AT 40,000 FEET, on a crowded jet halfway between Los Angeles and Washington, Al Checchi puts down his newspaper, leans over and asks: "What's the highest-ranking job that you think I could get in the next Democratic Administration?"
This question requires a little context. Alfred A. Checchi of Beverly Hills is young, smart and successful in business, and he is very, very rich. His life, until now, has been a fairly uninterrupted accumulation of achievements: treasurer of Marriott Corp. when he was 30, a partner of the billionaire Bass brothers' Fort Worth investment operations when he was 33.
But Checchi has never held an appointive political office. He has never sought an elective office. Until a little more than a year ago, he had never even met an elected official. There is still much about the political world that mystifies him.
"Assistant secretary of the Treasury," I say.
Checchi slumps back in his seat. He looks pensive. Then he leans forward. "I'll tell you this: I'm not going to go in to go from low to high," he says firmly. "I have no interest in that. It's not title; it's a question of substance. You've got in Washington probably two dozen jobs from a substantive point of view that are attractive to me, none of which I'm likely to be offered in the next couple of years. But if they came to me and said, 'Al, you can have something else,' even though it had a high title, I don't think I'd want one of those jobs."
It doesn't seem likely that Checchi will have a chance to disappoint anyone on that score next year, but who knows? Checchi (pronounced CHECK-ee) is on his way to political influence, moving quickly along the fast track that connects Los Angeles and Washington. Right now, from where Checchi sits, suspended between the poles of his ambition, on his way to the capital for a long day of meetings with the majority whip in the House of Representatives, the present and former chairmen of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, the president of the hottest liberal think tank in the city, and the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, the possibilities look boundless. A run for the California Statehouse? Perhaps the U.S. Senate? More? Who knows?
AL CHECCHI ROLLED INTO LOS ANGELES ONE DAY last June with his wife, three children, an explosive but unfocused ambition, and enough money in the bank to qualify as a subaltern to the Forbes 400.
Like many pilgrims to California, Checchi, 38, came to start again. He wasn't trying to pick himself off the floor--quite literally he came from the penthouse--but he was looking for a new canvas. His wife, Kathryn, is from Southern California, and on his visits to Los Angeles he had enjoyed the weather and the pulse, the city's feverish entrepreneurial energy in banking and real estate and entertainment.
California held other attractions. Checchi told friends that he found the state's political culture open to new faces and new ideas; it seemed to him also a microcosm of the country, a place whose trends and innovations reverberated through all 50 states.
All of which suited Checchi fine. In the world of high finance, Checchi was not an Iacocca or an H. Ross Perot, but there was a buzz around him. Now he wanted to find himself a place in California's crowded political hierarchy, already stuffed with bright young men and women jostling for room in a very small, often fleeting limelight.
In articulating this ambition to his friends, Checchi was completing a long, leisurely circle. Checchi was raised in suburban Washington, the middle-class son of a federal Food and Drug Administration civil servant. Growing up on the fringes of the capital, Checchi was intrigued by government; he envisioned himself rolling up his sleeves with Robert Kennedy in the Justice Department, burning the lights late night after night, muscling Jimmy Hoffa and George C. Wallace with the bludgeon of the law.
Then he went to college at Amherst in Massachusetts at a time when the seams appeared to be coming out of the country, and he lost the thread; his earnest middle-class priorities suddenly seemed irrelevant. At Amherst in 1968 government was where you went if your goal was to torch villages. Checchi wandered through the end of the 1960s in a surly daze.
After college, hanging around home with nothing to do, he drifted into business at a mini-conglomerate owned by his uncle. He soon discovered he had a touch for it. After a few years learning the game, Checchi picked up an MBA at Harvard Business School and joined Marriott. There, he rose briskly; in four years, he was Marriott's treasurer, one of its top officials, a comer. "He was a brilliant guy, a brilliant guy," says J. W. Marriott Jr., the company's chairman, president and CEO. "He's one of the four or five smartest people I've ever met."