Alan Cranston Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Democracy, Disarmament, and Public Education: Conversation with Alan Cranston, former U.S. Senator from California; 4/17/00 by Harry Kreisler.
Photo by Jane Scherr

Page 3 of 6

Reforming the Political Process

In looking at the distinguished career that follows -- you served California as comptroller, you helped organize political clubs all over the state that reformed the Democratic Party, Cranston sworn in as State Comptroller in 1959. you became a four-term senator and a whip of the Senate -- I'd like you to address certain themes that I see throughout your career. One is reforming institutions in a democracy, seeing that things needed to change to ma ke our government work better. You did that in the Senate, you did it in California politics. What are the essential elements, the requirements, for reforming our institutions?

You have to have some sensible ideas about what needs to be done, and then you have to have the ability to articulate them, to write them down, talk about them to people and make speeches, use the media. You must not only have a broad vision of what's needed, you have to pay attention to infinite detail. If that isn't done, things fall apart and you don't get anything done. I've always tried to have a vision of where I thought we ought to be moving in our society, but also paid attention to details, the bricks that are part of the edifice you're trying to build. Cranston is elected Senator in 1968. Jesse Unruh is at right. And you have to draw people in, inspire them and lead them to pitch in with you and to recognize that certain things have to be done or we're going to pay a heavy price.

This was also true in the Senate because you were involved in reforming the procedure of that institution, in addition to all of the other issues that you brought before it.

I am an abolitionist on two fronts. I believe we have to abolish nuclear weapons before they abolish us, and I think we have to eliminate the incredibly important and significant role of money in politics before we're going to have our democracy working as it should work. These two issues, in a sense, overwhelm all others. If we blow ourselves up in a nuclear war, no other issue, no matter how important it may seem to be, is going to matter. And until we get money out of politics, money is going to affect every issue that comes along, often adversely to the interests of the public. So let's abolish both.

On both of these issues, and especially the nuclear issue, you as a legislator tried to do something about it. Not just warning the country about the danger involved, but actually legislating, getting SALT through the Congress, getting the ABM treaty through the Congress. What was involved in that process of legislating these issues and how does it differ from calling the public's attention to issues?

Again, you have to have a vision of where you want to go and what steps might lead there, but you also have to persuade people that this is what has to be done.

My favorite sport in the Senate was what's called "counting votes." When some issue came up, sometimes subtly without much warning and sometimes after a long preparation, I would take a Senate tally, which is a list of every senator alphabetically, and mark down how I thought each senator stood on this issue and how he or she would vote when it came to a vote. I knew the Senate well enough so that I could predict about ninety percent of the people almost automatically and I'd eliminate them from any major concern, although some of them I'd check to make sure I was right. But that would leave about ten or fifteen percent of the Senate where I didn't know what they'd do. I had to find out what they were going to do one way or another by asking them about the issue and talking in generalities about it, or checking with their staff, or looking at how they'd voted on related matters. Then it would get down to maybe seven or eight or nine senators who I didn't have any idea how they were going to vote, and then I'd have to figure out how do I get their vote to the side that I think they ought to be on. I'd have to go to work on that, and that would entail all sorts of activities. Sometimes I would undertake to talk to them about the issue, sometimes I felt I wasn't the right one to do it for one reason or another. I'd figure out who could do it, whether another senator or a leading constituent in their state, or whatever. And that way I could have an impact on almost every vote that came along, beyond just my own vote.

In you career you did this with matters such as implementing Roe v. Wade into legislation on abortion rights. You did it on the rights of the disabled, you did it on your involvement in the various détente legislations. Did these differ in terms of the strategy to win the votes, or was it really just following the procedure you described?

Following that procedure was a major part of the battle, but the other part was figuring out the themes that would affect people's thinking on the issue and then trying to articulate them or getting other people to articulate them.

Next page: The Problem of Nuclear Weapons

© Copyright 2000, Regents of the University of California