A brash 'Bulworth' who defined an era of California politics
SACRAMENTO, CALIF. — Normally, this would seem to be the appropriate time for a poignant moment. Here is John Burton, as much of a California institution as the white granite of the state Capitol itself - a man who came back from cocaine addiction to lead the state Senate, a man who traded barbs with Gov. Ronald Reagan and exchanged German banter with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger - cleaning out his desk for the last time in a 40-year political career.
It is an oil painting waiting to happen. Now, if he would just put on a tie and stop dropping expletives every other sentence.
But that is not John Burton. For the man who helped launch the careers of US Sen. Barbara Boxer and House minority leader Nancy Pelosi - and the brother of onetime congressional titan Philip Burton - political life has rested on one maxim only: Be yourself. And it has served him well.
It has helped propel a man once dismissed as "a product of the hippies and flower children" to become perhaps the most powerful and colorful figure in California politics - pulling the strings of power with the savvy of an East Coast party boss and the flair of a Texas maverick. Now finally vanquished by term limits, he has become something of a national symbol, as the last lieutenants of President Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty slowly slip from state and national office.
"John Burton is kind of the last of the samurai - the last of a generation to come of age within the certainties of Camelot," says Kevin Starr, a historian at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. "He was shaped by that and profoundly shaped by the Great Society."
By the measure of California politics, where there is no lack of hair gel and tailored suits, John Burton is something of a mastodon - imposing, ornery, and on the verge of extinction. Wearing a blue golf shirt, he navigates his wreck of file folders and cardboard boxes with perfect nonchalance, jotting notes and addressing envelopes as he considers the arc of his political life, which included two stints in the California Legislature and one in Congress.
At first pass, say those who know him, John Burton is gruff, impatient, at times angry. It has made him a caricature of himself in the Capitol and beyond. Knowing Burton's love for films, Governor Schwarzenegger gave him a mock movie script entitled "Into the Bleeping Sunset" to mark his retirement. Some reports suggest that the profane, plain-speaking politician in the movie "Bulworth" was modeled partly on Burton - he and actor Warren Beatty are friends, after all.
Even Representative Pelosi remembers her first meeting with Burton - at a McGovern for president rally in 1972 - as "not very positive."
"He was finished being at that event, and he was not going to have more time to talk to a political volunteer," which Pelosi was at the time, she says. "I had not earned my stripes."
It was as much of an insight into John Burton the politician as it was into John Burton the man. Put simply, Burton is a product of the old school. When he arrived at the California Assembly in 1965, he opposed the speakership of legendary California politician Jesse Unruh. When Unruh won, he shipped Burton - a San Franciscan - to the Assembly agriculture committee as payback.
It was the first lesson of his political career. Yet even then, Burton had an innate sense for how politics worked. "It's the best thing he could have done for me," he says. "I got to meet people I never would have come into contact with, so later on, I could go to Republican guys in rural districts and get votes on stuff."
In a one-hour conversation, "getting votes" is a recurring theme. Burton's mind crunches numbers with the accuracy of an abacus. As he talks, the geometry of vote-getting spills out of his mouth like ticker tape: two Republicans here, a Democrat there. It's a particular talent. He can still recall the numbers of the players on the 1947 San Francisco 49ers, as well as the lineups of the '40 Cincinnati Reds and Detroit Tigers, he says.
Yet as a San Franciscan, he has also been shaped by a political culture more Chicago tough than California cool. It has bred politicians who know how to work the levers of power. In addition to Burton's brother, who came within a whisker of become Speaker of the House, San Francisco has produced Willie Brown, who kept the California Assembly under his fedora as Speaker from 1980 to 1995. Moreover, both current California US Senators come from the San Francisco area, as well as minority leader Pelosi.
"He plays by the old rules," says historian Mr. Starr. "He's not an avid reformist. He'd rather learn how to use the system as it exists."
If his genius is in seeing the structure behind a deal, his greatest legacy is his ability to get it done - and here the image of Burton as the Senate's grumpy uncle begins to fade.
To be sure, he is an irascible ideologue, who carries the causes of the poor with every tool at his disposal. Years ago, he was so frustrated by the policies of Republican Gov. Pete Wilson that he introduced mocking bills that would have made poverty a crime and required state orphanages to serve gruel. Governor Reagan once said of his nutty behavior: "Sometimes I think Assemblyman Burton is the one man in Sacramento who has the most to fear from the squirrels in Capitol Park."
But his actions point to another John Burton. As a boy he grew up shining shoes in San Francisco's seedy Tenderloin among hookers and pimps. As a young man, he tended bar in North Beach during the Beatnik era. And he took six years off politics to overcome a cocaine habit that drove him out of Congress.
To Burton, helping the unfortunate is not merely a campaign slogan, it is a basic part of who he is, and he still quotes his father: "Never pass a blind man without putting something in the cup."
"For all that gruff approach, when you cut through all of that, he's just one of the most decent human beings you'll ever meet," says Leon Panetta, who served with Burton in Congress.
Even from the Republican side of the aisle, the view is one of respect. "You can say whatever you want about his ideology, but his motives were pure ... and I've got to respect that," says Republican state Rep. Ray Haynes. "He's a good an honorable man."
These days, Burton is setting up a foundation for the homeless. He's playing racquetball, and reading biographies of historical figures like Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Jimmy Hoffa. And on this evening in particular, he's driving in to San Francisco to dine with actor Charles Grodin.
Director Paul Thomas Anderson of "Boogie Nights" fame has told Burton that he is writing a role for him. Whether it happens or not, Burton doesn't expect to hang around Sacramento, and to many experts, it hints at a broader loss in American politics.
"He's the last of the old-time politicians and the last of the old-time liberals," says Democratic state Sen. Dede Alpert. "There are a lot of bland and contrived politicians, and John always resisted that. He is who he is, and doesn't need to look at a poll, and we're not likely to see that in term-limited politics."