The day California killed Robert Alton Harris, the ritual of blood and justice became a carnival of the absurd.
In an extraordinary cross-country duel, two bodies of feuding judges wrangled by phone and fax over the fate of the condemned double murderer. Four times a federal panel in San Francisco blocked Harris' trip to the gas chamber. Four times an increasingly exasperated U.S. Supreme Court lifted the stay of execution.
Stationed inside San Quentin Prison that day--April 21, 1992--was the face of public vengeance, state Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren. Two years earlier, he had campaigned for capital punishment. And among his first post-election actions was to weed out so-called "conscientious objectors" from his criminal division.
Now, for the first time in 25 years, California's top law enforcement official had to carry out the professed will of the people.
As first light streaked across San Francisco Bay, Harris was led a final time into the sickly green gas chamber. It was his second trip since midnight, nearly 10 hours after a last meal of pizza and fried chicken. In Washington, the high court had issued its final decree: Enough already. Harris was strapped down, the chamber filled with cyanide fumes.
Lungren's work was complete, his job done. So California's hang-'em-high attorney general closed his eyes and prayed for Harris' soul.
In certain respects, Daniel Edward Lungren seems oddly ill-suited for his profession. Barring something entirely unforeseen, he will be the GOP nominee for governor this fall. (Lungren is without serious opposition in the June Republican primary.) If elected in November, he will instantly become a leading candidate for the No. 2 spot on the national GOP ticket in 2000, a leg up that, along with a driver and corner office at the Capitol, comes automatically with California's top job.
Yet for all his designs, even after 10 years in Congress and 20-plus years pursuing public office, the politicking part of politics has never been easy for Lungren. Basically a shy man, he hates asking people for money, so he has never been good at fund-raising. A strapping 6-foot-2 with a swagger in his voice, Lungren would rather stay late shaking hands than work a room during dinner and intrude on people's meals. He has little use for schmoozing or boozing, preferring to rush home to his wife, Bobbi, or eat lunch at his desk. Hence he suffers a reputation in Sacramento as aloof, condescending, even a bit of a prig. (When others order wine or a cocktail, he asks for milk. An occasional "damn" is about as foulmouthed as he gets.)
"Would I rather be hanging out at Frank Fats"--one of Sacramento's watering holes--"or taking a trail ride up in the foothills?" Lungren asks, in a way suggesting no response is expected or necessary. "I'd rather be on a horse enjoying myself."
He disdains polling and pollsters and scoffs at campaign consultants and their ilk. Thus he operates with exceedingly narrow feedback. His closest confidants are his father, wife and kid brother, Brian, the latter a paid consultant to Lungren's campaign. Dan Lungren is so utterly cocksure, so unswervingly convinced of himself, it is sometimes hard to tell where self-confidence ends and smug self-righteousness sets in.
"He thinks he knows it all," says one periodic advisor, voicing a criticism frequently heard from some who otherwise praise Lungren.
"Dan needs people around him to say, 'No, that's bull- - - -. You're wrong,' " agrees another associate who has known Lungren many years. "And he has tended to surround himself with people who don't do that, who can't do that."
A child of comfort, if not privilege, Lungren's linear progression from parochial school in Long Beach--where his parents were leading lights of the Republican Party--to Notre Dame University, his dad's alma mater, bespeaks a tidy, almost regimental order to a life largely uncluttered by adversity, tragedy or periods of youthful rebellion. That white-bread background and insularity beg a question: Can this 51-year-old retro-boomer, who worships Elvis, idolizes Nixon and harks back to the World War II experience, relate to the realities of transitory, trend-setting, multicultural California as it hurtles toward a new millennium?
Already, Democrats have fit Lungren with an image. "A man in his 50s with ideas from the '50s, whether it's abortion, the ban on assault weapons or the environment," scoffs Bob Mulholland, a state Democratic Party strategist. "Basically, you've got Bob Dole running in California."
The Republican class of 1978 was a distinctly different breed from the fusty go-along-to-get-along brand then typical of the U.S. House of Representatives.