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The Soviet Congress and ‘60s Nostalgia

As I watched the Soviet Union’s Congress of Peoples Deputies on television last week, it confirmed my longstanding belief that legislative meetings are all the same.

Don’t misunderstand me. This isn’t going to be a column whining about the years I’ve wasted sitting at the press table, taking notes gavel to gavel. I’ll take a seat at press tables any day. I’ve met a lot of great characters around them, especially in the days when newspapers were more inclined to hire eccentrics and entertaining drinking companions.

Meetings don’t bore me, even those that others might find dull. I see them as psychodramas in which the characters act out their hopes and fears, a play with a beginning and an end.

I wait for the ending, knowing the play is a success only when the characters are permitted to go home thinking they’ve gained something. That’s true whether the subject is garbage deliveries in Van Nuys or the breakup of the Soviet Union. When political drama works, even losing dogs get a bone.

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The congress took me back to the first real legislative meetings I ever covered, the state Assembly of a quarter of a century ago, a tumultuous period immediately before the Reagan Revolution.

As in Sacramento, the Soviet photographers snapped away. Lawmakers conferred. And even though I was watching on television, I could sense the same tension on the floor that I’ve seen when covering big votes in the Senate, the House, the Legislature or the Los Angeles City Council.

What reminded me most of the old Assembly was an intense deputy at Microphone 2. No jacket. Curly hair uncombed. In the psychodrama of the meeting, clothes make a statement and he was the idealist.

He reminded me of mid-1960s freshmen Assemblymen John Burton and Willie Brown. Just up from San Francisco, a couple of no-coat guys whose every gesture was a protest to the Gorbachev of that place and time, the late speaker of the Assembly, Jesse Unruh. Willie occasionally wore a dashiki, John a more conventional shirt with no tie.

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It was an era when dress defined a lawmaker, before television turned everyone into blue-shirt, red-tie clones. Liberals wore work shirts. Union reps from Torrance showed up in “Full Clevelands"--red double-knit suit, white shirt, red tie, white belt and white shoes.

Watching more of the Soviet session, I thought I spotted another familiar type at the congress’ Microphone 5. It was the party wheel horse, the loyalist, the sure vote for the boss. “The country is gone,” said Vladimir Korillov, lamenting the loss of the old structure. “We have another country here.”

I thought of Assemblyman Dick Floyd of Carson, always voting with Willie and labor in Sacramento, or Los Angeles City Council members Hal Bernson and Nate Holden following the Police Department line.

Dominating the congress were the bosses, Boris Yeltsin and Gorby.

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When Yeltsin first emerged on the Soviet political scene, he seemed like the Kenny Hahn of Russian politics. Quotes for any occasion--a nuclear plant disaster, the looting of a public treasury, an earthquake or the installation of a new church altar. A great local pol, with a strain of populist demagoguing. But he’d never be in charge.

Now, he brings back my memories of the greatest boss, the late Mayor Richard J. Daley of Chicago, swaggering down State Street at the head of the St. Patrick’s Day Parade, me walking along as an observer just a row away, amazed at the power of the man.

And finally Gorbachev. I’d seen his resiliency in Nixon, his cunning in Jesse Unruh and his bull-headed stubbornness in Jimmy Carter.

Gorbachev is all of that, plus your company CEO, cool, remote and elegant in a dark blue suit you can’t afford. He’s the angry, sweating cab driver who screams when you stiff him with a small tip. At the congress, he was a Teamsters Union goon, switching off his critics’ microphones and shouting into his own.

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“I won’t yield the floor because all that needs to be said has already been said. . . .” he said.

The drama ended with Yeltsin and Gorbachev complying with the requirements of the psychodrama’s plot. They allowed everyone--the hacks and the idealists--to leave with something. They didn’t have to go home empty-handed.

Some had been frightened with threats of political chaos unless strong action was taken. These were the idealists. They left the chambers feeling that they at least did something for the country.

The cynical, hard-headed old party hacks wanted more. So Gorbachev and Yeltsin bribed them with promises that their perks would continue.

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Mayor Daley would have appreciated that.


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