Checchi Not Yet a Man for All Ages

Al Checchi caught me on a bad day. I was not in a frame of mind to hear this megabucks political toddler raise age as a campaign issue, which is precisely what he did, regardless of later fumbling denials.

It went like this: Checchi, an undeclared candidate for governor, was speaking to the Sacramento Press Club and assessing a possible Democratic primary race against U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the odds-on favorite if she runs. He was saying that Feinstein is vulnerable to a political outsider such as himself because voters may think she has been around the track too many times--"the down side of having all this name recognition."

Perhaps, but then he delivered the punch line: "Accentuating this, of course, is that we come from very different generations. There's a generational difference between us, and that probably helps a little bit."

Feinstein is 63; Checchi 48. And I'm thinking, what are we talking about here? Age bias?

And admittedly I'm a little sensitive at the moment because this happens to be my birthday. In fact, not just any birthday, but a big one, the big one, the big Six-0. And mentally I'm trying to downplay the significance of this milestone when the airline tycoon abruptly tells me that it helps not to be of Feinstein's generation.

Names flash through my mind: Colin Powell (just turned 60) and Madeleine Albright (about to); Pat Brown and Ronald Reagan (both 60 as governor), Golda Meir and Winston Churchill. . . .

But let's hear out Checchi. Just what did you mean, I ask in the post-speech Q & A.

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The only thing he meant, Checchi insisted, was that there's a "double edge" to being a longtime politician. "I wasn't trying to say that one generation has superior skills to another."

But he adds: "It is notable that we now have a president of the United States who is of the same generation as myself. . . . At a certain point there are generational changes."

A reporter persists: "What are you saying? You trying to draw an age contrast between you and Feinstein?"

"No, I'm drawing an experience contrast," replies the corporate exec, who never has held public office. "I have spent my professional life doing something quite a bit different." Then he muddies his disclaimer by saying: "There is a set of experiences one has . . . generation to generation."

If it's just an experience contrast, why mention Bill Clinton, he's asked. Clinton's a career pol.

"Because while he was a politician all his life . . . Bill Clinton came from a different generation also [and] spoke [to Americans] from the experiences he had with his generation.

"I didn't mean to open up Pandora's box."

Worse, he opened up himself to sounding unfocused and disingenuous.

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While he professed not to be implying that his generation is "superior" to Feinstein's, Checchi obviously was conveying the notion that it does have the superior wisdom nurtured by unique experiences to govern California. Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren no doubt would agree; he is of Checchi's generation (50) and the prospective Republican nominee.

We'll need to hear more, however, about what is so "very different" about these generations--which actually are only a half generation apart in age. One was born in the Great Depression and its early memories are of a united America heroically fighting a scary war. The other was born in the postwar boom. But both have had similar adult experiences. Neither has an exclusive claim on social activism, high-tech, or sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll.

For voters, the deciding factors most likely will be ideas, programs, trust, leadership; whether to change parties in power, not generations.

Having observed Checchi a few times, I've got a hunch he'd be an effective governor. He's articulate, usually. He has charm. Drive. He'd be a tough negotiator. Somebody who would reward and punish and persuade.

But first he'll have to persuade voters he has core beliefs and is sincere about wanting to improve their lives. At the Press Club, he stumbled badly trying to explain why he seldom has voted. In fact, he wasn't exactly sure when he had voted or on what. "I'm embarrassed," he said. "I was remiss."

It's one thing not to be "excited" about candidates. It's another not to vote against Proposition 187 if you really think, as he says, that it's a "war on children." If education is such a big concern of his, why didn't he vote on a $3-billion school bond issue just last year?

"I'm starting to get comfortable doing this," he told his audience, but "I still need a lot of work."

Indeed, a baby boomer who still needs political training wheels.

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