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A Life Adapted to a New Script

Ex-Gov. Davis' outlook is colored by acceptance as he rebounds from defeat and shapes a future.

March 01, 2004|Paul Pringle | Times Staff Writer

The narrow figure walking in a night rain seemed to fade into the gloom, his black mackintosh and umbrella blending with the darkness. He paused with his wife at a street corner in Santa Monica. They would have to wade through ankle-deep puddles and trudge down an alley to a parking garage, where their Toyota Prius waited.

They stepped slowly; they have little reason to rush these days.

"I told Arnold that a governor needs three things to succeed -- a good economy, a lot of luck and lot of rain," said Gray Davis, the man under the umbrella. "He's getting the rain.... The state's farmers need the rain."

This is post-recall life for former Gov. Davis -- slogging anonymously through a storm, with time on his hands, driving his own car and trying to move past the searing experience of being booted from power in favor of Arnold Schwarzenegger.

"I don't like to look backwards," Davis had said before venturing into the rain. "I don't like to dwell on it."

He was sitting in the Santa Monica offices of the Natural Resources Defense Council, which had just honored him at a small dinner. His wife, Sharon, sat to his left, maintaining a soft smile. The rain pounded outside.

"I have a sense of contentment," said Davis, 61, who phones Schwarzenegger now and then to wish him well.

His voice grew quiet when asked whether the recall election still stung after four months, whether reflection had shaken him beneath his robotic, vote-seeking public persona.

"When you're stoic like that, people think you're not human, you're not normal," he said. "We're all human beings. The recall was far from my finest hour, but I'm philosophical about politics."

He has no plans to jump back in, he said, despite rumors that he is already contemplating a bid for Los Angeles mayor or the U.S. Senate seat held by Dianne Feinstein, if she decides to retire.

He said the speculation was understandable, given his 30 years in the arena, and his signature obsession with electioneering.

"People expect you want to gravitate back to politics," Davis said. "I think that chapter of my life is closed."

Closed, but perhaps not padlocked. "Does some bolt of lightning strike three or four years from now?" Davis said. "Who knows? I don't expect it to happen."

Not much appears to be happening at the moment. The Davis schedule is fairly open. He is unemployed, casting around for gigs with a law firm, a university or an investment bank.

So far, there have been no offers that he felt compelled to pounce on. Davis is reticent about the particulars.

Law is the likeliest route to a permanent job, he says. The Stanford- and Columbia-educated attorney envisions a position as a big-picture strategist rather than as a litigator.

"A governor of California has learned to deal with multifaceted problems," Davis said.

He also talks about volunteering as a teacher in poor-performing schools, launching an education foundation and writing a book about his career. The latter would highlight battles such as California's electricity crisis.

"I have read all these so-called experts tell me what happened in the energy crisis," Davis said. "I don't think anyone had a better perspective on it than mine. I'd like to share my view.... I made my share of mistakes, and I'll be honest about that."

Davis receives a $105,000-a-year pension, but intends to earn enough to buy roomier digs than the shoebox West Hollywood condominium he and his wife have owned for 20 years. They hope to take more frequent golfing trips to Palm Springs and Pebble Beach, and go on an Alaskan cruise.

"First of all, I want to enjoy life," Davis said. "While I very much enjoyed public service, and feel it's a noble profession, and believe we made a difference over the years, I think I can say without fear of contradiction, I haven't had a lot of fun."

He's showing signs of shedding his trademark stiffness. Tonight, Davis makes his Hollywood debut, guest starring as himself on the CBS sitcom "Yes, Dear."

In the episode, a character played by comedian Tim Conway meets Davis in a Staples Center luxury box at a Lakers game. The two bicker about Davis' stewardship of the state, and Conway tosses a drink at him. Davis comes unglued and chases the actor down to the basketball court, a scene filmed during the half-time of a real contest.

The fans didn't know the scene was staged. Davis learned later that a fellow former governor, George Deukmejian, had been in the stands.

"He said, 'You know, I was at the game, and I thought you just lost it.... I thought you'd just gone bonkers,' " Davis recounted with a smile.

"I think he's gotten a lot looser," said Art Torres, the state Democratic Party chairman, who hosted Davis at a party convention in January. "I think that's the result of suffering a devastating loss.... I do see a change in his ability to relate to people."

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