02/05/2014 04:58 pm ET Updated Apr 07, 2014

Considering Henry Waxman: Despite Drawbacks, the Congressman and the Scene He Helped Create Had Massive Accomplishments

In part of my mind, it seems like it was yesterday. The Watergate scandal had driven Richard Nixon from the White House and ushered in a young band of fresh-faced politicians who were going to do it all differently, with more respect for the environment, less reverence for violence, more concern about an increasingly diverse America, an aversion to the imperial presidency.

With Jerry Brown, who first became governor in that Watergate year of 1974, still sounding if not looking much as he did then as he prepares to go for a fourth term as governor of California with a 60 percent job approval rating in the latest poll, it's not hard for my time warp to continue. Then something dramatic happens to remind that not only is that halcyon era very much in the rearview mirror, the eternal Brown notwithstanding, but also that most of its leading lights have long since departed.

Henry Waxman's decision to retire from Congress after 40 years service there (following six years in the California Assembly) marks the end of one of the great congressional careers, the last of the "Watergate class" in the U.S. House of Representatives, and the denouement of what was one, in its day, one of the most powerful political machines in California history, the Waxman-Berman machine.

Waxman's congressional accomplishments have affected life in America in profound and far-reaching ways, almost always for the good, though the jury is certainly still out on his authorship of Obamacare in the wake of its disastrous roll-out and revelation that it will cut some two million full-time job equivalents.

In some ways, I grew up in politics around Waxman and his frequently brilliant, not infrequently maddening associates, so my "wayback machine" is in effect.

Will we see the like of this again?

I doubt it. Not in this lifetime. Perhaps not ever, with the rise of term limits at local and state levels and with a more nihilistic approach to government at the national level.

I watched Waxman speak four months ago in Santa Monica. He easily fielded a host of mostly local and district-oriented questions, deftly turning most, relating them into nationally significant matters. He was perturbed, of course, about the Tea Party and the massive dysfunctionality of Washington. If he was existentially troubled about being a congressman in this strange time, it was not readily apparent.

But since then, the Obama slump has settled in, and it's become apparent that only the threat of utter disaster and global opprobrium moves Congress to search for any functional middle ground. And the prospect of having to spend another few million dollars to win a safe but more competitive un-gerrymandered district against a free-spending Republican can't have been appetizing. Then on January 13th, fellow California Congressman George Miller, a powerful San Francisco Bay Area Democrat and fellow ally of Nancy Pelosi, the only other Watergate class congressman heading into his 40th year in the House, announced that he would retire at the end of this term. Two and a half weeks later, Waxman became the last of the Mohicans, the last of that storied crew to call it quits.

His announcement was met with a chorus of coverage extolling his many consequential legislative actions. Waxman worked relentlessly and successfully for a long time to expand health coverage in America even before Obamacare, expanding Medicaid during the Reagan presidency, crafting an extensive children's health program for low-income families, finding ways to compromise with conservative interests though he himself favored a single-payer national health service. He greatly expanded food safety laws, pioneered aid to AIDS victims, promoted the creation of generic drugs to lower prices and increase access, created nutritional labeling, removed dangerous pesticides from apples and other fruits and vegetables, and arguably did more than anyone to suppress smoking in the United States.

His dramatic hearing in which he got the heads of the big tobacco companies to all testify that they had no idea that nicotine was addicting, then demonstrated the virtual impossibility of their ignorance, was a major turning point. Later, he authored the bill giving the government the power to regulate tobacco from manufacturing to marketing.

Then there was his series of amendments to the Clean Air Act, which initially curbed acid rain, tightened regulations on automobile emissions, and targeted products damaging the ozone layer. More recently, after his bill to fight climate change with a cap and trade market passed the House but died in the Senate, Waxman's moves have turned the Clean Air Act, in the hands of federal regulators, into a serious tool to curtail greenhouse gas emissions.

It's all a rather long ways from more prosaic beginnings at UCLA, where two products of the Russian Jewish diaspora, Waxman and Howard Berman, met as undergraduates in the Bruin Democrats.

In 1959, the year before the year of JFK, Waxman was working as head of the UCLA Draft Adlai Stevenson for President committee. Intriguingly, for these two young men who were to become ultimate legislative operators and power brokers, it was not an ultimate inside player like then Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson who struck their fancy as the man who should be president, but the intellectual Stevenson, who had twice been the Democrats' losing presidential nominee against Dwight Eisenhower.

With the California Young Democrats as their field of play, both Waxman and Berman -- who each went on to UCLA Law School -- served as president of the group, leading it into early opposition to the Vietnam War, among other then decidedly non-mainstream views. But by 1968, aided by Berman's kid brother Michael, who was to drop out of UC Berkeley after managing this campaign, they successfully ran Waxman for a seat in the State Assembly.

He served there for six years, becoming chairman of the committee in charge of redistricting. In the process, they got Howard elected to the join Waxman in the Assembly in 1972 and Michael became the expert on redistricting.

In those years before the personal computer, the drawing of districts for the state legislature and Congress was an arcane art form. Michael Berman, a bit of an odd duck in his rejection of polling, became a master of political demographics, voter registration trends, and the rise and manipulation of voting blocs.

In fact, especially after the death of the group's friend, San Francisco Congressman Phil Burton, Michael Berman became the guru of redistricting, the once a decade process dictated by new US Census figures, for California Democrats, something which proved very lucrative and a source of tremendous power.

He came also to master the art of targeted direct mail, doing a more intuitive form of "micro-targeting" decades before Republican consultants sold and oversold it as the latest and greatest of ideas.

From that it was a hop, skip and a jump to highly lucrative slate mail operations, with the machine becoming the leading purveyor of "Democratic" slates in much of California.

Adding to the arcane arts of direct mail and redistricting was the Waxman-Berman
fundraising capacity, as the group quickly became the most prominent regular funnel of campaign funds from the very affluent West Side of Los Angeles to needy campaigns around the state and nation.

After getting Howard Berman elected to the legislature in 1972, the nascent machine had a big year in 1974, succeeding in electing Waxman to Congress, moving Berman into a top leadership post as State Assembly majority leader, and playing a role in electing Jerry Brown as governor of California.

The alliance with Brown deepened in 1975 as Berman emerged as the legislative author of Brown's top legislative priority, the Farm Labor Act aiding farm workers and the United Farm Workers union founded by Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta.

Meanwhile in Congress, as Waxman began aiding colleagues in their own elections, he staked out a strong activist position on health care, transportation, and energy and environmental issues, culminating in his first big post, chairmanship of the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on Health and the Environment. In the course of that, he began a decades long duel with Detroit congressional powerhouse John Dingell, chairman of the full committee and champion of the auto industry, the fossil fuel economy, and the conventional health care model. With an inexorable effort over many years, Waxman ground down the opposition of Dingell and the entrenched interests he represented, ultimately taking the very powerful chairmanship of the full Energy and Commerce Committee away from him when Obama became president, the better to push the national health care legislation called Obamacare but principally authored by Waxman.

Just as Waxman made his first big anti-Dingell move in 1979, seizing control of the key House Energy and Commerce subcommittee, Howard and Michael Berman made what may have been a crucial misstep out in California, as Assembly Majority Leader Berman launched a battle for the speakership with the incumbent Democratic Assembly speaker who had made him majority leader in 1974, San Francisco's Leo McCarthy.

The Bermans said they didn't trust McCarthy's leadership, as he was gearing up to run statewide in 1982. Their fears, variously, were that he would weaken the party in the meantime by taking resources away from the legislative effort and/or that he would renege on his agreement to back Berman for speaker when the time came. So they launched a pre-emptive strike against the speaker and quickly lined up a majority of the Assembly Democratic Caucus against him.

California politics had never seen anything like it up. But the best or worst was yet to come. Though convention had it that a speakership was determined by a majority vote of the house majority, technically the speakership was won by a majority vote of the house. McCarthy and his Democratic backers decided to hang tough, figuring that the Republican minority would be happier with him as speaker than with Berman.

That proved to be the case. Republicans already feared the Waxman-Berman machine. With the power of the speakership added to it, especially with the speakership seized in such dramatic and seemingly ruthless fashion, Republicans feared they would be driven into the sea. They stood fast, backing McCarthy's speakership.

This prompted a nearly year-long battle in Assembly districts up and down the state, as Berman backers sought to take out McCarthy loyalists in Democratic primaries, then make doubly sure their candidates did best in the fall.

When the smoke settled over the battlefield in November 1980, the Berman side had the upper hand. But the McCarthyites were even more sure that they wanted no part of a Berman speakership, especially fearing the wrath of brother Michael Berman.

Knowing that his goose was cooked, and wanting to run for statewide office anyway, Leo McCarthy and his associates came up with a deal with not one but two devils to prevent the Bermans from taking power.

First, he agreed to back fellow San Franciscan Willie Brown, who had tried to undermine him in 1974, as speaker. Then he agreed with Brown's plan to cut a deal with Republicans to deliver the speakership to him.

As antithetical as the liberal showman Willie Brown was to most Republicans, he was vastly preferable to Berman. The deal went down and Brown went on to break all records in the length of his tenure as speaker, spurring on the term limits movement in the process.

On the outside looking in were the Bermans and their allies. But they were still so feared that Willie Brown and company wanted to get rid of them in the best way possible, so he and Michael Berman created safe congressional districts for his brother, machine senior partner Mel Levine, and several others.

Besides, the Waxman-Berman crew were allies of a San Francisco political machine run by Congressman Phil Burton and his congressman brother John, who is today chairman of the California Democratic Party. Sending Berman, Mel Levine and others to Washington only helped their agenda there. And so Waxman's old UCLA buddy Howard Berman began his own highly consequential 30-year congressional career, which took him to the chairmanship of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. But that hadn't been the plan.

In retrospect, the move against McCarthy looks like a misreading of the situation, one which led to a lot of very bad blood in the Democratic Party and cost the alliance what would likely have been a very powerful and effective speakership.

But with growing clout in Congress, the machine pulsing powerfully in Southern California, Waxman, Berman and company were in strong shape when they saw another opportunity to expand their power when Gary Hart's long shot presidential campaign broke through in 1984 with a surprise second in Iowa followed by a smashing victory in New Hampshire. The machine had had nothing to do with any of that, but Waxman knew Senator Hart, a fellow Watergate class member, and had a similar simpatico with Hart's politics, as they did with Jerry Brown. And Waxman-Berman folks were familiar with some of us already in the Hart campaign. Five years earlier, Mel Levine had arranged for one of my first appointments, to the Los Angeles county energy commission.

There were concerns about some of Hart's close associates, including national campaign co-chair Ted Sorensen, the legendary counselor and speechwriter for John F. Kennedy, about a potential lack of support for Israel, one of the machine's core issues. Sorensen did a lot of legal work for the United Nations, which many staunch supporters of Israel view as pro-Arab. There was never any question that Sorensen would retain his leadership role and Hart declined to support some of the items on the group's pro-Israel wish list. Nevertheless, the Waxman-Berman crew decided to throw their backing to Hart and Waxman, Berman, Levine, and LA City Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky, whom I introduced to Hart as LA's next mayor after Tom Bradley, flew in to meet with the presidential candidate.

The endorsements were made and all was well until a state steering committee to slate candidates for the California delegation to the Democratic National Convention in my hometown San Francisco.

Michael Berman was to present the names of the few dozen Waxman-Berman folks they wanted rewarded with posts as delegates and members of various party committees. With my friend and recent best man John Emerson, Hart's state chairman, chairing the meeting, I was to present the names of the rest of the delegate candidates based largely on their participation in what was a large grassroots organization.

To our surprise, Michael Berman arrived with a print out of an entire slate of delegates in every congressional district in the state. It was a Waxman-Berman slate, plain and simple. Though Emerson, myself, and the few other established Hart campaign aides at the meeting were assured of spots, it was clearly a power grab, and just the sort of surprise change to the deal that Waxman-Berman detractors complained of.

Since Emerson was chairing the meeting and is the more diplomatic of the two of us -- he is, after all, our new U.S. ambassador to Germany -- I took the lead in, er, aggressively discussing the make-up of the Hart California delegation. Unlike Michael Berman, I had not come with a print out of a slate to be rubber stamped. The purpose of the meeting had been to discuss the potential delegates. But I knew who the people were who'd applied and a slate quickly formed in my mind's eye.

After several hours of frequently heated discussion, Michael Berman's reputation as an acerbic character being well deserved, the Waxman-Berman move ended up garnering only a dozen more delegates than had been agreed to before the meeting.

The quality of political counsel proved disappointing as well, with Michael Berman's offerings two-dimensional and cynical as the campaign unfolded. Not that I have anything against cynicism per se. After all, it is politics. But it can't look like cynicism.

We ended up falling behind by seven points in the Field Poll taken a week before the California primary. But with new TV ads and the right sort of messaging, Hart vaulted ahead again, winning by five points and, with what in some respects was a winner take all system by district, crushing former Vice President Walter Mondale in a delegate landslide, though he was able to cobble together enough super-delegates to win a first ballot victory in San Francisco.

Henry Waxman, who some told me did not know what Michael Berman was going to to try to pull with the delegate slate, ended up as the sole chairman of the California delegation and did a fine job. With Hart, who ran far better in the polls against President Reagan than did Mondale, set up as the frontrunner for 1988, a sometimes testy alliance was still in place. But Hart, who by then led George Bush I by 10 points in the polls, was knocked out the race by a sex scandal spoon fed to the media.

Not long after, Michael Berman's cynicism bit the Waxman-Berman crew in the behind when a strategy memo for Yaroslavky's nascent LA mayoral campaign was stolen from the councilman's City Hall office and published in the Los Angeles Times.

Though Tom Bradley's mayoralty was fading after four terms, the LA Times wanted its mayor returned to office for a fifth term in 1989. So the paper was quick to publish a purloined strategy memo and slow to discover Bradley's consultancy with a Chinatown bank that was to darken his final term in office.

Actually, Michael Berman, who'd shown no particular feel for presidential campaigns, had a strong take on what Yaroslavsky had to do to become mayor of LA. Basically, the memo from BAD Campaigns -- as Michael and his business partner, Carl D'Agostino, styled themselves -- told Yaroslavsky to get off his butt and raise all the Jewish money that was out there waiting for him to call for it, focus strongly on environmental and quality of life issues, and stop wasting all his time in City Hall. But it was written in such a cynical, if hardly unamusing, manner, that it was bound to offend stolid readers of the Times. Yaroslavky, rocked onto the defensive, ended up abandoning his campaign. He never did become mayor of LA -- unfortunate, as he would have been very good -- instead becoming a powerful member of the powerful LA county board of supervisors.

But the worst was yet to come for the Waxman-Berman machine.

In 1992, the group made its most audacious move yet. In a once in a lifetime development, both of California's seats in the U.S. Senate were up. And the Waxman-Berman machine, through the good offices of BAD Campaigns, would run candidates for both seats.

One would be a core member of the group, Congressman Mel Levine, a charming, handsome, highly-educated and very policy-oriented scion of Jewish elites who some -- including me -- thought just might become the first Jewish president of the United States.

The other would be a fellow who had taken to spending a fair amount of time hanging out at the less than glamorous Beverly Hills flats office of BAD Campaigns, then State Controller Gray Davis.

Though Davis, who is not Jewish, had spent seven years as Governor Jerry Brown's chief of staff, he had had to become a de facto member of the Waxman-Berman machine in order to start his own electoral career with a win in the Democratic Assembly primary for Beverly Hills and environs. As a result, he had the machine's immediate backing when Carl D'Agostino's old boss, Ken Cory, suddenly stepped away from the post of state controller in spring 1986. That helped Davis win the statewide Democratic primary going away and coast to an easy general election victory even as Republican George Deukmejian was crushing Tom Bradley for a second term as governor.

But the machine's help meant that Davis had to take on BAD Campaigns for all aspects of the campaign, including media. So Davis was forced to fire the much more experienced advertising agency headed by Sidney Galanty and Bill Zimmerman, frequent allies of Tom Hayden and Jane Fonda whose ads helped propel Hart to a come-from-behind victory in the California presidential primary just two years earlier.

But while Berman and D'Agostino were great at district campaigns focusing on direct mail, they had little feel for television advertising. As the ensuing Senate campaigns made obvious. The liberal Levine was presented as something of a law and order candidate while Davis was represented by an ad equating Dianne Feinstein with notorious New York hotelier Leona Helmsley.

For his part, Davis was crushed by Feinstein while Levine ran a distant third behind future Senator Barbara Boxer and the machine's old bete noire, Assembly Speaker-turned-Lieutenant Governor Leo McCarthy.

Meanwhile, Tom Hayden, who won a Santa Monica-based Assembly seat in 1982 with the machine's not especially friendly neutrality, finding his continued Assembly prospects messed with by, wait for it, the redistricting process, had jumped into a primary race against a longtime machine wheel horse, State Senator Herschel Rosenthal. To the surprise of many, Hayden edged Rosenthal in this race in the machine's backyard.

Waxman distanced himself from the machine in 1993. Though it had slight revivals here and there, it never recovered the heights it held before that fateful election in June 1992.

Ironically, Waxman was to achieve his greatest successes as a congressman after he gave up the mantle of California political boss. Though of course his talent for hardball politics, and ability to channel campaign money to deserving allies, stood him in good stead as he pursued his policy goals in Congress.

The problem with the machine was that it was too in-groupish, too cliquey.

The problem for Howard Berman was that he had become too important for the big world, too distant from his district and the folks back in LA.

As was to become all too apparent when the non-gerrymandered citizens redistricting commission enacted by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger threw Berman and fellow Democratic Congressman Brad Sherman into the same district, one dominated by Sherman's old district voters.

For most people who've met and talked with Howard Berman and Brad Sherman, the question of who is the more impressive political figure is a non-serious proposition. With due respect to
Sherman, it's not a close question.

But a year of heated and highly expensive campaigning failed to move the needle and Berman went down to a 60-40 defeat in 2012, ending a very consequential congressional career in its own right.

While Waxman landed the biggest House committee chairmanships, the ever powerful Energy and Commerce and the muckraking Oversight, Berman ended as chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee. Throughout his 30 years in Congress, Berman was a major player on labor and immigration issues.

I wonder if they foresaw anything like that back in their undergraduate days at UCLA.

I'm sure they did not foresee that their greatest influence on national policy would come after they had given up the effort to control things as bosses of a famous political machine. But they probably did know that with increasing eminence in the capitol comes a more tenuous tie to the folks back in the district. They'd certainly unseated enough opponents who'd undergone that journey. Though none with anything like the eminence that Waxman and Berman achieved.