George Deukmejian is at a holiday party, standing in the center of a ballroom near the hors d'oeuvre spread when Maureen Reagan walks up.
Before talk can turn to her congressional aspirations, the former governor's face lights up and he exclaims: "Maureen, you look terrific! You look smashing!"
Maureen looks good and she is tastefully dressed, as usual. But "smashing" seems a bit Hollywoodish and definitely out of character for "dull Duke," as most people remember him.
She smiles, but clearly the daughter of the former President is at a rare loss for words. Then, Deukmejian turns to a story about his name tag.
Upon arriving at this party, Deukmejian had been handed a name tag reading "Gov. Duke," he reports. But he immediately rejected it. "I said, no way, I'm not going to be that anymore," he recounts, chuckling. "I can't be 'Gov. Duke,' not with David Duke running around out there. . . . He's embarrassing the name 'Duke.' "
His new name tag reads "Gov. George."
Deukmejian, party animal? Mr. Charm? Mr. Magnetism? Not exactly, but people who have known him both in public and in private life say he is a changed man.
It has been nearly a year since George Deukmejian walked away from the governor's office, leaving the state Capitol where he had served in various elective posts for 28 years. And there is little he misses about the place, he says.
"I tell you, I haven't been this happy in a long, long time," Deukmejian said recently in his 35th-floor law office in the First Interstate World Center building downtown. He was showing off the panoramic view, a vista from the Westside to the South Bay. "You get up every morning and you don't have to worry about 30 million people, deal with 120 legislators, deal with the press. . . .
"I don't miss having to deal with all those issues every day. It took me about five minutes to adjust to a private, normal life without all those concerns and headaches."
One friend and former adviser, speaking anonymously, put it this way: "He doesn't have to get up in the morning and throw up any more. He's relaxed and he's making good money."
Deukmejian, 63, is a partner in the nation's fifth-largest law firm, Sidley & Austin. It is headquartered in Chicago, with two offices in Los Angeles and others in Tokyo, Singapore, London, New York and Washington.
He takes home a "very comfortable" income, he acknowledged. How comfortable? Deukmejian enjoys telling this story: "When I deposited the first check I got after becoming a (law) partner, the bank put a hold on it. I guess they wanted to make sure it would clear. They hadn't seen that much money go into my account in all the years I'd been with the bank."
As governor, Deukmejian's annual salary reached a peak of $89,300 until it was briefly pushed to $120,000 by a state salary commission about the time he was leaving office. Now, he also nets roughly $42,000 annually in a state pension from his years as a legislator, attorney general and governor, he said.
The law firm Deukmejian works for specializes in financial transactions, regulatory matters and commercial litigation. The former governor is not a litigator who appears in court. But he is a door-opener and coach for clients seeking the attention of government--federal, state or local. "I provide advice and consultation," he said. "I try to put people together and arrange for meetings.
"But I don't do any lobbying--contrary to what some reporters think. I know what a lobbyist does."
For a layman, however, that can be a fine line, the one between direct lobbying and merely making a phone call to a key government official on behalf of a client--especially when the caller is an ex-governor.
Deukmejian recently helped to represent the Japanese-owned Sumitomo Corp. of America in its hotly contested winning bid before the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission for a $121-million contract to build driverless trolley cars.
"I made calls--not lobbying calls--to see whether they (transportation officials) had any questions of any kind," he said. "The client also asked that I accompany them to the (commission) hearing. But I didn't testify."
(On Thursday, Los Angeles City Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky called for a grand jury review of the controversial decision awarding the contract to the Sumitomo Corp.)
Because of his contacts, the former governor also is an important "rainmaker" for the law firm, generating new clients.
"I see (Deukmejian) a lot at social functions and he's very quickly offering his business card to people as soon as they come up. I keep calling him 'Quick Draw.' " said Z. Greg Kahwajian, a former aide and fellow Armenian activist who is a real estate consultant. "He's as happy as I've ever seen him. You can see it in his face."
Dan Kelly, managing partner of the firm's downtown Los Angeles office, said Deukmejian "has a real sense" for bringing in clients.
"The way you 'make rain' in the modern world is that if you see an opportunity for a big project, you put together a team of experts," Kelly said in explaining Deukmejian's role in the firm. "He would be the guy who knows the chairman of XYZ corporation, and he would organize the team and make the presentation. It isn't like the old days where there was just a slapping of each other on the back at the men's club. It's a lot more sophisticated now."
Kelly said that by Deukmejian's choice, the former governor deals more with private industry--including past political supporters--than with government agencies. "They (business executives) have a lot of respect for him. They know he has a pro-business outlook. They take his call, listen to him and do something. . . . We have a lot of clients who have been interested in coming in to meet him. . . . "
"I think he's real happy. If he isn't, would you let me know? Tell me what I can do to make him happier."
Despite the big bucks he earns, Deukmejian remains as conservative with his dollars as he was with the state's. He and his wife, Gloria, live in the same three-bedroom house in the Belmont Park section of Long Beach that they have owned for 31 years. He said they probably either will remodel that house or buy another in Long Beach. "We like the area we live in," he said. "We like the atmosphere."
Jim Robinson, a former top adviser to Deukmejian and until recently an occasional spokesman, reported that his now-wealthy ex-boss twice has taken him to lunch--to Carl's Jr. "The second time, the manager came over and said, as a maitre d' might at one of those fancy restaurants, 'Mr. Deukmejian, I am so glad to have you here,' " Robinson recalled with amusement. "The governor's sitting there on one of those cramped little swivel chairs bolted to the floor, being gracious."
Under the terms of his employment, Deukmejian is entitled to a company car and chauffeur. He has accepted the auto--a Lincoln Town Car--but has declined the driver. Deukmejian said he enjoys driving L.A.'s freeways.
"I started interviewing (for a chauffeur), but in the meantime I was driving myself and I began to realize that was part of my new-won freedom," he said. "For 12 years, from the time I was attorney general through the governorship, I always had at least two other people in the car. So I was really enjoying being in a car by myself. I could put on whatever radio station I wanted, change it as many times as I wanted, or set the air conditioning the way I wanted, instead of having to ask somebody to do this or that. I really find it's kind of like private time."
Deukmejian said he leaves home around 8 a.m. and drives about an hour up the Long Beach Freeway to the Pomona Freeway, and then into town. "About 85% of the trip you're moving 60 to 65 m.p.h.; really a breeze," he said, adding cautiously: "I shouldn't say that because it's a little over the speed limit."
But despite Deukmejian's being kidded for his conservative driving habits, Robinson asserted, "I've driven with him and he doesn't really stop at yellow lights, as Gloria has said."
Deukmejian also said that he enjoys looking at all the freeway and rail construction as he drives. He credits much of this roadwork to the gasoline tax increase he successfully campaigned for in 1990. "I predict that by the end of the decade, you're going to have in place here just an excellent transportation network and much less congestion," he said. "I'm very pleased about that."
And he is proud that as the state's chief executive he vetoed a record 2,298 bills, plus roughly 1,700 budget items--a feat that earned him the sobriquet "Governor No." Sacramento's festering fiscal sickness would be much worse if it were not for his vetoes, Deukmejian said. "I was just always severely criticized every time I cut any kind of spending," he recalled with a touch of bitterness.
"A day didn't go by when somebody didn't come in and say, 'Governor, if we spend more money now, we're going to save millions of dollars down the road.' How many times have you heard that over the years?"
"There is a solution" to the nagging budget deficit, he continued. "The question is whether they've got the will (in Sacramento) to face up to it. The key fundamental problem is you've got all these built-in, escalating cost increases. You've got to eliminate those, give yourself more flexibility and set priorities each year based upon your estimated revenues. When you look at any individual or at any business, they control spending based on their income."
That is Republican dogma, of course. And the political problem--one that Deukmejian could never overcome--is that the vast majority of automatic cost increases are in the areas of education, health and welfare, which generally have been protected by Democratic-dominated legislatures. Only in the area of welfare has Gov. Pete Wilson begun to control spending significantly.
Deukmejian refused to second-guess his successor, however. And as for the budget negotiations that led to a $7.6-billion tax increase last summer, Deukmejian only would say: "I certainly may have thought about it, but I don't want to get into it. I don't think that would be fair. You sort of have to be there."
But there is at least one Wilson policy with which Deukmejian disagrees. Responding to a question without mentioning the present governor, Deukmejian said he never believed in cutting state employees' salaries--as Wilson is trying to do by 5%--because "if somebody is doing a job, they ought to be fairly compensated."
"You should try to control the size of the work force and hold the line on the number," he added, "but then for those (employees) who are there, you're really asking them to produce a little more."
The thin skin that used to show on Deukmejian whenever his policies were criticized--a condition common to elected officials--seems to have substantially healed. He is more at ease and less defensive in discussing his tenure in Sacramento. And when his successor complains about "inheriting" a big budget deficit, Deukmejian believes, it is criticism not aimed at him, but at the entire political system and governing process.
"Lord knows, we tried to get the Legislature to change (the budget structure), but it just steadily refused," he said. ". . . Toward the end (of a second term) it does get a little bit wearing. . . . The news media (and) political opposition, they're always constantly looking for the controversial, the negative. . . . Some of these issues, they come around, they go around. A lot of things just kind of repeat themselves year after year. . . .
"So you get to a point where you feel that you've done what you tried to do. And I do feel that a lot of what I set out to do we were able to accomplish, like the appointment of judges. This was one of the main reasons why I ran for governor."
Deukmejian named about 1,000 judges, including five of the seven on the state Supreme Court.
But he is delighted to be free from the coveted powers of governor, especially the contentious policy decisions. "I never feel like, 'Gee, I wish I was there (in Sacramento) to do this or that,' " he said. "That doesn't bother me one bit."
Neither does he miss being in the public spotlight. "I had enough of that. I'm really enjoying this private life," he said.
Illustrating the contrast between his old and new lives, Deukmejian enjoys telling people about the time three summers ago when he was invited to Morocco to the 70th-birthday celebration of the late publisher Malcolm Forbes at a gleaming white palace on the Mediterranean.
"I like to jokingly say," he related, "that it was very romantic--Gloria and I out on a beach there in Tangier with the moonlight shining down on us, just Gloria and I and a reporter from the Los Angeles Times.
"No matter what we do now, whether it's social or professional, we're just free to have a normal lifestyle."