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A ‘Spectacular’ Leader’s Grievous Flaw

Sacramento

It seemed like a wonderful idea at the time: Honor a great California governor with a small monument -- one that could bring a smile to the most jaded politician or apolitical tourist.

But the idea has been quietly dropped, the victim of an unhealed wound.

Earl Warren was not just a great governor. He was California’s most popular governor, the only one elected three times.

His greatness came from vision, optimism and a pragmatic bipartisanship, plus a keen understanding of the people he represented. Well, most people.

A former attorney general, the Republican was elected governor in 1942 and served until 1953, when President Dwight D. Eisenhower named him chief justice of the United States.

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Warren shaped California for generations by salting away wartime tax revenues and spending them later on education, highways, healthcare and parks to accommodate exploding growth.

“He was a spectacular governor,” says historian Kevin Starr, former state librarian.

But this alone would not have prompted the proposal for an unpretentious plaque. That was inspired by a daily Warren habit.

“Earl Warren was the last governor before Arnold Schwarzenegger to use the streets of Sacramento,” Starr says. “Now you can have Arnold sightings on the sidewalks at noontime.”

Unlike Schwarzenegger, Warren walked with minimal security -- usually out the Capitol’s west entrance, through the park to a circular drive, where he’d cut across a lawn to 9th Street. There he’d jaywalk to the private Sutter Club for lunch, or perhaps continue another block to Frank Fat’s for chow mein or to a Mexican American cafe.

Eventually, Warren’s path across the lawn became so worn that groundskeepers paved the walk, and it still exists under giant old camphor and elm trees.

The Warren Walk, it’s called by those who know the story.

In 1998, the Capitol Historic Preservation Society proposed mounting a plaque alongside The Warren Walk.

“A very charming thing,” Starr says. “A ‘pleasure point.’ ”

No other governor seems to have a plaque on the Capitol grounds. But there are scores of monuments -- mostly for fallen soldiers, but also for legislators and even for a woman who was proposed to there by a state official. There’s one inlaid stone that advertises an auto dealership.

The historic society and Sutter Club offered to foot the bill.

Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, a Sacramento native, agreed to speak at the dedication, writing: “When I was a pageboy, I used to wait ... for my mother to come to take me home.... I occasionally saw the governor use that walk and accompanied him on it

But the state bureaucracy reared its cumbersome head and buried the proposal in a study.

The idea was revived last year by Assemblyman Mervyn Dymally (D-Compton), a longtime pol. But Dymally, who’s black, dropped his resolution requesting the monument when Asian American legislators objected.

These Asian Americans still haven’t forgiven Warren for his influential role, as attorney general, in uprooting Japanese Americans after the bombing of Pearl Harbor and transporting them at gunpoint to isolated internment camps.

One of the banished 110,000 was Assemblyman George Nakano (D-Torrance), then 6.

“Warren used that issue to propel himself from attorney general to governor,” Nakano says. “It’s very personal to me.”

Nakano tells of being interred for four years with his parents, mostly at Tule Lake in Northern California -- “barbed wire, guard towers, cold and windy and muddy in winter.”

Assemblywoman Judy Chu (D-Monterey Park), who is of Chinese ancestry, agrees that Warren doesn’t merit a monument. She’s chairwoman of the Legislature’s five-member Asian Caucus. “It was a travesty, a shameless part of our history.”

Warren eventually wrote in his memoirs that he “deeply regretted the [federal internment] order and my own testimony advocating it because it was not in keeping with our American concept of freedom and the rights of citizens.”

Nakano also dug up a law Warren signed in 1945 barring “the marriage of a white person with a Negro, mulatto, Mongolian or member of the Malay race.” But state Law Librarian Mark Linneman says this language was in the law long before Warren became governor. The 1945 bill merely added a minor, unrelated amendment.

In 1967, the Warren Court ruled unanimously that bans on interracial marriages were unconstitutional. Warren wrote the opinion. He also wrote, of course, the historic 1954 decision that led to desegregation of schools. And his court followed with many rulings attacking racial discrimination.

Nakano gives Warren credit for all this, but contends he never really apologized for the internments.

George Washington and Thomas Jefferson owned slaves and they’ve got two of the biggest monuments in America, I noted.

“The difference is that I’m a living example of someone who was subjected to Earl Warren’s misdeed and I’m still around,” Nakano replied.

Says Dymally: “I just don’t want to buck the Asian Caucus. It’s not worth it.”

But he adds: “Look, none of us has a perfect record in this business. It was during the war, a different era.... “

It was an act that will always haunt California and a great governor’s legacy.

The plaque is still a good idea, most of us probably would agree. But most of us didn’t spend childhood years in a concentration camp.

George Skelton writes Mondays and Thursdays. Reach him at george.skelton@latimes.com


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