During my thirty-five years in Congress, I’ve been involved in hundreds of hearings. Many were forgettable. A handful have had lasting impact. And one, on April 14, 1994, stands among the great Washington dramas. Like the McCarthy and Watergate hearings, it has assumed a place in popular mythology as a turning point in our national history that lives on in textbooks and Hollywood movies.
On that morning, in a hearing room of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, the CEOs of the nation’s seven largest tobacco companies assembled for the first time to testify before Congress. I had summoned them there in my capacity as chairman of the Subcommittee on Health and the Environment to answer questions about the $61 billion industry they controlled and the 440,000 people who died every year as a result of its products. It was a showdown that had been years in the making.
The life of a congressman is often one of painstaking process. You endure the daily grind of committee meetings, markups, and hearings in order to build the foundation that all great legislation requires—from landmark measures like the New Deal, the Civil Rights Act, Medicare and Medicaid, to major new initiatives like climate change legislation and universal health care that could soon be enacted. You persevere so that those who abuse the public trust will be held to account. But mostly you do it for the rare and fleeting occasions when your actions might improve the lives of millions of your fellow Americans.
For years, tobacco had been a crisis that screamed out for government oversight, and as chairman of the House subcommittee responsible for overseeing the public health it was my job to address it. This didn’t make me popular. A staffer for a Republican colleague from Virginia’s tobacco country had an ashtray in his office with my picture at the bottom for stubbing out his cigarettes. But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had declared tobacco “the single largest preventable cause of death and disability” in the United States. Yet for forty years, Congress had allowed the tobacco industry to operate with impunity. Since 1953, scientists had known that tobacco caused cancer in rats. But despite thousands of studies and overwhelming scientific consensus about its deadly effects, the industry’s Washington lobby was so powerfully entrenched that tobacco effectively stood beyond the reach of the government to regulate or control.
In 1994 nearly twenty years had passed since I arrived in Washington as a young congressman from Los Angeles, and during that time I had seen firsthand how the tobacco industry manipulated Washington: how it spread enormous sums of money to both Republicans and Democrats; how it attempted to silence representatives of minority communities (whose members tobacco kills more quickly than the broader public) with lavish grants for local charities and arts programs; how it created the illusion of scientific authority by funding pseudoscientific outfits like the Council for Tobacco Research that The Wall Street Journal called “the hub of a massive effort to cast doubt on the links between smoking and disease”; and especially how the CEOs had shrewdly hidden themselves from view, instead putting forward these dubious “experts” and advertising icons like Joe Camel and the Newport Kids to serve as the public face of this deadly industry.
By inviting the CEOs to testify, I hoped to change that image and expose the men who controlled this deadly business to the full glare of the public spotlight. Many people had struggled for many years to lay the groundwork necessary for this day to happen.
Congress is held in low regard by much of the public, which tends to view its members as officious or inept. But most of the critics I encounter lack a full appreciation for what Congress really does. The Constitution confers powers on its members that, when properly deployed, can yield widespread benefits to all Americans. Tobacco is a good example. Over the years, my staff and I had done all we could to establish a public record of tobacco’s harm and build what we hoped would become the necessary pressure to finally force government action. We had won some small skirmishes, narrowly passing legislation requiring warning labels on cigarettes and banning smoking on airplanes. In 1993, when the Environmental Protection Agency proved the deadly effect of secondhand smoke, I had introduced a bill banning smoking in public buildings, and then led a hearing in which the last six surgeons general—four Republicans and two Democrats—testified in support of it. Soon afterward, McDonald’s announced plans to ban smoking in its restaurants, and so did the United States military.
Evidence had recently begun to leak from inside this notoriously secretive industry that companies were marketing to kids and spiking the level of nicotine in cigarettes to keep smokers addicted. This, too, had prompted a hearing just weeks before the CEOs had their turn. David Kessler, the commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, had testified that cigarettes were “high-technology nicotine delivery systems,” and he let it be known that the FDA was considering regulating tobacco, citing the reports of nicotine spiking as justification. Gradually but inexorably, my congressional allies and I had used the levers of government power to create national momentum to confront this vital issue.
All of this fed the growing awareness of tobacco’s dangers. By April 1994, 91 percent of Americans believed that cigarettes were addictive. The tobacco industry, as it always did, used its considerable money and influence to strike back. In the months before the CEOs testified, the industry had sued the EPA for its report on secondhand smoke and the city of San Francisco for banning public smoking, and then it filed a $10 billion libel suit against ABC for its reports on nicotine spiking—all in an effort to intimidate and silence critics. What had finally compelled the CEOs to come out of the shadows and testify was the mounting pressure we had managed to create. Now, the full weight of the tobacco industry was about to strike at us.
THIS WAS A POSITION I WAS WELL ACCUSTOMED TO. NEARLY EVERY worthwhile fight in my career began with my being badly out-matched. The other guys always have more money. That’s why Congress is so important. Run as it should be, it ensures that no special interest can ever be powerful enough to eclipse the public interest. The story of the tobacco fight, and many others like it, is testimony to how Congress can work for the greater good.
Sadly, the view of government as a positive force that serves its people is one that has all but vanished since I first ran for office. Today, disdain for government is so strong that it has given rise to the idea that Congress in particular cannot do much of anything right. This cynical outlook has been nurtured by a thirty-year-long crusade led by ideological conservatives to turn the American people against their elected officials by continually disparaging them and all that they do. Ronald Reagan epitomized this attitude when he declared, “The scariest words in the English language are, ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.’”
As someone who has spent those thirty years in Congress working for the general good, I strongly reject this notion. I’ve lived the frustrations of Congress and spent a great deal of time investigating incompetent government, so I understand the complaints. But I also have plenty of experience passing legislation against fierce opposition, and then watching the bills bring important benefits to people all over the country. And I know firsthand how government oversight reduces fraud and abuse. Congress is far from perfect and would benefit from some important reforms—but at a fundamental level it not only works, it is a tremendous force for good.
I wrote this book to explain how Congress really works and to give an idea of the many accomplishments that are routinely overlooked, misunderstood, or drowned out by partisan attacks. During my time in Congress, I have participated in a number of difficult but important fights that have had enormous positive influence on people’s lives—legislation limiting toxic air emissions, so we can all breathe cleaner air; expanding Medicaid coverage for the poor and elderly; banning smoking on airplanes; funding the first government-sponsored HIV/ AIDS research; lowering drug prices through generic alternatives and fostering the development of hundreds of new drugs to treat rare diseases and conditions that pharmaceutical companies had ignored; putting nutritional labels on food, and keeping it free of pesticides, so that you know what you and your kids are eating; and establishing federal standards for nursing homes to protect the elderly from abuse and neglect. I have also used congressional oversight powers to protect taxpayer dollars and stop waste, fraud, and abuse in areas ranging from Wall Street to the Hurricane Katrina clean-up to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In the chapters ahead, I’ll use many of these examples to demonstrate why negative views of government are so often misguided and how the lessons of my three decades in the House of Representatives can be applied to make Congress even more effective.
ONE REASON PEOPLE DON’T APPRECIATE GOVERNMENT AS FULLY as they might is that many of the positive changes take years to fully materialize. Certainly, no one present at the tobacco hearings could have foreseen the magnitude of their effect. The iconic photograph of the seven CEOs standing with right hands raised as they swore an oath that each would proceed to break in full view of the American people did indeed change tobacco’s public image; and their claim that they did not believe cigarettes to be addictive became national news. In the days after the hearing, the industry launched a massive counterattack against the “witch hunt” that it claimed its leaders had been forced to endure. One sympathetic columnist called the hearing “an odious, contemptible, puritanical display of arrogance and power,” while another compared me to Joseph McCarthy. But they could not sustain the lie for very long. In the months and years that followed, key portions of the executives’ testimony would collapse in the torrent of documents and testimony from industry insiders that the hearing unleashed. Even Hollywood took notice, as Russell Crowe and Al Pacino dramatized the story in the hit movie The Insider.
Driven by Congress, the focus on tobacco’s dangers led states and municipalities across the country to ban smoking in public buildings, and persuaded untold numbers of people to quit smoking or, better, never to start. Countless lives were saved.
But on the morning of April 14, 1994, as I climbed the stairs to assume the chairman’s seat, that was all still just a vague hope, and I could think only about the challenge at hand. Seated before me in the packed hearing room, flanked by television cameras, were the seven powerful men who together represented the American tobacco industry. The most formidable Washington lobby that money could buy sat just behind them, a phalanx of high-priced lawyers, political fixers, and public relations spinners who had managed to keep the industry shrouded in secrecy, and hold the government at bay, for almost forty years.
On my side sat a handful of committed colleagues whose years of hard work had culminated with this historic hearing in which each would play a key role. They included Mike Synar of Oklahoma, Ron Wyden of Oregon, and Mike Kreidler of Washington, who would describe in vivid detail to the tobacco executives seated across from him his own father’s prolonged and terrible death from emphysema after a lifetime of smoking. My staff had locked themselves in the office the night before to develop lines of questioning and guarantee that nothing leaked to our resourceful foes. We had prepared well. But no one doubted that we were seriously outgunned.
In the moments before the proceedings got underway, I reminded myself how I had arrived here. I thought about my parents, who had instilled in me a belief that government matters and that public service is a noble calling; my early days in California politics, when I’d been part of a group of reformers that had overcome the state’s entrenched powers; my battle sixteen years earlier against some of the most powerful men in Congress for the chairmanship of this very subcommittee, so that I might bring accountability to industries like tobacco that operate without any. Everything had built to this moment. This was why I was here.
Then I raised my right hand and banged down the gavel. “The meeting of the subcommittee will now come to order.”
I WAS BORN IN 1939 IN THE EAST LOS ANGELES NEIGHBORhood of Boyle Heights. Though my parents met and married in Los Angeles, they share a common ancestry. Both families emigrated from what was then called the Bessarabia region of the Russian Empire (what is today known as Moldova), to escape the anti-Jewish pogrom of 1903. The Boyle Heights of my youth was a teeming immigrant community, with a heavy representation of Russian and Eastern European Jews, along with Mexicans, Japanese, and many others.
When I was growing up, politics was a passionate interest of the Waxman household. My father, Lou Waxman, was the most political person I knew, and my mother, Esther, was not far behind. One of my most vivid memories as a child is going to bed on the night of the 1948 election and waking up the next morning to find my parents still huddled around the radio listening to the news that Harry Truman had won.
My earliest lessons about politics were delivered over the dinner table. My father was an ardent Democrat, who worshipped Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal. For a long time he worked for a retail grocery chain as a proud member of the Retail Clerks Union #770. Unions served the vital purpose of looking out for workers, he explained to me, because without their protection management would only hire clerks during the busy hours. The rest of the time you’d be out of a job, and unlikely to be able to support your family.
Like so many of his generation, my father was scarred by the Great Depression. The need to support his family forced him to quit high school, and he was never able to fulfill his dream of going to college. But his view of government, which he imparted to me, was unremittingly positive. He believed that it was a tremendous force for good and could do still more, often reminding me how much Roosevelt had done to help families like ours survive the hard times. It was the government, he would tell me, that finally stepped in to halt the practices of big business that had caused the Depression and got the country moving again. Business only looked out for its own. But government was the great equalizer. It ensured that the little guy had a chance.
One thing that has changed markedly since my childhood is how most Americans view their government. In Boyle Heights, everyone thought of government as an institution that helped people, an especially vital resource for the immigrant community. Government provided people with the means to get an education, through the public school system. It provided security for the elderly, through the Social Security program. It did not occur to anyone to rail against government or to regard it as a vast malign force, as so many people do today. To us, government supplied the means to move up the economic ladder and improve our lot in life. It provided a path to the middle class.
My family’s passion for politics was as much active and participatory as ideological, and it manifested itself most prominently in the figure of my uncle, Al Waxman. My father’s older brother was a fiery liberal, the founder and publisher of the local newspaper, the East Side Journal, whose proud Democratic viewpoint provided a sharp contrast and a necessary counterweight to what was then a very right-wing Los Angeles Times. During World War II, as Californians of Japanese heritage—many of them our neighbors—were rounded up and forced into camps, the East Side Journal was one of the few newspapers in the country to editorialize against this outrage.
Uncle Al’s activist streak did not limit itself only to newsprint. Even back in the 1940s, Los Angeles was often blanketed by a thick layer of smog. No one knew precisely what caused this or quite how to fix it, so the Los Angeles County Smoke and Fumes Commission was established to investigate the problem, and as a figure of some prominence in the community, Uncle Al became one of its earliest appointees. He didn’t last long. Soon after the commission began its inquiry into the reasons for the poor air quality, he concluded that pollution from local industry was a significant contributor. Nor was he shy about saying so. On a commission stacked with local bigwigs, blaming industry for the city’s pollution caused a good deal of political discomfort for its members, and Al was soon pushed out. But his activism was always a source of family pride and his example offers a lesson that I have learned time and again during my career: Criticizing powerful interests is frequently necessary and does not make you a popular fellow.
AFTER WORLD WAR II, THE JEWISH COMMUNITY IN LOS ANGELES gravitated to the city’s west side. The strip along Fairfax Avenue was soon bustling with delicatessens, Jewish stores, and kosher food outlets, serving, among many others, most of my family, along with many of our friends and neighbors. Hot to follow the action, Uncle Al sold the East Side Journal and established another newspaper, the LA Reporter, which was commonly referred to in the new neighborhood as “The Waxman Reporter.” After growing up in South Central Los Angeles, where we lived above my father’s grocery store, I moved west, too, enrolling at the University of California–Los Angeles, where I decided to study political science.
Besides satisfying my growing interest in politics, my choice of major had the convenience of not requiring a heavy regimen of classes, leaving plenty of time for extracurricular activities. One of the first things I did at UCLA was to join the university’s vibrant Young Democrats Club, where I soon developed a close circle of friends. Many of those I knew and worked with at that time—people like Phil and John Burton, Howard and Michael Berman, Phil Isenberg, Willie Brown, and Dave Roberti—would go on to remarkable political careers.
In those days, there was a lot of excitement among Democrats, particularly on college campuses in California. The activist spirit that would explode in the 1960s was just beginning to stir. For committed liberals like my friends and myself, the most important issues included a nuclear test ban treaty, abolishing the notorious House Un-American Activities Committee, establishing diplomatic relations with Red China, and championing civil rights legislation. Soon enough, opposition to the escalating war in Vietnam became a central cause as well. These positions were so outside the mainstream Democratic Party that, at one point, reporters asked John F. Kennedy himself about the California Young Democrats. “I don’t worry much about those Young Democrats,” he replied. “Time is on our side.” I suppose he meant that as we grew older, we would come to see things his way. In fact, over time, people started to see things our way.
The period around 1960 is remembered today for being the time when John F. Kennedy captivated the nation. People I meet still tell me that his example inspired them to get into politics. His nomination at the 1960 Democratic convention, held in Los Angeles, was indeed significant. But at the time, we thought that if you considered yourself a true liberal, as we emphatically did, you had to be an Adlai Stevenson man. So my friends and I did what we could for the Stevenson cause.
As a newspaper publisher, Uncle Al commanded a pair of prized floor passes to the convention, which Howard Berman and I put to enterprising use. As soon as we entered the gallery, one of us would sneak back out with the passes. In this way we were eventually able to infiltrate all our friends to root for the “Draft Stevenson” movement—an effort that did not wind up succeeding, alas, although we did manage to make a lot of noise.
In the early 1960s, the California Democratic Party was divided into two factions. Atop one group, the traditional and somewhat more conservative Democrats, sat Jesse Unruh, the powerful speaker of the State Assembly. Atop the other, more liberal, group to which I belonged sat California’s governor, Pat Brown. Unruh and Brown had a serious rivalry that also came to define the Young Democrats. There were Unruh people and Brown people, and for us liberals, wresting power from the Unruh faction that controlled the California Federation of Young Democrats was the constant struggle.
When I became the head of the federation’s liberal caucus during my junior year in college, the task of outmaneuvering the Unruh crowd and taking control of the Young Democrats fell largely to me. The only way to do this, I recognized, was to out-organize the opposition. Organization is the bedrock of everything that happens in politics, the necessary precursor to any real change. So I began traveling around the state in the battered, two-tone, green-and-white Buick with large fins that was my primary means of transportation. I’d visit high schools and college campuses, to talk to Young Democrat clubs, appeal to their idealism, and try to make common cause with them and expand our numbers.
Control of the statewide federation of clubs was determined at an annual convention by whose candidate won the presidency. The first push to topple the Unruh folks that I participated in came in 1960, and though I spent a good deal of the academic year crisscrossing the state, our candidate came up short. Afterward, John Burton, Willie Brown, Howard Berman, and I sat despondent in a San Diego hotel room talking about what we’d do next. Phil Burton, several years older and by that time a California assemblyman, urged us to persevere. “You learn more by losing than you do by winning,” he told us. Indeed, we had just learned that we much preferred winning.
Burton was already emerging as a force in national politics and would go on to exercise a tremendous influence on my career and on that of many others. He was very liberal, very smart, and very pragmatic. When serving in Congress in the 1970s, he came within a single vote of being elected House majority leader. His constant invocation was to perform the difficult work of organizing. He dismissed exalted types who only wanted to give speeches as “Manhattan Democratic liberals”—a real put-down in California. They always sounded great when they spoke, he complained, but they never managed to get anything done. This rang true to me. Burton believed that it was far more important to accomplish your political objectives than simply to say the right thing and draw cheers from the crowd. Only through the hard work of organization can you accomplish the toughest goals.
The following year all of us redoubled our efforts and I was back on the road. The federation’s 1961 gathering buzzed with intrigue. We had worked furiously throughout the year to establish new clubs and add liberal members to those that already existed. It was clear to both sides that we were almost evenly matched. Every vote would count. Fights broke out before the credentials committee, delegates on both sides lobbied furiously, and still we were unsure of whether our candidate for president, Phil Isenberg, had the strength to prevail.
The vote came down to a single delegate, a fellow by the name of Richard Harmetz, the head of the Beverly Hills Young Democrats, who had arrived at the convention an Unruh supporter. An important lesson in politics is that you never know who your allies may turn out to be. Even adversaries can sometimes be persuaded to support your cause. When we suggested that Harmetz join our team and become a statewide officer, he shifted his loyalties and Isenberg prevailed. At long last the liberals took control of the Young Democrats.
MY FATHER NEVER LEFT ANY DOUBT THAT HE EXPECTED ME TO join the professional class. I had no mind for business and couldn’t stand the sight of blood, which put medical school out of the question. So after college, I enrolled at the UCLA law school, convinced that a degree would be practical. But my primary interest continued to be the Young Democrats. With my faction now in control, we began pressing for the “far-out” issues we cared about. Looking back now, it’s a little amusing to me that the ideas we championed were considered so radical. Everything from our support for civil rights and relations with China to our opposition to the Un-American Activities Committee and the Vietnam War had entered the mainstream of American politics or soon would. But back then we were still something of a spectacle.
In 1965, I won a two-year term as president of the California Federation of Young Democrats, a position of some visibility. Television talk shows were just beginning to take off, and as a leading Young Democrat I was often invited to appear as a guest. I suspect this had as much to do with what were considered to be my unorthodox views as my position in Democratic politics. I vividly recall one Los Angeles talk show where I found myself seated on a panel with a Kennedy-assassination conspiracy theorist and a woman who claimed to have been abducted by a UFO. Such was the novelty of my opposition to the Vietnam War and my criticism of Lyndon Johnson’s prosecution of it—a president of my own party!—that the show’s producers considered this an apt lineup.
But not everyone regarded my liberal cohorts and me as simply curiosities. The national Democratic Party’s main power broker in California, a consigliere to both the Kennedy family and President Johnson, was a Los Angeles lawyer by the name of Eugene Wyman, who, much to my surprise, summoned me to a meeting shortly after I became president of CFYD. Wyman congratulated me on my new role, but was agitated about my opposition to the war, and he sought to impress upon me the need to tone down my criticism of the president. “You’re in a position of authority when you speak for the Democratic Party,” he complained. “You can’t be a leader of the Democratic Party and be against this war and the president.” I explained that I didn’t think Johnson’s policy in Vietnam was the right one. Wyman insisted that I couldn’t say that. I was dumbfounded. “Well, how about civil rights?” I asked him. “Is it okay to talk about that?” “Oh, that would be fine,” he replied. When our meeting ended, I left amused rather than intimidated that such an important man cared so much about what I had to say.
FOR ALL THAT I LOVED POLITICS, I NEVER ENVISIONED MYSELF RUNning for office. But in 1968, an opportunity arose that changed my mind. The longtime state assemblyman from our area, Lester McMillan, a local fixture at age seventy, was expected to retire. During his twenty-eight years in the assembly McMillan had compiled a solid liberal record, especially on civil rights.
Every year, he would offer a bill to eliminate the death penalty, which was a popular idea within his heavily liberal district. But on economic issues, McMillan had a reputation in Sacramento for being close to many of the “special interests.” In 1965, he was indicted for bribery in a scandal connected to the construction of the Los Angeles Marina. He had stood trial, been acquitted, and afterward announced that he would run once more for reelection, in 1966, to clear his name. Then he would retire. At least, that was my assumption.
If McMillan quit, the seat would be wide open, and because the district was reliably liberal, winning the Democratic primary was tantamount to winning the general election. I figured there would be heavy competition, so the vote would likely be spread across many candidates. With my organizational skills and the support of the Waxman family newspaper, I thought my chances looked pretty good.
But there was one factor I hadn’t reckoned on: Lester McMillan decided not to quit. When I went to see him, in the hopes of changing his mind, he did not seem particularly troubled by my challenge. “I have some advice for you,” he told me. “Don’t put your own money into the campaign.”
As a close ally of Jesse Unruh’s, McMillan had always won without much difficulty, and this year looked to be no different. In fact, there was reason to believe he might do better than ever. In 1968, Bobby Kennedy was running for president in the California primary, Unruh was heading the Kennedy campaign in California and McMillan was a Kennedy delegate—a truly significant factor in a district like McMillan’s that was about one-third black, one-third Jewish, and one-third mixed ethnic. Kennedy was beloved in the black community, whose strong support McMillan had every right to expect.
I decided to run anyway, and rounded up my Young Democrat friends to help organize my campaign. Howard Berman’s brother, Michael, a nineteen-year-old computer whiz at UC Berkeley, agreed to drop out and come down to Los Angeles to manage the campaign. Howard Elinson, a UCLA classmate who had become a professor of sociology, helped develop the message. The intersection of politics and technology barely existed in those days. But Michael Berman had an idea about how computers could help win an election. My cousin’s husband, who worked in the computer industry, figured out with Michael that by punching in the information from local voter files they could write a program to generate individualized letters with messages targeted to different voter blocs and mail them to everyone in the district. Howard Elinson came up with distinct messages to appeal to the district’s various ethnic and racial groups. And I spent months pounding the pavement, walking precincts, knocking on every door in every neighborhood to introduce myself to voters.
This exercise taught me that Lester McMillan might indeed be a renowned figure, but also that voters respond to personal contact. They appreciated that I was working to earn their votes and willing to listen to their concerns. After a while, I could tell that I was beginning to get through because people began to recognize me, even if not everyone was as well informed about the race as I would have liked. One morning, a woman came to the door with a broad smile of recognition. “There are only two people I’m voting for,” she announced brightly. “You and Lester McMillan.” I didn’t have the heart to explain that we were opponents.
Another facet of the campaign did not proceed quite as smoothly. Family can be a big asset when you’re running for office. Both my parents and my sister, Miriam, put in long hours at campaign headquarters. I was counting on the Waxman name to attract the Jewish vote and appeal to readers of the family newspaper, still informally called “The Waxman Reporter” even after Uncle Al died and my Aunt Ruth took over. The paper published influential front-page endorsements right before Election Day. So shortly after launching my campaign, I invited Aunt Ruth to lunch to discuss my candidacy and what I assumed would be her eager support. Instead, looking somewhat pained, she delivered some unexpected news. “I’m endorsing Lester McMillan,” she told me. The LA Reporter had supported McMillan for years, and he’d been a friend of my uncle’s: Despite family ties, Aunt Ruth did not think it proper to abandon him. As a consolation, she offered me a weekly column to make the case for my candidacy to her readers. Figuring that guilt would get the better of her long before Election Day, I accepted the offer and made a breakfast date for the following week to try again. This became a weekly ritual—and, in the end, not a successful one. Aunt Ruth remained true to her word and endorsed Lester McMillan on Election Day (though I’m pleased to report that we remained very close, and that she has endorsed me ever since).
Oddly enough, my most helpful endorsement was entirely unsolicited. One day, a long, black, chauffeur-driven limousine pulled up to the curb in front of my campaign headquarters, and an elegantly dressed older African-American man stepped out, gazed up at the “WAXMAN FOR STATE ASSEMBLY” billboard above the door, and, though he was frail and used a cane, pushed his way inside. “I saw the name Waxman and I wasn’t sure who it was,” he said to me. When I introduced myself and explained that my family had lived in the community for years, he smiled and nodded. His name was Colonel Leon Washington and he turned out to be the publisher of the local black newspaper, the Los Angeles Sentinel. He remembered Uncle Al because the Sentinel and the East Side Journal had been the only two liberal newspapers in town. After we’d chatted for a while, he said, “I’m going to support you.” I’m ashamed to admit that I waited for him to ask something in return, imagining that he’d want me to buy advertising in the Sentinel. But all that he asked was that, if elected, would I please see to it that a post office opened in the black neighborhood, which didn’t have one.
Lester McMillan never took me seriously, so he didn’t put on much of a campaign. In the black neighborhoods, where his status as a Bobby Kennedy delegate should have earned him huge margins, he did nothing at all. Meanwhile, I had spent months knocking on doors and developed a slate piece—a voter guide—with Berman and Elinson urging people to vote for “Waxman and Kennedy.” As the June primary neared, we received word that Kennedy himself would appear at a political rally along Fairfax Avenue. On the day of the rally, the street was closed off. One of my campaign workers got hold of a loudspeaker. “Come to Fairfax to hear Senator Kennedy and meet Assembly candidate Henry Waxman!” blared the message. When Kennedy finally arrived, he waved for only a few moments before driving off.
It hardly mattered. On Election Day, I wound up beating McMillan by a margin of two to one. To my surprise, I performed even better in the black neighborhoods than in the Jewish ones. (Today, the Colonel Leon H. Washington Jr. Post Office sits at 43rd Street and Central Avenue in Los Angeles.)
But the celebration of my first great political victory was short-lived. As friends and family gathered to cheer at campaign headquarters, stunning news was broadcast on the television set: Bobby Kennedy had been shot across town.