(check Archive for Sen. Harold E Hughes--The Last Great Democrat)
Perhaps the most interesting politician in America is San Francisco’s John Burton. He was elected to an Assembly seat in the 60’s, along with Willie Brown. An early opponent of the War in Vietnam, he was the object of a failed impeachment attempt by the California legislature. He’s a tough guy to get to know, and after bouts of alcoholism, he is as crusty an officeholder as any in the country.
After a heart attack in 1999, one of his aide’s, interviewed on his reaction to the event said, “ I feel sorry for the Doctor.”
Burton was chosen by his older brother Phil, who was a powerful congressman from the Bay Area, to be the heir apparent of his political machine.
Congressman Phil Burton told me one day, “Between my brothers, I chose John for politics. Because, while John would give you the shirt off his back, (brother) Bob would give you the shirt off his back and my back.”
After John succeeded in the Assembly, he was elected to the US Congress. After his disclosure of Alcohol abuse, he dropped out for a couple of years to heal at home in San Francisco. Two years later he ran for an Assembly seat and won with over 70% of the vote.
He eventually won the Senate seat from that district and was the most powerful person in Sacramento as head of the Democratically dominated California State Senate. He was forcibly retired in 2004 at 71 years of age, due to term limits.
I got to know John around 1969, when I sat around on the floor of his sparse apartment with his girlfriend, listening to Lenny Bruce records. I knew his girlfriend from the successful Cranston Senate race.
It was the best time to lobby him. I was pushing him to outlaw inhumane Bear traps lying around the forests of California. Bears would have a leg maimed after contact with the steel jaws of the device. It would be good for him and the Bear’s, I argued.
His legislation was successful, and later he autographed a photo of himself giving the finger on both hands to a big crowd of anti-war protesters, trying to get them to shut up and listen. Over each finger it said, “Peace and Justice.” The inscription to me was, “To Bob Kholos, always an inspiration, not always politic, John Burton.”
After the Jerry Brown for President campaign in 1980, I was ready to go back home when I got a phone call on the road from John. He explained to me that he was in lots of trouble and needed help. “Would I come back to Washington to help him with his operation.” He said the Republicans were targeting him.
After a small protest that I had been on the road too long and needed a break, I agreed to help him.
I moved back to DC and stayed in his Apartment on the hill. He was staying somewhere else.
He asked me to meet with him in the Congressional Dinning Room. When he entered, I was horrified. It looked as if he hadn’t slept in a week, and his clothes were wrinkled and dirty. He was such a mess, that the head of the dinning room asked him to leave.
I believe that his divorce and the murder of his boyhood friend, Mayor George Moscone, in addition to his dependency on alcohol, finally reached the point of no return on his psyche.
I had to figure out how I was going to do “break out” press with a guy who was almost destroyed, but still competent and loved by his constituents.
I interviewed all of his sub-committee staff, and it appeared John had become somewhat of an expert on aviation safety. Burton had investigated the crash of the DC-10 in Chicago some months earlier and he was pretty frustrated with the Federal Aviation Agency, which came under the jurisdiction of the United States Department of Transportation.
The most important piece of information I received was from one sub-committee aide.
He told me there was an increasing occurrence of computer radar outages at central control tower terminals throughout the country, and if the circumstances converged it could pose a significant danger to the flying public.
It wasn’t long after that discussion, I read a small item in the Washington Star, reporting the Oakland air terminal had a computer outage for an hour. This gave me the combination news and credibility inroad that I needed.
John had been very critical of the F.A.A. management under President Jimmy Carter, and was conducting many hearings on air traffic safety. The fact that Oakland, where the last problem had been reported, is close to his district, and that Burton’s Sub-Committee had jurisdiction over the F.A.A., gave John credibility for news.
All of the news/political/issues were in the pot. I had to make sure John got credit for stirring the pot.
Since his attention span wasn’t very long, under his condition, I just showed him the news article, and after he did a follow-up investigation with his sub-committee, to make sure it was valid, he told me, “go to it.”
I quickly put out a memo to the press that stated that Burton was going to meet with the F.A.A. and Air Traffic Controllers, and follow up with a news conference in his San Francisco office.
The staff was jubilant. Burton, for the first time in his long political life, had to hold two press conferences back to back, because there were so many cameras and reporters, he couldn’t fit them into one office.
I tried, without early success to convince the national television network editors about the seriousness of the problem. Burton was about to hold national sub-committee hearings on the issue of air safety, and it wasn’t of interest to the “big three” of network news. I guarantee you that Fox News would have covered such a hearing now.
After our own investigation I could see the Air Traffic Control strike of 1981 coming. The schism between the controllers and the F.A.A. bureaucrats was astonishing. The management still thought it was the Second World War, and the union employees were just getting into the post Vietnam syndrome. The friction could be felt in the corridors of the radar stations.
The serious nature of the situation was displayed when we did a “walk through” of a regional air traffic control station. When one of the attendants was explaining how easy it was to switch to the backup system when the radar facility went down, he “flipped” the screen, only to find that he didn’t have the proper tools in his desk to turn on the alternate source. If he wasn’t prepared for a Congressional National subcommittee investigation, we could imagine how antiquated and bad the situation was for the flying public.
Except for the Washington bureau of the San Francisco Examiner, we couldn’t get the eastern press behind us.
The situation of the eastern national news editors ignoring western stories has been a major frustration for California Bureau chiefs and reporters, as well as issue activists. At that time, unless it was a California sweetie roller-skating on Venice Beach, or a natural disaster (Such as the Reagan Governorship or earthquake) the west didn’t make national evening news.
When Chicago’s O’Hare Airport had to shut down because their Air Traffic Computer system had broken down, I saw my opening.
Remembering my work with Chicago City News Service during Senator Hughes’ aborted presidential campaign in 1971, I picked up the phone and called the news service from the House office in Washington.
After explaining the scope of the national investigation, a reporter sounded interested and said, “I’ll call you back.” Usually that is the end of the story, but in this case, even though she never called me back, she didn’t have to.
That evening on CBS Network national news, correspondent Roger Mudd announced that Congressman John Burton would be holding national investigative hearing into the problems of Air Traffic Control radar computers, like those at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport.
I can’t say that our air safety system is that much better now, but John did win reelection. Later, he decided not to run for another term, but rather return home to San Francisco, and receive treatment for his Alcohol addiction.
Burton played the political game at a higher level than anyone in the United States. The major difference being…he did it for a reason…helping the poor and powerless. He was also the key person in the rise of Barbara Boxer and Nancy Pelosi, among many others.
John called me up when Barbara Boxer was in her first primary fight for the Senate seat. "What do you have for me, Kholos?" Barbara needs help, he said. I came up with, "I'll be Jesse Helms worst nightmare...." It evidently helped a lot.
If it weren’t for his brother Phil, Pt Reyes would be a series of Condominiums, rather than open space.
When Congressman John Burton and Phil Burton had offices close to each other in the Federal Building in San Francisco, the staff could hear them shouting obscenities at each other. For me, it was a refreshing retreat away from the norm of national politics.
I would hope that John finds a way to reenter politics at the elected level again. He is about the same age as Jerry Brown, who is running for Attorney General in California.
Jerry Brown and John Burton have a similar need to actually help the powerless in our society. It is not just an ego trip.
With multi-millionaires running primary campaigns within the Democratic Party, attacking each other, while their maids do the laundry, it would be a wonderful change to have John Burton in office again.
Thanks for reading.