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"I started out studying Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas. In their systems, there is a hierarchy of life, like rocks, animals, humans, God. You always know what the truth is, because it's objective, like the Ten Commandments, right and wrong. The universe is orderly, moral, and mechanistic.
"Then I learned about existentialism, the idea that truth is derived from one's existence, that it is subjective. But I was really taken with the work of Martin Heidegger, a mediator between Aristotle and existentialism, between objective reality and subjective truth."
(The German philosopher Heidegger, 1889-1976, renounced Catholicism after leaving the seminary. He has gone down in history as the only major European philosopher to enthusiastically use his own teachings to aid Hitler's National Socialist Party, an action for which he never publicly apologized. When asked about this association, Reilly says, "The Nazi connection? That's always the attack on Heidegger. It's important to separate the ideas from the person.")
"Heidegger defines the human being as only existing in relation to other beings in the world," Reilly says. "So the only way you can know your own truth is through interaction with other beings. In later years, I reflected upon the political and ethical implications of this. It's all about self-interest."
Reilly says he was also drawn to Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a French Jesuit who, according to Reilly, "applied evolution to human history and predicted globalization and the decline of nationalism."
(Teilhard de Chardin, 1881-1955, believed that the planet Earth has evolved a "noosphere," which is a "planetary thinking network" akin to the human nervous system.)
"I hooked Teilhard de Chardin up with Marshall McLuhan," Reilly continues. "McLuhan said that media is bringing us together instantaneously, as spectators of war on television, as watchers of elections instead of voters, as globalized consumers."
(McLuhan, 1911-1981, a Roman Catholic college professor whose book Understanding Media propelled him to celebrity status in 1964, coined the phrase, "The medium is the message." McLuhan taught that communication media -- whether drums, print, or radio -- are the motive force of history. The manner of presentation -- the medium itself -- is more influential than the actual content of the message conveyed. Sensuous mediums, like television, transform traditional learning by packaging the message, placing it inside a wrap of sound and image and inserting it directly into people's consciousness.)
From these ancient and modern thinkers, Reilly says, he extracted a mechanistic, self-centered worldview, and some useful advertising techniques. He then left the seminary, hoping to work for social justice in the world.
I ask him to define the youthful, justice-related goals that remain important to him.
He laughs uncomfortably.
"I don't know," he finally says. "I have no 10-point plan."
He stares into space.
"You have to live according to your principles. Biblical dictums like: "He who loses himself will find himself.' Sometimes you need to leave your self-interest behind in order to find true peace and happiness."
He looks at his watch.
"I do feel part of the human family, and responsible to other beings to enhance their lives, and in doing so we can enhance our own life ... I don't know."
"No one ever asks me that question."
Reilly floundered around after abandoning the priesthood. His faith leaked away, he says, but questions about the existence of heaven and hell -- even the existence of God -- were soon overwhelmed by the question of how to feed himself. For a few years, he slept in church rectories while working on social programs for the poor. Along the way, though, he discovered a talent for making business deals. He bought used milk cans by the thousand and sold them to department store chains for use as window dressing and kitschy barstools. He persuaded a bank to loan him money to buy used school desks, which he resold. He learned how to make money in the margins, to leverage more out of less, to appear more successful than he really was.
He found his true calling, however, as a campaign manager. Through his community work, he met Richard Hongisto, a gregarious San Francisco cop. In 1971, he managed Hongisto's successful campaign for sheriff of San Francisco. He helped the United Farmworkers Union win the right to organize. He lost a few campaigns, of course, but in 1978, he won his first big one -- Bob Matsui's race for Congress -- and he entered the political big time.
In 1982, Reilly opened his consulting firm, Clinton Reilly Campaigns; it went on to manage hundreds of campaigns in California for, mostly, Democratic Party stalwarts, including luminaries such as U.S. Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, and Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi. His professional ties to two clients, in particular -- state Senate President pro tempore David Roberti, and the then-Democratic congressional whip, Tony Coelho -- gave him access to party funding for his stable of candidates.
He bought a small office building on Sansome Street. He worked incessantly, eschewing a social life. He freely admits that he drove his employees hard, yelling at them from time to time.
In 1986 Reilly donated his services to the campaign to pass Proposition M, a still-extant restriction on the amount of new commercial office space that can be built in San Francisco each year. The proposition was fiercely supported by a coalition of "progressive" organizations and conservative neighborhood groups concerned about the pace of development. Downtown real estate king and Democratic Party financier Walter Shorenstein was also a major backer of Prop. M. The measure passed. Ultimately, it served to protect the value of Shorenstein's office rental empire by limiting new supply and driving up rents.