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GREGORY RODRIGUEZ

Antonio's ego trip

L.A.'s charismatic mayor blazes a trail across Asia.

October 15, 2006|GREGORY RODRIGUEZ | GREGORY RODRIGUEZ is an Irvine senior fellow at the New America Foundation.

Shanghai — THERE'S ONLY ONE thing worse than having to listen to canned political speeches and pretentious dignitary-speak. It's having to listen to them back-to-back in English and in Mandarin.

Accompanied by a coterie of business, labor and political allies, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is barnstorming through Asia as if it were Iowa before the caucuses and he were running for president. The trip is officially a trade mission, and it appears there are some real business connections and deals being made. But as is so often the case with Villaraigosa, it's ultimately all about him, all the time.

It's one thing to watch the mayor on TV or hear him speak at this or that political function; it's quite another to watch him run day in and day out. I decided to catch a ride on the Antonio Express to see how he plays in Pudong.

A mere three hours after Villaraigosa and his delegation landed in Beijing, a bus took us up to the Great Wall. Before the group ascended the steep ramparts, the tour guide recited a quote from Chairman Mao: "You're not a real human until you've climbed up the Wall of China." Moments later, the irrepressible mayor blurted out, "I'm going to the top, baby!" And he did.

It's impossible not to admire the mayor's extraordinary energy. "He's a remarkable man," one L.A. businessman on the mission told me. But his attendant braggadocio is both endearing and disturbing.

"I'm in good shape," he said after coming down from the wall. "Did you see how people recognized me up there?" While the trade delegates marveled, he preened. "I've done my cardio, baby," he said. "When I get back to the hotel, I'm going to lift some weights." And for an added dose of depth, he proclaimed: "I've been climbing mountains my whole life; I can climb the Great Wall."

The word is that this trade mission is faster, busier and more blessed by high-level political access than those taken by the city's two previous mayors. Villaraigosa's staff is nothing if not competent and hard-working, and most of the delegates he has surrounded himself with -- including some city commissioners -- are earnest and clearly care about Los Angeles.

Each day, there's a schedule of rather staid business and political meetings that's broken up by campaign-stop moments. Although the networking seems to be going well, it's the photo-ops and handshakes that most engage the mayor. They're the fuel for the journey, and Lord knows, he needs a lot of fuel.

There is no question that Villaraigosa is a tremendous ambassador for the city. The people he greets here like him. Sui he -- "easygoing" -- is the adjective I hear most often. He sells Los Angeles -- Luo Shan Ji -- but he also sells himself. The images and stories drummed up here are primarily for domestic consumption, but the mayor doesn't drop his pose when the cameras stop clicking. He presses the flesh and eats up applause as if his audience were full of potential Villaraigosa voters. "It's like he's running for president of the world," one delegate said jokingly.

At home and on his trade route through China, Villaraigosa's voracious ego is keeping company with a benign political agenda, but you have to wonder exactly what motivates him and how far he'd go for approval.

Of course, a big ego isn't necessarily a bad thing in a politician. It takes a healthy sense of self to believe you can change the world. And, frankly, none of us would be paying all this attention to the mayor of Los Angeles if we didn't think his enormous political skill and outsized ambition could lead him to more powerful office. But with Villaraigosa, as with every great politician, there's a fine line between the drive for personal glory and the desire to make the world a better place.

Watching the mayor storm China, I also can't help but wonder if Villaraigosa's Achilles' heel is less his ego than his fear that someone might think that he's not deserving of all this attention.

On Monday, as we were leaving the impressive construction site of the stadium for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, Villaraigosa wanted the reporters and delegates to know that he was the first foreign dignitary to visit the stadium.

"Did you hear that?" he called out, twice. "Not even Kofi Annan was allowed to visit!"

Clearly his honor's need for attention begets the charm that is a source of much of his charisma. But it's not difficult to imagine that it could also lead to his unraveling. If you turn your attention away from him, he'll summon you back. If the cameras focus elsewhere, he'll seek out a new audience. And he doesn't like naysayers.

At a fashion show here Wednesday night, the mayor was upstaged by a retinue of astonishingly thin models wearing clothes designed by Angelenos. While he was supposed to be in the shadows, watching the action on the catwalk like everyone else, he kept his eye on reporters and cameras. Villaraigosa couldn't contain himself. He diverted the attention of a reporter behind him. It's great, isn't it? he beamed. And you have to admit, as long as the mayor is shaping the story, he's right.

grodriguez@latimescolumnists.com

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