What You Get When You Cross Night of the Living Dead With Being There
So I read in the papers that people are really going to run Frank Jordan for mayor, which just confirms something I've long suspected about this town: When it comes to political leadership, San Francisco is like that small, cursed town in Night of the Living Dead. We're damned with some form of radiation that reanimates political hacks, even after we've killed and buried them.
It really is like a low-budget horror movie, isn't it? We spend the good portion of a decade trying to find the right weapon to dispatch Angela Alioto, only to see her rise and rise again from the grave, a little more gamy each time. And now, when we've finally succeeded in placing her in a permanent sarcophagus and banishing (thank God) her harpy scream from the city skies, the corpse of Frank Jordan punches through the earth and starts walking around in daylight, scaring children and small animals.
The reason our political landscape has become a George Romero nightmare is easy to figure: The bright young people in town are too busy making scads of imaginary millions to care much about government -- or the fact that the dead are walking the Earth! -- so the leadership pool has gotten small and become clotted with muck.
One can hope that district elections will change this situation, drawing all sorts of new blood into the local political arena. But for the time being ... hey, did I mention that THE DEAD ARE WALKING THE EARTH?!!!
Sometimes I think we deserve our zombie curse. We so happily indulge in nostalgia and willful amnesia, rotted corpses begin to look to us like statesmen.
So it will be with Frank Jordan. The mad scientists who are reanimating Frank's corpus -- failed candidates and failed police chiefs among them -- will tell us that Frank is the everyman fighting against the arrogance of power, the regular Joe fighting the evil insider, the man of the people against the elitist bully.
This spin will itself be a reanimation of sorts. It's the same line Jordan used when he beat Art Agnos nearly a decade ago. It was a partial lie then, and it will be again. You see, Frank is generally right about his opponents: They usually are arrogant, power-mad pricks. He will be especially right if he uses this line vis-à-vis Willie Brown.
But there is a bitter truth about Frank Jordan, too, and it is rarely told widely and clearly enough. I have three stories that will, I hope, illuminate a bit of that truth, and if not stop, at the very least slow, the zombie madness.
Story 1 takes place in an airport, on an evening in 1992. I boarded a flight for New York to cover the Democratic National Convention. By happenstance I was on the same plane as then-Mayor Frank Jordan, his wife, wheeler-dealer investment banker Wendy Paskin, and several of his aides, some of whom have since reanimated themselves as loyal Brownites.
Upon landing in New York, I headed for the baggage carousel. Nearby, the Jordan party was gathered in a knot laughing, joking, talking policy, and deciding which fetes to go to during the convention. Being an irrepressible reporter, I headed over to see if I could get some "color" for my story. As I got to the crowd, I noticed that Paskin was leading the revelry. The aides were basking in her light, talking policy and parties. The mayor was nowhere to be seen.
I looked around and finally spied him, all by himself, standing by the luggage carousel, a silly smile on his face and his gaze fixed on the circling bags. He just stood there, frozen, watching the bags go around and around like some autistic child. As his wife and his aides yukked it up 15 or so yards away, Jordan, that silly smile pasted to his face, contentedly watched the bags circle until his and his wife's came out. He then picked them up and, looking all the world like a butler and not the mayor of a major American city, followed behind his wife and his aides as they walked outside, still laughing and joking and paying him no mind.
Story 2 takes place in the Mayor's Office. To understand it correctly requires a little context.
The budget battles during Jordan's tenure as mayor were nasty. The recession was on, money was tight, deficits were mounting, and some measure of tax increases and/or service reductions (that is, staff cuts) would be needed to close the deficit. The acrimony between labor (which wanted no layoffs of city workers) and downtown (which wanted no new taxes) was pitched.
Amid this heated budget-wrangling, Jordan called a meeting in his office between union leaders and representatives of the city's largest corporations. Jordan greeted his guests at a conference table, thanked them for coming, and then, to the complete surprise of every participant at the meeting, left the table, and strolled over to his desk, where he began placidly opening his mail. The stunned corporate and labor leaders just stared at him for several seconds before realizing that the mayor had no intention of actually taking part in perhaps the most important policy discussion under way in the city at the time. He was simply going to open his mail.