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CALIFORNIA ELECTIONS : Happy Hostage : 'Abducted' by Brown's Charm, Candidate's Libertarian Husband Helps Campaign


SALINAS — He gruffs and grouses about the liberal media, skewers the Clinton "high dragonhood" of Elders and Shalala, and declares that "poor Dan Quayle" has gotten bad press to rival Bruno Hauptmann's.

Then he tells you he's voting for Kathleen Brown.

Van Gordon Sauter, by happy admission, is "a hostage" in California's governor's race, a "government-loathing, tax-abhorring, bureaucrat-dreading Libertarian abducted by the wit, the charm, the intelligence and compassion of Kathleen Brown, my wife."

The skunk works at Fox Television, where Sauter, 59, is a consultant to the news division, could not have come up with a better plot device than this "Adam's Rib" casting.

"I'm not the normal (political) spouse, and I tend to think my message is effective because I am playing against type . . . and I like to go at it with a certain degree of humor. And I think in the long run, that, for me at least, is a more beneficial, effective way."

Nor is his a male-spouse version of the Nancy Reagan adoring gaze.

On the day years ago that Brown informed Sauter she was going to law school, he responded, after a very long silence: "Kathleen, you know what I think of lawyers."

"Yes, Van," she said. "I know what you think of Democrats, too, and you married one."

As he chuffs across the state, speaking to groups and on talk shows in California's second-tier political and media markets, Sauter is always entertaining, often instructive, and sometimes--but not inevitably, judging from the looks on some faces at the Salinas Rotary--persuasive.

Here, still chuckling over the Ukrainian folk tale about the bird up to its neck in manure, and the moral fable about the Hindu, the rabbi and the journalist, the Rotarians elbowed aside their coffee cups and dessert plates to listen to Sauter's acerbic remarks that enfold his Brown-for-governor pitch like puff pastry around beef.

In the same coxswain's voice that once delivered fustian editorials on Los Angeles' CBS-TV affiliate--some of which so offended his future wife that she agreed to a blind-date dinner just to set him straight--Sauter said:

"I am not here in some kind of a battlefield conversion in which I rose from some fetid Republican swamp to the brightness and warmth of the Democratic Party. One of the reasons I celebrate Kathleen's candidacy is that she's not a career politician and she's certainly not a doctrinaire party acolyte who believes that all truth and all wisdom can only originate from one party."

Then Sauter ticks off what ticks him off about Gov. Pete Wilson and the last four--make that 12--years of Republican governors. Some of his laugh lines tend to be delayed-action, and by the time his audience is giggling at the dependent clause, "If California's luck has really run out and Mr. Wilson is reelected. . . ," Sauter is on to another point.

On his Libertarian cross-stitch about government grown too intrusive and expensive, he embroiders, "This should be a Republican issue but it is not. Pete Wilson has grown far too comfy with government."

Predictably, Sauter gives Wilson failing marks on education. "Unless we turn out young people who can do First World jobs, we're doomed. . . . (The state of education) is inexcusable and it is to the point where our financial future is in jeopardy and Kathleen has a dedication to education."

And the governor's stand on Proposition 187 is "unconscionable . . . a public obscenity," dramatizing how the California commonwealth is in peril, Sauter says.

Now for the really fun stuff.

Politics is a late arrival in his speeches; Sauter was on the circuit long before this election, talking about the news media and news technology, from his years as a newspaperman, his recent time at Fox, and his longer and often-criticized tenure at CBS.

He contrasts an abundance of information--radio, newspapers, TV, magazines, books--and a news-consuming public that "unfortunately (gives) far too much reliance to television, which is unsuited as a medium . . . to be the core source of information in our society."

Journalists' credibility is eroding by virtue of their argumentativeness, he contends, and even the technological advances that cut out the reportorial middlemen--"no one has ever had more access (to information) in the history of mankind"--have created some unease, with the potential for widening the gulf between haves and have-nots.

What got almost everyone at the Rotary lunch nodding in agreement was Sauter's indictment of a pop culture "characterized by flat-out decadence . . . an appalling absence of values. . . . All of us have contributed in one way or another to the coarse applause for the sexuality and violence and nihilism that is so rampant in our popular culture." There was no mention of some Fox entertainment programs, such as "Married With Children," that have come in for their share of critical finger-pointing on that score.

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