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Herb Caen's 50 Years : Prophet of 'The City' Sees Decline

April 16, 1987|THOMAS B. ROSENSTIEL and DAN MORAIN | Times Staff Writers

In the '60s he opposed the war and railed against razing the old city to make way for its "Manhattanization," but he never railed for long. Brevity averts boredom.

Influence Is Tangible

Sometimes the impact of Caen's popularity is tangible, if somewhat whimsical. He forced the installation of a radio antenna in the Broadway Street tunnel after he missed a key play in a Giants game, and had a "Last S.F. Exit" sign posted just before that point on the Bay Bridge after he found himself too often in Oakland.

Others say that Caen has used his popularity to exert a less concrete and not entirely positive influence on the city's life. State Sen. Quentin L. Kopp (I-San Francisco), for example, goes so far as to call Caen a part of the city's "moral debilitation." Others say that his irreverence and abhorrence of the serious has affected the city politically.

"The surface is fun and lively," said Jerry Lubenow, Newsweek magazine's longtime San Francisco bureau chief who, in 1984, worked briefly at the Chronicle as a high-ranking editor. "Who cares what's below the surface? So what if they are on the take?"

Some Bay Area journalists believe Caen himself is vulnerable on the matter of ethics.

Ads Seen as 'Conflict'

First among their complaints are the television and newspaper advertisements for a local thrift company--San Francisco Federal Savings & Loan Co.--that Caen began doing in 1981. Ads with Caen pitching the S&L's rates even appear in the Chronicle. He also has done ads for Honda.

"If he were a politician his paper would rightly be writing about this obvious conflict," said an executive for a rival financial institution who asked for anonymity because he said he feared Caen might be angry.

"Philosophically, I don't like doing commercials," Caen said, "but it was a matter of dollars and cents." He said he needed the money to put his son, Christopher, through Stanford University.

If the ads--which Caen says Chronicle Editor and Publisher Richard T. Thieriot approved--represent a conflict of interest, it is at least a public one.

Caen's critics also say that he accepts meals, trips and even free clothes from some of the people he writes about. Most newspapers prohibit such conduct.

"That's Herb's Achilles' heel," said Ben Bagdikian, dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley.

Caen, who until this year had no expense account with the paper and covered his costs from his salary of more than $120,000 a year, denies such charges:

"I've bent over backwards to get the check." And he sneers at the value of such gratuities: "You can't buy a plug with a free dinner anyway, or a free drink. It doesn't mean anything."

Some restaurateurs in town, however, contradict his account.

"He doesn't pay," said the manager of an exclusive Nob Hill restaurant Caen occasionally frequents. The manager, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that the restaurant picks up the tab, tip included.

"What would happen if we did send him a bill? That's what we don't want to find out."

"I would love to think Herb Caen pays for everything," said an executive of a well-known downtown restaurant who once managed another favorite night spot of Caen's. "But I know he doesn't pay when he comes here," nor at the previous establishment.

Questions about Caen's ethics took a more significant turn two years ago, when two of his friends became the targets of investigations.

One case involved clothier Wilkes Bashford, whose name has appeared in Caen's column 41 times over the past two years. In 1985, Bashford was charged with underpaying the rent on his store, which was then in a city-owned building. He eventually pleaded no contest and repaid nearly $800,000 in criminal penalties.

David James Burr--a Bashford store accountant--told the grand jury that Caen's bills at Bashford's went directly to the store, rather than to Caen's home, and that his was the only account handled in such a manner.

"Somebody made the payment. I don't know who," Burr testified. He said he believed that Bashford himself paid for Caen's clothes. "I assumed it was for publicity. . . . I assumed it was good will, to keep our name in the column."

Based in part on that testimony, Deputy District Atty. John Carbone subpoenaed the records of Caen's account at the haberdashery. Shortly afterward, without mentioning the subpoena, Caen blasted the investigation, saying it smacked of "witch hunt and vendetta."

Bashford's lawyer, George Walker, said there was "no question" that Caen paid for his clothes. Carbone, however, told The Times that the subpoenaed records were incomplete, that there was no proof that Caen did or did not pay his bills.

The second case involved William Oldenburg, a businessman who employed Caen's then-girlfriend, publicist Donna Ewald. Federal Savings & Loan Insurance Corp. has filed a lawsuit accusing Oldenburg of fraud and misappropriation of funds in the operation of a Utah thrift. His once-prosperous San Francisco loan brokerage also has closed.

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