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California and the West | THE WASHINGTON CONNECTION

Getting Ready for Judgment Day

April 14, 1998|CATHLEEN DECKER

James Rogan has felt this feeling before. When he graduated from prosecutor to judge, a colleague warned him: From now on, every time you say "Good morning," the courthouse regulars will hang on your words and wonder what you meant.

So it is these days, now that Rogan, a congressman from Glendale, finds himself in the midst of the fine little Capitol mess over President Clinton's behavior.

"Everybody swarms over me, asking 'What does this really mean?' " Rogan protested lightheartedly over the phone from his Capitol office the other day. "What it means is that I am doing this little report."

This little report involves a pretty big deal. Soon, Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr is expected to hand Congress his investigation of President Clinton. Rogan, a 41-year-old first-term Republican, has been asked by House Speaker Newt Gingrich to figure out how to handle this particularly hot potato.

Rogan's report will help determine what type of investigative hearings the House holds, if hearings are deemed necessary. Which means Rogan, a voracious reader, could be a figure for the history books he so loves, alongside others central to past congressional investigations of presidents.

Some members might consider the job prime fodder for the press releases that descend, blizzard-like, from Capitol Hill every day. Some might consider it a pain in the neck, given that the task concerns a president whose approval ratings have soared through the stratosphere.

For Rogan, however, this can be considered payback--something he can give to a profession that saved his life. "Political activity and history and books," he says, "kept me away from trouble."

They saved him, quite literally. Most of the kids he grew up with in San Francisco's rough-and-tumble Mission district are drugged-out or dead. James Rogan could be in jail. Instead, he's in Congress.

*

His mother was a single cocktail waitress who got pregnant in the days when that just wasn't done. She could not take care of her young boy, so he was ferried to his grandparents, and then, when they died, to a great-aunt.

His mother later married an alcoholic, went on welfare and food stamps and ended up living with her kids in the Mission district, in a heap of trouble. James Rogan dropped out of 10th grade to work as a bartender, door-to-door salesman, janitor and adult-theater bouncer.

But always, there was politics. He remembers being barely 6 years old, sitting in a big, overstuffed chair in his grandfather's house and watching one of President John F. Kennedy's legendary televised press conferences. His grandfather offered to switch to cartoons.

"No!" came the answer. Says the adult Rogan: "I was fascinated."

He kept reading history books and volunteering on campaigns. And on his 18th birthday, he went back to school, first at a Livermore community college and ultimately at UCLA Law School. He taught law and became a deputy district attorney handling gang murderers, and in 1990 was named the youngest Municipal Court judge in the state, at age 33. Serendipity, in the form of the Republican establishment tapping him on the shoulder, sent him into politics.

He won a 1994 special election to the Assembly, where he was nicknamed "the Judge" for his evenhandedness, and elected majority leader in his first term. Then, in 1996, veteran Republican Congressman Carlos Moorhead decided not to run for reelection. Rogan jumped in.

A year and a half after he was sworn in, Rogan still sounds like a kid in a candy store.

"If you had asked me when I was in the eighth grade what job I'd like to have, without hesitation I would have told you the Congress of the United States," he said. "I'm right where I've wanted to be from the time I was a little kid. There is no greater thrill."

*

Thrill is not exactly the word that comes to mind now, not with his little report due soon. Mind-numbing, maybe. Rogan plans to interview the major players, Republican and Democratic, in all the congressional investigations from Watergate on. Then he will tell Gingrich what he thinks was done right--and wrong--then, and how to do it now.

Rogan's desire for bipartisan fellowship is being tested by his fellow Republicans. Majority Leader Dick Armey of Texas opined this week that if he was Clinton, he would resign. California Senate candidate Darrell Issa referred to the president as "a slut."

Rogan says that the others have a right to talk. But the smartest thing, the former judge says, is to hold back judgment.

"From a political standpoint it would be easy to try to gain political capital by making a lot of speeches based on what heretofore appears to be rumor, innuendo and half a story," said Rogan. "But there is a lot at stake here."

Enough to make the history books.

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