SACRAMENTO — B.T. Collins would have loved it, especially the break in heavy rain that allowed more than 1,000 mourners to stand dry at the California Vietnam Veterans Memorial and listen to him being eulogized by friends and governors.
It was the highlight of a daylong commemoration of Collins' life that set a new standard for memorial services in Sacramento and brought the capital to a virtual standstill.
First there was a Mass at the packed Cathedral. Collins' political enemies last year had branded him "a rawboned, red-in-the-face atheist," but the priest said emphatically that "God blessed and embraced B. T."
Then his body lay in state for three hours in the Capitol Rotunda, the first person so honored in anybody's memory. People lined up six deep behind ropes and a military honor guard for a glimpse. A caisson, complete with riderless horse and a single drummer, moved the flag-draped coffin through wooded Capitol Park to the veterans memorial.
A military band played. An old drinking buddy sang "Danny Boy."
Gov. Pete Wilson, who persuaded Collins to run for the Assembly two years ago, noted that the former Army captain had been the motivating force behind the veterans memorial. Choking with emotion, the governor had a hard time finishing.
Former Gov. Jerry Brown, whom Collins served as an irreverent chief of staff, brought laughter with self-deprecating humor, reporting that B. T. frequently admonished him, "It's (personal) relationships, Brown--something you don't understand." He praised Collins for loyalty "and calling a spade a spade, not being afraid of what's politically correct and incorrect. And yet at the same time, underneath all that blust, was a very, very soft human being."
The two-hour ceremony ended with a gun salute, taps played by a bugle duet and the flyover of Red Cross helicopters and Cobra gunships--the kind that rescued Collins from a Vietnam jungle after a grenade had ripped off an arm and a leg.
Mourners' clothes were dry, but not all their eyes.
And, of course, an hours-long Irish wake was held at the hotel where Collins suffered the heart attack that killed him last Friday at age 52. He had left money for the party. And his corpse was there for it.
The tribute was spectacular and fit for a governor or a potentate.
But one thing was missing that B. T. really would have enjoyed: Some mention of the "very near and dear" legislative proposals--as he recently had described them to me--that he was pushing and now has left behind. Many bills were as provocative as the man himself, originating from the heart rather than special interests, the kind that might have been drafted in a bar (if he hadn't been sober for six years) rather than in a think tank.
To put these measures in perspective, one has to remember that during Collins' freshman year in the Assembly he sat silently in the back row, never introducing a bill and never making a floor speech. He didn't think newly arrived Republicans had a prayer of getting bills passed in a Democrat-controlled Legislature. And he didn't believe floor speeches persuaded anybody. But this year, Collins was sponsoring some novel bills and relishing the prospect of arguing them.
For example, one measure would have awarded a bounty--10% of the fine--for any person who videotaped somebody parking illegally in a handicapped zone. "That's a personal one with me," he said. "It drives me nuts when I see people who are perfectly fit get out of that car."
He also wanted anybody convicted of rape three times to be chemically castrated. "I mean, these are vicious people. I want the ultimate punishment," he said.
He believed a school principal should be allowed to expel any student any time. "I don't believe in due process for kids," he said. "A principal should be the captain of the ship. Once you do that, the morale of teachers is going to go sky-high." Collins' father was a principal and his mother a teacher.
And he wanted to ban all demonstrations within 200 feet of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. "The ACLU types, you know, they think you ought to be able to demonstrate everyplace," he said.
He added, sifting through his bills, "No one should have so much fun as me."
It was his personal magnetism, not political power, that drew the mighty and the ordinary to services for this capital legend. They came, ironically, on a day the Times Poll was reporting that roughly two-thirds of the electorate disapproves of the Legislature's job performance.
The Legislature needs some new B. T.s, but there probably aren't any.