaging speaker.
“He can be a little preachy, sort of a Boy Scout out there. I’d like him to be a little more of a heavy,” said Bos, adding: “I’ve tried to say to Pete, ‘Damn it, throw away those notes. Talk to the camera.’ ”
His most memorable moment in the Senate came at a time when he was barely able to talk. The day after undergoing an emergency appendectomy, Wilson was wheeled onto the Senate floor on a gurney, his arm still attached to an intravenous tube, in order to cast a tie-breaking vote on a deficit reduction bill.
Friends cite that incident as evidence of Wilson’s dedication to public service. Others, however, point to a prickly side of Wilson’s nature, which they say has hurt him.
“He’s got a personal relations problem, and it makes it difficult sometimes for him to get help for his own district,” said Rep. Les Aspin (D-Wis.), who chairs the House Armed Services Committee and who deals with Wilson on defense issues.
Tends to Be Tense
Aspin used the words “up-tight,” “imperious” and “tightly coiled” to describe Wilson’s manner. “His relations with colleagues are not terribly cordial. As a result, people don’t always want to help him.”
A former aide to Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.) said Wilson “seems like he’s got a chip on his shoulder about something. He seems kind of angry and sour.”
But if Wilson is not everyone’s idea of Mr. Congeniality, some of his off-putting qualities, particularly his stubbornness, have helped earn him a reputation as an exceptionally tenacious legislator.
Three years into his first term, Wilson went to the mat with one of his party’s most respected members, Sen. Alan K. Simpson (R-Wyo.), over a major piece of legislation--immigration reform--that Simpson had been struggling for years to pass.
Wilson wanted a guest worker amendment that would allow California growers to continue to hire migrant laborers on a seasonal basis. Democrats accused him of trying to resurrect the old bracero program affording undocumented workers minimal rights and protection. Simpson said Wilson was jeopardizing a landmark bill for the sake of “greedy” growers.
Shrugs It Off
Wilson lost on the first vote on his guest worker amendment, revised his proposal slightly and came back to win. Now, he shrugs off the criticism that he was willing to subordinate the national need for immigration reform in favor of a home state industry that gives him a lot of support. In fact, he regards his victory on the issue as his finest moment in the Senate.
“Most people on the floor at first did not appreciate what I was trying to do. But, in the end, I think they did because losing would have meant the death of a helluva lot of small growers, and most of them were in California.”
Wilson has become known as quite a champion of California interests. While that image helps his reelection campaign, it gives rise to criticism that for a U.S. senator he can be rather narrowly focused.
“Where some senators are a bit nervous about appearing parochial, Wilson comes to work with a fairly long list of parochial interests,” said a defense industry lobbyist who has worked in Washington for many years. “Some of the things he pushes for are more defensible than others. On the other hand, who hasn’t pushed for a program of dubious merit?”
Tax Break Defeated
California Democrats like to talk about the shellacking Wilson received when he tried to secure a $50-million tax break for a home state oil company, Unocal, as the Senate was in the midst of negotiations over a tax reform bill intended to eliminate such loopholes.
With the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, Bob Packwood (R-Ore.), leading the charge, Wilson lost badly, 60-33. Losing was especially painful because the previous week Sen. David L. Boren (D-Okla.), had easily won a $100-million tax break for Oklahoma-based Phillips Petroleum Corp.
But the story of Wilson’s defeat, as told by the Democrats, tends to leave out a couple of ingredients. California’s Democratic senator, Alan Cranston, also supported the Unocal tax break. Moreover, Wilson had taken up the Unocal fight shortly after opposing Packwood’s controversial proposal to begin taxing income from the immensely popular investment retirement accounts.
First, he fought the powerful committee chairman, then he turned around and asked Packwood for a favor.
“Wilson just wouldn’t give up,” said Bill Diefenderfer, who was the Senate Finance Committee’s chief of staff at the time. “He got stepped on, and most guys would have retreated from the field. But when we looked down, he was still hanging on to our leg.
“Wilson is like that,” Diefenderfer said. “He’s a pain. . . . But he won’t take no for an answer. If I had an issue I was pushing, I’d want him on my side.”