Speaking of Dirty, His Name Is Mud


Burt Kearns saw the Dick Riordan news clip the other night and his jaw dropped. There was the California education secretary and former Los Angeles mayor at a library in Santa Barbara, talking to a little girl who asked Riordan if he knew that her first name, Isis, meant “Egyptian goddess.”

Riordan offered the friendly tyke a different interpretation.

“It means stupid, dirty girl,” he told the preschooler.

There goes his guest shot on “Sesame Street.”

Kearns, a documentary film maker in Pacific Palisades, thought Riordan was either drunk or having a stroke, and he asked if I would clear things up.


Of course, Burt.

The education secretary doesn’t have to be tanked, or in the midst of a physical breakdown, to take leave of his senses.

It comes naturally.

The outburst in Santa Barbara was a snapshot of the contradiction who calls himself Dick Riordan. The zillionaire venture capitalist came late to public office, buying his way into City Hall when he was near retirement age. Here’s a guy who’s spent years improving public schools and libraries, and then in a roomful of innocents, he stumbles like Big Bird on a bender. He later apologized for the “misunderstanding,” saying he was only teasing the child.

If you’ve ever had a bad fuse that causes the house lights to flicker, then you have some sense of the temperamental organ protected by Dick Riordan’s skull. Either the wiring is frayed or a few synapses are gummed up.

This can make for refreshing, if unpolished, candor. But there’s a down side, which explains why handlers have stood by Riordan with a muzzle and a net, in mortal fear of the next inappropriate thing he might say or do. At times it’s like baby-sitting an incorrigible child -- or tending a pet goat.

As mayor, Riordan once greeted hunger strikers outside City Hall while chomping on a hamburger.

Another time, he was grazing on croissants and pedaling through the French countryside while, back home, stranded Angelenos suffered through a miserable transit strike.

In the 1980s, Riordan pulled out his wallet to buy three downtown L.A. apartment buildings. He booted low-income tenants and converted their homes into offices. He also spent part of the decade harvesting tens of millions of dollars in leveraged buyouts. Asked at the time how he could justify such hardball dealings, he said, “Greed.”

Then he added, “I’m taking lessons in learning how to wave to the poor people.”

Between you and me, Dick, I wouldn’t look to stand-up comedy as your next career.

Several of my colleagues vividly recall Riordan’s meltdown at an L.A. Times editorial board meeting while he was mayor. Asked why he hadn’t been more successful in tackling poverty, Riordan blamed what he called the “poverty pimps.”

An editor asked to whom he was referring, exactly.

“Oh come on!” Riordan shouted, sprouting horns. “You know who they are.”

Cursing, he stood to leave, but realized he had kicked off his shoes. As he frantically fished for them, the sputtering mayor heaved and glared.

Look, Dick, I’ve cursed editors too. But now we’re talking about getting a cheap laugh at the expense of a child.

I hear that Team Schwarzenegger hasn’t been thrilled with Riordan, so if ever the governor needed a reason to make a move, here it is.

One last thought: If I were the ex-mayor, I’d be the last guy making fun of people’s first names.

Steve Lopez can be reached at