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They Don't Make 'Em Like That Anymore : California Congressman Phillip Burton may have had an insatiable appetite for power and pleasure, but he was incorruptible, says his biographer : A RAGE FOR JUSTICE: The Passion and Politics of Phillip Burton, By John Jacobs (University of California Press; $34.95; 578 pp.)

January 14, 1996|Ted Simon | Ted Simon's most recent book is "The River Stops Here: How One Man's Battle to Save His Valley Changed the Fate of California" (Random House)

In a democracy, and most particularly in this one, it is not considered good form for politicians to seem exceptional. Smart, sure. Successful, yes. Tough, maybe. But exceptional? Hey, who do they think they are!

Nowadays, it seems, we like our politicians to look neat and mediocre. We don't like to think that, hiding under those $200 haircuts, there might be extraordinary people with outrageous qualities, because there may well be monstrous egos and appetites to match. Such character traits we would rather discover in histories of biographies written long after our "representatives" have safely passed away.

In Phillip Burton, John Jacobs has exhumed for us one such character. Important people have gone on record as believing he may have been the greatest of them all in his field. His impact on the life of this land is profound, and yet most Americans today would not recognize his name.

Unofficial master of the House of Representatives from Kennedy to Carter, California Rep. Phil Burton was a huge man with a tremendous amount of guts, any way you care to think about it. He was also endowed with an impressively adroit and calculating intellect.

But what really singled Burton out, we learn from these pages, were three other qualities rarely united in one person: He had a gargantuan appetite for work and success, matched only by his appetite for vodka and steak. His behavior, with friends and enemies alike, was usually obnoxious and sometimes downright disgusting. And, surprisingly, given his other traits, he was seemingly incorruptible, both financially and in his devotion to the common man.

Jacobs, a political editor and columnist for McClatchy Newspapers based at the Sacramento Bee, has done a prodigious job of bringing Burton's life and accomplishments to light. By his own account he worked "exhaustively" through 45 cartons of Burton's personal papers, and conducted about 400 interviews to disentangle the webs Burton wove, a necessary task because, unlike most politicians, Burton rarely advertised his successes. They depended for the most part on a spectacular talent for wheeling and dealing behind the scenes in rooms that he filled with the smoke from three packs of unfiltered Chesterfields a day.

Burton could afford this relative anonymity by having locked up not just his own San Francisco power base (with his brother, Assemblyman John Burton, and Assembly Speaker Willie Brown), but virtually the whole of political California. He was the acknowledged genius of reapportionment, at which he worked with demonic energy and a dazzling command of detail. The chits he accumulated from grateful politicians--whose tenure in office was thereby assured--lubricated the passage of legislation that was stunning in its scope, complexity and liberality.

As a California assemblyman from 1956 to 1964, he overcame great resistance to drive through a bill that was to govern California's welfare system for decades. On Feb. 18, 1964, he began serving as a U.S. congressman, determined to effect similarly sweeping changes at the national level.

He was the driving force behind raising the minimum wage and extending it to 8 million more workers, including Cesar Chavez's farm laborers. For tens of thousands of miners suffering from "black lung" and for their dependents, he won massive compensation, secured great improvements in their working conditions and told John Corcoran, the employers' representative and president of Consolidated Coal: "If you don't accept this, we'll [expletive] socialize your industry." A measure of the power that Burton projected is that Corcoran took the threat seriously.

He pushed through the bills establishing OSHA (the Occupational Safety and Health Administration), ERISA (the Employee Retirement Income Security Act guaranteeing pension funds) and and SSI (Supplemental Security Income that provided monthly cash payments to more than 6 million aged, blind and disabled Americans). From small beginnings, he cobbled together a series of bills establishing the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, America's largest urban park and pushed them through. And along the way, almost incidentally, he managed to bury the House Un-American Activities Committee with a most elegant ploy.

He never forgot why he was there.

"As far as he was concerned," writes Jacobs, "poor people, workers and racial minorities needed all the help he could give them. Almost everybody else--especially corporate lobbyists who manipulate legislation for their client's benefit--were his enemies by definition."

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