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Does Eric Garcetti Have the Aesthetic Chops to be Mayor of L.A.?

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During the 1968 Presidential election campaign I was in my first year of college and not very political. But my best friend John was, and he was determined to get me involved. He called me up one day and said, "George Wallace is having a rally in West Covina. Let's go see him."

George Wallace, the former Governor of Alabama, was, of course, the third-party segregationist candidate who eventually gathered 13.5 percent of the vote. John was not for Wallace, but I think he was curious to see what a racist looked like in the flesh.

So we went to West Covina where Wallace was speaking in a parking lot. I think it was the parking lot of a bowling alley, although I'm not sure. I don't remember anything he said to the crowd that had gathered, but I do remember this:

After his speech when he started working the crowd, shaking hands, exchanging a few words, we saw that he was headed in our direction. Behind him, and controlling Wallace's progress through the crowd, was a huge man of deep-fried proportions, possibly one of Wallace's political operatives, who looked like he just stepped out of the pages of All the King's Men. As people got their two seconds with Wallace, they would throw out comments of support or questions about the war (Viet-Nam), segregation, race riots, or crime. When he got to me and grabbed my hand, I said, "Governor Wallace, I know people are concerned about war and riots and crime, but I would like to know what you think about the arts?"

Wallace was dumbstruck. The huge political operative immediately started to push Wallace away from me, but not without pushing his large round face into mine and said in a lovely Southern drawl, "The arts don't kill nobody, boy."

In the middle of his political operative-directed flight, Wallace stopped and turned back towards me, gave a hesitant gesture with his right arm, and declared, "But I'm all for the arts!"

All politicians say they are for the arts. And then seem to apply little political power to do anything in support of them, probably figuring that most artists are too busy being esoteric and effete to vote. But that is not my concern here, that is a battle to be waged elsewhere. What I'm interested in is not politicians who support the arts -- as nice as that might be -- but politicians who are sensitive to the arts. For I have a deep prejudice towards people who are.

There are eight candidates vying in next week's primary nominating election for Mayor of Los Angeles. They may all be sensitive to the arts, for all I know. But I've only gotten close enough to one to form an opinion, and he strikes me as someone who is.

I first met Eric Garcetti during the 2007 Writers Guild negotiation and strike. At that time, Garcetti was (as he is today) a member of the Los Angeles City Council. More important, though, he also served as the council's president. I was asked to speak before the council on a resolution put forth by Garcetti while the WGA and producers were still in negotiations urging them to come to a fair and mutually beneficial agreement. His comments during the council's discussion of the resolution indicated to me that he understood the making of filmed entertainment not only as an industry, but as an art form. And he showed particular understanding of the contributions of writers. I was impressed by this.

A couple of years later when I decided I wanted to do something special for the Los Angeles-based great American author Ray Bradbury on his 90th birthday, I put the question to Garcetti, through his staff, "Don't you think the city ought to do something official to honor Ray?" Garcetti's response was immediate, affirmative, and enthusiastic. Later, when I sat down with a Garcetti staff member, we discussed the city declaring a "Day" (his birthday) in Ray's honor, and I said, "Ray's too big for a day. I'd like a month, but I'll take a week." This was, I think, a fairly unusual proposal. Nonetheless, again Garcetti's response was immediate, affirmative, and enthusiastic

When the city council took up the proposal in a meeting just before Ray's birthday, and with Ray in attendance, the council, lead by Garcetti, expressed deep understanding for who Ray was and what he had contributed to literature and to Los Angeles. Ray was moved to tears.

I recently learned that Garcetti not only plays the piano, but composes music. Somehow I was not surprised. Also, in a conversation with Saul Gonzalez on KCRW, Garcetti showed that he understood the aesthetics of a cityscape. He talked about a little mound of grass in Elysian Park upon which you could sit and look towards downtown. "You can see downtown," he told Gonzalez, "through all this vegetation, and it almost looks like this city is just popping up through a jungle." He also talked about appreciating our city's architecture not just on the grand scale, as can be seen from your car, but in smaller delights of our streetscapes, paying attention to details. You could probably not get Garcetti to admit this, but Los Angeles is not the most beautiful city in the world. However, it's thrilling to me that Garcetti understands that there are pockets of beauty in this city, and that to search them out and view them is a wonderful aesthetic adventure.

Of course, sensitivity to aesthetics and the arts does not a good mayor make. But I believe that sensitivity to aesthetics and the arts can make a good mayor better.

This is my hope for Eric Garcetti if he goes the distance and becomes the next mayor of Los Angeles.