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Channeling Hiram

Arnold Schwarzenegger has compared himself to early 20th century tough-guy governor Hiram W. Johnson. He may want to be careful about that.

October 30, 2005|Joe Mathews | Joe Mathews is a Times staff writer.

As the special election drew near, the governor braced for defeat.

"I am rather fearful that our people are sick of campaigns and probably sick of the campaigner," he confided in a letter to a friend, "but I don't know how else to arouse the interest necessary for success."

The man who wrote those words was a showman with a tough-guy image, a political outsider who had never sought public office until his successful run for governor, a Republican who championed direct democracy and had used it to get what he wanted.

He wasn't Arnold Schwarzenegger. He was Hiram W. Johnson, who started a California revolution by persuading voters in 1911 to legalize the recall of elected politicians, and to establish the referendum and the ballot initiative.

Schwarzenegger has found a role model in Johnson, a charismatic character who railed against "special interests," took on the railroad barons and ruled the state from 1911 to 1917. When Johnson wanted to change the system, Schwarzenegger has said, "Johnson did not call the lobbyists or the union bosses. No, he went directly to the people. Ninety-four years later, we will do exactly the same."

The parallels between California's 23rd governor and its 38th do run remarkably deep, as a review of the thousands of Johnson papers on file at the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley shows. They also show that a politician today might want to compare himself to Johnson--up to a point.

"It's very interesting to me that the Schwarzenegger administration might be thinking about Hiram Johnson," says Bill Deverell, a historian and director of the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West. "Because the real question for him might be: How do you prevent yourself from becoming Hiram Johnson?"

Like Schwarzenegger, Johnson was famous, but not as a politician, when he decided to run for governor. It was 1910, and the state was holding its first direct Republican primary. Before then, an outsider wouldn't have had a chance, because party leaders picked the nominee for governor.

But this new kind of election was a perfect match for Johnson, a 44-year-old lawyer who knew how to put on a show. Once, he pulled a dagger out of the waistband of a witness on the stand. To defend a Chinese organized crime figure, he brought six Asians wearing yellow overcoats into the courtroom, placing his client among them; the wrong man was identified as the guilty party.

In 1908, after prosecutor Francis Heney was shot in the head in court by a saloonkeeper during the trial of San Francisco political boss Abe Ruef, Johnson stepped in for the wounded Heney. Ruef was convicted, and Johnson became a folk hero.

The Lincoln Roosevelt League, a group of Republican businessmen and lawyers, hired Johnson as its attorney in 1909. The next year, after league leaders persuaded his reluctant wife to go along, Johnson announced his campaign for governor.

He started more than five months before the Republican primary; his was the longest, most sophisticated, most expensive campaign in state history. He drove around the state in a bright red Locomobile touring car and amassed a campaign budget of more than $30,000, surpassing state spending limits.

Advance men arranged for automobile parades and military bands to precede rallies. In Sacramento, 18 shots were fired from a cannon as the candidate arrived to make a speech. In San Jose, "yell teams" were positioned in different parts of Auditorium Rink to create a sound effect at which the audience marveled. The Berkeley Gazette reported that the candidate's appearance there was so eagerly anticipated that "farmers and ranchmen left their fields in the midst of the busy season, merchants closed their stores, teachers dismissed their pupils."

The people found Johnson refreshing, much as they would Schwarzenegger nine decades later. The press didn't take him seriously. "Americans love a circus," the Los Angeles Times said in an editorial. "While they are a serious people in the main they are possessed occasionally by a trivial mood, and while that mood prevails they seek the frivolous as a momentary diversion. Hiram Johnson as an exponent of reform in politics rivals Barnum's best performers."

One Johnson foe, Alden Anderson, a former lieutenant governor, sputtered that his opponent was "misrepresenting and evading the principal policies that are today before the people of this state." Johnson replied that there was only one issue: stamping out special interests, namely the Southern Pacific Railroad, which he called "the most corrupt political organization in the United States."

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