Finally, a Senator to Be Taken Seriously


Alan Cranston stands as the first really grown-up senator from California . . . the first about whom you didn’t brace yourself for the inevitable jokes when his name came up.

California had Sen. S.I. Hayakawa, the semanticist with the golf-links headgear, an English professor who had leaped onto a sound truck to rip away the speaker wires at a student demonstration, and by doing so leaped into the Senate job.

. . . Sen. George Murphy, the actor and song-and-dance man who sang and danced opposite Shirley Temple, who ran for Congress herself and settled for an ambassadorship.

. . . Sen. Pierre Salinger, JFK’s press secretary, period.


. . . Sen. John Tunney, the supposed role model for Robert Redford in “The Candidate,” a man known for an incredibly impressive set of choppers and whose father was a famous boxer.

. . . Sen. William Knowland, the Republican leader of whom even mild-mannered President Eisenhower wondered to his journal, “How stupid can you get?”

. . . Back to Sen. George Hearst, William Randolph’s dad, who was the first to admit that he couldn’t even spell “cat.”

California’s men in the U.S. Senate seemed a piece with the voters who sent them there: good entertainment value, and not much else.

Then came Cranston, elected in 1968 over Max Rafferty, Mad Max, the scarily archconservative educator.

Rafferty’s nickname was Supermouth; Cranston’s was Colorless Cranston. When a Stanford professor volunteered an image make-over, Cranston only smiled and said, “I’m afraid it’s too late.”

Even Cranston’s encounter with the most notorious and flamboyantly evil figure of the century, Adolf Hitler, was legalistic: a copyright violation suit brought by the Fuehrer against Cranston for publishing an unauthorized, unexpurgated “Mein Kampf” to counter the tidied-up edition being sold in the U.S.

Maybe he was better on paper. His sister cited a letter from Groucho Marx congratulating him on his election and asking, as “one who believed in your integrity--perhaps even your manhood,” that he please return Groucho’s $25 campaign contribution. Cranston wrote back that he had cashed the check: “So much for my integrity, my manhood and your twenty-five bucks.”

But Cranston came across as a grown-up.

He had the absorbed focus of the dedicated runner that he was. He’d sometimes wear the same suit for three days. In a Senate that fancied itself as grand as the College of Cardinals, almost everyone called Cranston “Alan.”


On Sunday night, Sen. Barbara Boxer, who inherited Cranston’s seat and office, praised him head to heel for his labors for arms control and civil rights and the environment.

“You couldn’t turn him to small talk,” and small stuff just didn’t register with him. Once, when he visited her in his old offices--transformed from a dark warren of gray walls and black upholstery to California-bright peaches and greens, Boxer watched his face to see whether the changes would register. When he talked on about nothing but nuclear disarmament, she finally asked, “So Alan, what do you think?”

He looked around absently. “You moved my desk,” he said. “It used to be in the corner.”

“The important thing to him,” she said, “was getting the job done.”

Roz Wyman, the doyenne of California Democratic politics, said of Cranston on Sunday night: “He’s like the redwood trees--Alan stood so tall in so many different things.”

Cranston delivered big to California--partly because he worked like a Trojan, and partly because he served four terms, an eternity in state politics. But it took money to run, and that was his downfall.

He said in 1992 that he had to raise about $3,000 a day to run for reelection.

As it turned out, more than a million of it came from Charles Keating Jr., whose shady investment schemes cost thousands of elderly Californians their life savings. Five senators, Cranston chief among them, intervened with federal regulators on Keating’s behalf; Cranston was the most severely punished, with a formal reprimand.

His friends thought of it as a Greek tragedy: rectitude brought down by the certainty of its own integrity.

Although his labors for peace continued until he died, the Keating matter and prostate cancer ended Cranston’s Senate career in 1992; the year that Bill Clinton was elected president by divorcing “liberal” from “Democrat,” the California liberal and the Senate parted company.