THIS SUMMER THE AIRWAVES are filled with people saying government should be run like business and, in fact, business executives should run government. Which brings to mind the question: has it ever happened before? The answer, as it turns out, is yes. The year was 1952, and the place was Los Angeles.
Gertrude Stein made her famous put-down "There is no there there" about Oakland, but in Los Angeles just after World War I, there wasn't much here here, either.
In 1920 Los Angeles was a city of a half million people, smaller than Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Boston, Cleveland, St. Louis, or Detroit. By 1945 there were three million of us and everything had changed. People scattered everywhere for good jobs and affordable housing — El Segundo, Torrance, the San Fernando Valley — and people started referring to themselves as Southern Californians, rather than Los Angelinos (the capitalized "Southern" was insisted upon by legendary LA Times owner Harry Chandler, and it stuck). After the war, we even changed the way we pronounced our city. Old-timers called it "Las Angle-less," as if it had no corners. "Las Angeles" was how out-of-towners pronounced it, and since we became a city of out-of-towners, "Las Angeles" won out (with the exception of announcers on Univision, nobody has ever pronounced our first name right).
In the 1940s and 1950s, new residents of our sprawling city were by and large indifferent to local politics and we got the incompetent, occasionally corrupt, politicians such ennui often fosters. This was bad for business, and a group of businessmen decided they had had enough, and took control.
This was the Committee of 25 and its power for more than a quarter of a century simply cannot be overstated. Steve Gavin, my boss at the California Community Foundation for a decade, was the unofficial secretary to the Committee. And unofficial was the byword. The Committee of 25 had no bylaws, no membership roster, no minutes and as little in writing as was humanly possible. Even historians such as Kevin Starr give the group only passing mention, because so little was committed to paper. Starr's book about post-WWII Los Angeles, Golden Dreams, mentions the Committee only twice. The Committee of 25 knew who they were, even if we didn't, and they knew what they had to do.
The ringleader of the Committee (there were no elections or officers, of course) was the pugnacious and brilliant Asa Call, president of Pacific Mutual Life Insurance Company. "Are you paying $500 just to talk to Sam Yorty?" a bemused colleague once asked Call about a very expensive fundraising dinner for one of our mayors. "No, I'm paying $500 to make sure the sumbitch listens," Call answered calmly.
Los Angeles mayors, starting with Norris Poulson in 1953, listened carefully. Poulson was a relatively inexperienced congressman and a virtual unknown in local politics, but by the time the Committee of 25 got through with him, he swept into office, where he stayed for eight years. The lesson was not lost on other mayoral hopefuls. Sam Yorty, who seldom listened to anybody, listened just enough, and Tom Bradley listened a lot. Perhaps no one listened quite so intently, at least during his two terms as governor, as Ronald Reagan. Many members of the Committee of 25, men like Justin Dart, Milo Bekins, William French Smith and Alfred Bloomingdale, would show up later as part of then-president Reagan's Kitchen Cabinet.
The Committee of 25 read like a who's who of Los Angeles business: Bank of America's Cha...read more