Ghost of Politics Past

The varied life and celebrated death of Eric Allen Bass, the man who was Joefire.com

Once I get to San Francisco, everything will be different.

Dreams won't seem so silly and goals won't seem so distant.

For the first time I'll be able to be what I want people to see.

-- Lines from the Web log of Lauren, an anonymous high school girl who dreams of moving to Haight Street (http://complexlogic.diaryland.com)

Herbert H. Bass, 84, sits in his Oakland home a few days before Christmas, still perplexed by the phone call he received two weeks earlier from an investigator at the San Francisco Public Administrator's Office, inquiring about a patient who had died in San Francisco General Hospital. The patient was named Eric Allen Bass.

"That threw me for a loop," says Bass, who learned only later that his son, originally named Herbert Harry Bass Jr., had changed his name in midlife. "The man told me he was deceased, and he died Thanksgiving Day. I told him, 'I'll tell you what: I don't know him.'"

The same might be said for San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, District Attorney Kamala Harris, City Attorney Dennis Herrera, Supervisors Chris Daly and Sean Elsbern, Vice Mayor for Homelessness Angela Alioto, and dozens of other members of San Francisco's political elite who gathered at a Richmond District funeral home earlier this month to eulogize Bass, whom they knew for just over a year as the creator of a local political commentary Web site called Joefire.com. It was the must-attend occasion of San Francisco's political yuletide. Most of the attendees apparently did not know Bass was a convicted bank embezzler.

The regal treatment for Bass' remains continued last week as staffers for U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the House Democratic leader, lobbied the military to bend rules so Bass could be buried at Arlington National Cemetery, according to three different S.F. political insiders involved in coordinating Bass' funeral and burial. Bass was honorably discharged from the Navy, but after serving just three months, says Malia Cohen, Mayor Newsom's personal secretary. Rules for allotting plots in the national cemetery require 24 consecutive months of military service. A Pelosi spokesman declined to comment.

The outpouring of sympathy from San Francisco's powerful, who had met this petite, jokey, eager-to-please Sammy Davis- like figure during the past year as he wandered City Hall collecting items for his Joefire.com political gossip Web site, was, to an extent, genuine. The city's political class knew Bass as a funny, smart, spontaneous, and intensely charming person who drew loyalty from people he met.

But there was another side to Eric Allen Bass -- probably several other sides -- and last week's star-studded funeral was something more than just lamentation over the death of a likable hanger-on. What, exactly, it constituted, I cheerfully admit that I don't know. What does it mean when the political elite of a major American city turns itself out to extol a man none of those elites really knew at all, a man who just happens to have stolen tens of thousands of dollars from a major financial institution?

I do know the Eric Bass tale is a strange one, and it's connected, somehow, to San Francisco's sacred creed of holistic self-reinvention, a fervent belief in individual expression, idealistic thinking, and sheer optimism that is the closest thing this un-churched town has to a religion. I also know that when you live in a city that prides itself on being a Mecca for anyone who wants to conjure a new version of himself, you don't always know whom you're dealing with, even when all you're trying to do is bury him well. But I can't tell you what the story of Eric Allen Bass, né Herbert Harry Bass Jr., adds up to because, somehow, I have the suspicion that even he could not have made such an accounting. I can just tell you the story.


In the sacred self-reinvention mythology of San Francisco, residents connect with each other and lay claim to the city by retelling stories of rebirth -- of how they moved away from former towns and former lives, cast aside ties of blood, of other faiths, of love even, and started over as different people. Professions also have sacred lore. In the world of psychology, chronic self-reinventors are sometimes diagnosed as having borderline personality disorder, so named because patients suffer "identity disturbances" that occupy the borderline between psychosis and sanity.

So it was that in 1994, after an investigator found that Bank of America San Francisco employee Eric Allen Bass had forged invoices and time sheets, created phony vendor accounts, and ginned up other artifices to help him embezzle just under $60,000, a clinical psychologist submitted an affidavit urging leniency, based on the idea that Bass' confessed crimes were a symptom of this disorder.

Bass' childhood experiences left him "with intensely painful feelings of emotional isolation and deprivation, severe doubts about his ability to matter to others, and extreme pessimism regarding the capacity of others to care for him in any kind of genuine manner," wrote Bruce Berman, a New York clinical psychologist who saw Bass for six months of weekly sessions prior to a sentencing hearing. "It was in an effort to cope with these feelings (albeit an extremely misguided one) that led Mr. Bass to embezzle funds."

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