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The Enigma of Spring Street

Patt Morrison's column appears Wednesdays. Her e-mail address is patt.morrison@latimes.com

Tom Bradley was my FDR.

As Franklin Delano Roosevelt was the president who soloed on the political stage of my parents’ youth, Tom Bradley was my mayor aeternus, the perpetual presence in Los Angeles City Hall; for 20 years, from my days as a new kid in town until I was a taxpaying, property-owning grown-up, I knew no other.

In April 1973, as a secretly scared Times intern, I was doing cub-reporter scut work on the night that Bradley took the tiller of city government away from Sam Yorty by a slam-dunk margin. I was too young to drink with the other reporters after deadline that election night--and too new to L.A. to realize the tectonic shift the city had made in dumping the canny, corn-pone Yorty and elevating Bradley to the majesty of Spring Street.

That night not only changed the nameplate on the mayor’s office, but altered what the city saw in its mirror--an overgrown hick town transformed into one sophisticated and forward-thinking enough to elect a black man. Heck, not even New York had done that.

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Central Casting had brought us this son of a sharecropper, grandson of a slave, an august, commanding symbol of the new L.A., moderate, serene, possessed of a voice you would expect to hear rumbling down from Mt. Sinai, with a timbre I can still hear today, years after it was silenced by a stroke--even though I can’t summon to mind a single quotable phrase he ever uttered.

Thanks in part to Bradley, Los Angeles finally acquired an international personality apart from Hollywood’s; we were a serious city, and if anybody doubted it, we could point to him--to this ambitious ex-cop and night-school lawyer who would come within 53,000 votes of being governor--and say, “See this man? This is what California is all about.”

Five years after Bobby and Martin were assassinated, we had achieved a miracle of coalition politics, we congratulated ourselves, and a model of civil discourse. If Bradley had been the black radical in a necktie that Yorty tried to paint him, he would not have been elected once, let alone five times. Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan once called him stingingly “a black manager in a white man’s store,” but Bradley refused to sting back. I suppose a black man of his generation figured there was only one way to be taken seriously in the corridors and boardrooms, and that was by out-dignifying everybody else. And he did.

As I stood taking notes in May 1992, when President George Bush came calling as the embers of the riots were cooling, the notion blew through my brain that if you had not known who was who, you would have assumed that Bush was the local pol, and the majestically impassive Bradley was the president.

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Ingrid Bergman once said of her “Casablanca” co-star Humphrey Bogart, “I kissed him, but I never knew him.” The public voted on Bradley six times for mayor, twice for governor, yet never knew him. He liked it that way.

Yet his inscrutability made him a tabula rasa (the joke was that his hologram in the City Hall rotunda captured him perfectly). People could read into him what they wished--and so wind up disappointed if he didn’t turn out to be what they expected.

Ultimately, a younger, firebrand generation came to read him as cautious to a fault, encumbered with opportunities he failed to take and political capital he failed to spend. The whiff of conflict of interest began to float about him. His fabled coalition was not keeping pace with a frantically changing city that was growing poor as fast as it was getting rich, growing brown as fast as it had once gotten big. As he began his last full year in office he was, in some eyes, a detached Nero, speaking soothingly inside the walls of the First AME Church as the city around him was put to the torch by rioters.

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I hear tell the private Bradley could be lively. I saw a glimpse of it once, as in 1987, the day after the Whittier Narrows quake, when he deadpanned to the visiting king of Spain, “We try to offer our visitors something special.” Maybe, among friends, he could even bring himself to joke about Metro Rail.

History and memory regularly get blown out to sea with the Santa Anas. What happened in those 20 Bradley years now seems so natural that we can almost believe it was always thus--that City Hall was always as varied as the city itself, that the Olympics would of course be delighted to come to L.A., that the downtown skyline grew up naturally, like crystal formations in a cave. It is in the nature of this place that what resonates with us is the performance--not what he did, but how he did it.


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