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Leadership Isn't What It Used to Be

November 29, 2001|GEORGE SKELTON

SACRAMENTO — The Assembly speaker walked up to the governor and told him bluntly: "I don't like you and you don't like me. . . . But I don't have to like you to work with you."

The speaker was Van Nuys Democrat Bob Moretti; the governor Republican Ronald Reagan. They were two extraordinary politicians competing--and soon cooperating--in the golden era of the California Legislature.

The issue was welfare reform, and its enactment 30 years ago "beyond doubt, was the premier legislative achievement of Reagan's governorship," writes biographer Lou Cannon in a new book.

Frankly, I need another Reagan book like I need another fishing lure or baseball hat. I have shelves full, plus stacks of file boxes crammed with yellowing material from covering his governorship and presidency.

But this book ("Ronald Reagan: The Presidential Portfolio," Public Affairs, $35) I couldn't put down. Probably because it has lots of pictures and handwritten Reagan notes and speech editing, mostly from the Reagan Library. No heavy lifting, except for picking it up off a tabletop.

It's a memory jogger of a more congenial, more competent time in the state Capitol. Tucked into the 320-page illustrated summary of Reagan's life and career is a 20-page rundown on his two terms in Sacramento.

Writes Cannon: "Sacramento was a valuable training ground for Reagan in his battles with such Washington titans as House Speaker Thomas P. 'Tip' O'Neill." In Sacramento, Reagan initially faced legendary Speaker Jesse "Big Daddy" Unruh--and later Moretti.

Cannon: "Both Reagan and Moretti had grown tired of unproductive partisan rhetoric and realized that they would have to work together to accomplish anything."

Moretti's "I don't like you" line comes not from the book, but an old wire story written by then-AP Capitol Bureau Chief Bill Stall, now a Times editorial writer. Stall interviewed Moretti the day in August 1971 that Reagan signed the welfare bill.

The speaker told Stall: "I went down to his office and asked if I could see him alone and said exactly what was on my mind. I said, 'Governor, I don't like you and you don't like me. . . . I know you say bad things about me and I say bad things about you. There are no secrets in this building. But I don't have to like you to work with you. If you really want to get something done about the issues, let's sit down and start working.' "

Reagan instantly agreed. In truth, the governor had covertly instigated the speaker's visit by whispering through an aide that he wanted to compromise. Reagan understood that Moretti was anxious to build a record of legislative achievement--on any subject--to run for governor in three years. That was fine with Reagan. He wouldn't be running for reelection and badly wanted to achieve welfare reform to place on his resume for president.

Reagan and Moretti negotiated for five days. Then legislators and administration officials bargained for another 11. Lawmakers from both parties and Democratic-controlled houses participated.

In the end, they produced a compromise that tightened eligibility and cracked down on fraud, but also increased benefits for the "truly needy" while guaranteeing annual cost-of-living increases. A good conservative-liberal blend.

Medi-Cal likewise was "reformed." And Reagan won a requirement that recipients put up a $2 co-payment for each doctor visit because his health director, Earl Brian, beat Moretti in an arm-wrestle.

Reagan, then a vigorous 60, compromised with the moderate Moretti on many issues. One budget deal resulted in Reagan abandoning his longtime opposition to payroll withholding of the state income tax.

Cannon: "When Reagan began his second term [in 1971] he was no longer a novice-amateur who believed that government was an automatic enemy of the people. His low opinion of politicians also had undergone a subtle change."

Moretti, then 35, resigned in 1974 to run unsuccessfully for governor. Ten years later he died of a heart attack while playing tennis. The hard-driving pol was speaker for less than four years. But he was as effective a leader as anybody who ever held that post--and much more effective than the last half-dozen.

Blame many factors, especially term limits that diffuse power, stymie experience and inhibit development of trusting relationships.

"[Reagan and Moretti] trusted one another," notes Bill Hauck, who was Moretti's top aide and now is president of the California Business Roundtable. "That's an element of life that's sorely missing from the Capitol today."

In truth, Reagan and Moretti not only developed trust and respect. They wound up liking each other.

Today, this governor and Legislature too often distrust, disrespect, dislike--don't arm-wrestle--and can't work together.

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