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California Politics of Experience -

Part II
The Winds of Change

IT WAS P.T. BARNUM who said, "There is no such thing as bad publicity." Such a notion may be true for the entertainment industry, but for politicians it is the exception, not the rule—even in California, home of the longest running reality show in history, one that starred Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Jerry Brown and Arnold Schwarzenegger, to name a few of the marquee players. Ken Meade, a former three-term Assemblyman from the Bay Area, made a few notable appearances on that stage usually cast in a supporting role or playing a part that did little to advance his career. Yet the tale he tells reveals much about that transcendental state, our nation, and ourselves: It is a true story about the California politics of experience...

Though Ken Meade spent hours -- sometimes weeks -- alone in a ramshackle shack perched on the end of a pier, he did not become introspective, shy or introverted. Instinct taught him that to succeed he needed to suppress his pain and sense of isolation. He needed to keep things together. And so deep within his psyche the young Meade developed two personas, two levels of consciousness, creating a psychological fault line that would later crack.

In his teens Meade learned to act, talk and dress like his contemporaries —rich kids born into privilege, taught from birth that they were the center of the universe.

The young Ken Meade did not rest until he succeeded in becoming both an outstanding student and one of the most popular kids on campus. Despite the tremors that would jar him from time-to-time, Meade was articulate, charming and cool. He lettered in three sports, excelling in football, elected team captain and awarded a spot on the all-league team.

He was on top of the game.

Yet Meade went to great lengths to conceal his living situation from contemporaries. When hitching a ride from teammates after practice or a game, he'd ask to be dropped off in an upper class neighborhood near home, a move intended to suggest he lived there. "I had a real desire to be recognized, I think, this sort of psychological secondary game where I'm not so sure how cool I am but if all these people like me, or vote for me, I'm okay. I had very little connection between these two lives...

"Looking back I was really on the make. I knew a lot was going on in the world as a kid. But I wasn't really part of it. I wanted to find out what that was all about and gained a real facility for moving with ease among the affluent. I could get by as one of them. I was kind of a fraud, really..."

Admitted to the University of California, Berkeley, the young Meade made good use of the lessons he learned growing up, immediately recruited into the prestigious Chi Phi fraternity. "I told them I was from Sausalito and that my father owned a sailboat. That was enough for them. They didn't know it was a fourteen-foot sailboat that we built, or that I lived on an ark built on stilts."

Thrilled to make the move from a shack to a frat house, Meade's joy was soon tempered by news that his mother, confined to a sanitarium for most of his youth, recovered enough to return home. He knew she loved him--of that much he was sure. Yet the timing of Madeline's recovery led him to believe that he may have been the cause of her depression.

Nevertheless as an undergraduate at Cal in 1959, Meade enjoyed the confidence and status of an aristocrat on campus. A member of a secret society not unlike Skull and Bones, president of his fraternity, backup quarterback for the last Cal football team to play in the Rose Bowl, bright, articulate, and charming, Meade knew the right people and they knew him. He was on his way.

"The Concentrations of Wealth and Power"

KEN MEADE'S FATHER often said that big corporations controlled the nation, and that the concentrations of wealth and power in America lorded it over the people.

Though his father was not alone in his beliefs, during the 1950s and early 60s, the Bay Area was rather conservative, not unlike the rest of a nation still under the influence of the hula-hoop culture created by McCarthyism and the economic affluence that followed World War II.

San Francisco had a Republican mayor. Berkeley was a fairly typical college town with a Republican majority on the City Council. Oakland and most of Alameda County was a fiefdom dominated by an old guard led by former U. S. Senator William F. Knowland, son of Republican kingmaker Joseph Russell Knowland, conservative owner of the then-powerful Oakland Tribune.

In Alameda County, the District Attorney was none other than Edwin Meese III, who would later serve as Attorney General in the Reagan Administration.

Republican kingpin William Knowland's son-in-law, Donald Mulford, served six terms in the State Assembly representing the 16th District (Berkeley, Oakland, and Albany). In fact the 16th District was considered a Republican stronghold.

Donald Mulford shared more than familial ties with Knowland: Both were ironclad supporters of Barry Goldwater, a conservative Republican senator from Arizona overwhelmingly defeated by Lyndon Johnson in the 1964 presidential campaign, and of Ronald Reagan, who burst onto the national scene with a televised shoot-em-up election-eve defense of the GOP ticket that year.

Ronald Reagan began his political career in California playing the "citizen-politician," a pseudo-populist role revered by new age right wing ideologues and financially backed by the growing military industrial complex headquartered in the south—southern California, that is. Neo-Conservatives saw Reagan as their answer to John Kennedy: He was charismatic and, as a second-tier star of film and television, knew how to master both mediums, able to read a script and deliver each line with sincerity. Reagan railed against "welfare queens," "communist agitators," and politicians in general. His was a bold denunciation that politics was corrupt from the top down and that only an "outsider" like Reagan could clean things up. It was a message that would eventually carry him to the presidency (a script recently revived by Arnold Schwarzenegger who, forty years later in a frenzied California recall election, successfully unseated Governor Gray Davis).

"Baghdad by the Bay"

Despite their political and institutional control of the Bay Area, for decades the far right considered the region a cultural cesspool and communist breading ground.

As San Francisco and Berkeley, in particular, eventually became a haven for beatniks, leftists and homosexuals, right wing conservatives cited their very existence as proof that the Republic was under attack from within and in danger of suffering the same fate as the Roman Empire.

Herb Caen, a popular columnist for The San Francisco Chronicle, playfully called his hometown "Baghdad by the Bay." But for the right the Bay Area was far more degenerate than the reference implied. Conservative Republicans, members of the John Birch Society and other like-minded ideologues, warned of the coming Apocalpse and a growing communist influence. They agitated about the agitators and howled about the beatniks until everyone in the nation knew about both.

The Roots of Dissent and Tolerance

Tolerance for the rights of dissenters in the Bay Area perhaps first took root in May of 1934, when members of the Longshoreman's Union went on strike in San Francisco, protesting egregious working conditions and unfair hiring practices.

When police killed four picketers, labor leader Harry Bridges, an unabashed leftist, issued a call for a General Strike, one answered by 150,000 workers and thousands more up and down the West Coast. Commerce ground to a stop for four days until industry leaders agreed to the union's demands.

And when it was over, after the dead were buried, San Francisco changed: It became a union town and a place where the right to dissent was not only tolerated, it was embraced.

THEN THERE was the Oakland General Strike of 1946. When police intervened to break it, 100,000 workers observed a "work holiday" until management and labor agreed to a compromise.

In 1960, five thousand people, many of them students from U.C. Berkeley, gathered in front of San Francisco's City Hall to protest McCarthy-era hearings conducted by the House Un-American Activities Committee. Perhaps more than any other act that demonstration foreshadowed a change in the political status quo in the Bay Area and beyond.

The Free Speech Movement

SPROUL PLAZA, the commons area on the south side of Cal Berkeley, exudes the grandeur one would expect from one of the world's great universities.

The Autumn winds of 1964 scattered leaves shed by London Plane and Maple trees, leaves tumbling and spinning across the broad brick commons area at the plaza's heart, joined in their dance by handbills snatched by the wind from dozens of card tables laden with political flyers and petitions.

As young fresh-faced students returned from summer break they listened to speakers brimming with optimism, moved by a youthful commitment to a dozen different causes, the Civil Rights Movement and the growing military presence of the United States in Vietnam two issues that touched them most profoundly.

In September a series of sit-ins and other non-violent protests at Cal attracted national attention, film clips of students arrested and dragged away by police and highway patrol officers broadcast on the six o'clock news, District Attorney Edwin Meese III leading the charge. Other demonstrations included actions aimed at The Oakland Tribune, which students and others accused of practicing discriminatory hiring practices.

William Knowland and Assemblyman Donald Mulford had seen enough. They brought great pressure to bear on the U.C. Board of Regents to forbid such activity on or near campus. The acquiescence of the Regents to their demands set off an even greater storm of protests known as The Free Speech Movement.

On October 1st, 1964, campus police detained activist Jack Weinberg, tucked him into a police car and prepared to roll away. Hundreds of young people surrounded the vehicle for nearly 36 hours, flattening its tires, one speaker after another climbing atop the squad car denouncing the Regent's policy, demanding free speech on campus.

Then in a moment that would define the student movement for decades, Mario Savio, a mathematics major, removed his shoes to avoid damaging the car, climbed upon its roof and said, "There comes a time when the operation of the machine become so odious...you've got to put your bodies on the gears, and upon the wheels...(and) make it stop."

During one of such campus protests, Meade, then a law student, paused on his way to class to watch and listen. Though active in Students for John Kennedy while an undergraduate, this was something quite different. He considered what was said, ideas he believed had merit and were righteous and for a moment flirted with the idea of staying. He then dutifully marched off to Boalt Hall.

To be continued...

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Letters

The Winds of Change
posted by: Hugh Reilly

Are there sequels to J.P. Bones fine series on Ken Meade & the California Politics of Experience?

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