Death of a Patriarch
Tom Bradley was buried Monday, hailed as Los Angeles’ longtime mayor, statesman, leader and friend. His is a grand biography; a son of Texas sharecroppers and the grandson of slaves, Bradley broke down ethnic and class barriers and forged a new multiracial political base that re-created this capital city of the Pacific Rim.
For the Jewish community, his is the death of a patriarch. By the time his 20-year term as mayor ended in 1993, the vaunted black/Jewish coalition that brought him to City Hall was already falling into disrepair, as both blacks and Jews struggled to mediate the city’s complex ethnic realities. When Bradley this week was extolled as a “Moses who could not bring his children into the Promised Land,” many in our own community knew what was meant.
As I sat with the well-dressed, respectful crowd that sweltered in bright sunlight outside the First AME Church, only the vestiges of that historic coalition remained. When Tom Bradley was hailed as a bridge-builder, no one mentioned the bridge extending from black Leimert Park to Jewish Fairfax and Westwood. Those seeking “closure” will be meeting in our own community to mourn the Tom Bradley we knew.
How shall we mourn him? Together, blacks and Jews came to power, but what have we learned? The obituaries have been kind, stressing, as they should, Bradley’s idealistic beginnings. Our own community’s great founding fathers and mothers — Judge Stephen Reinhardt, Ed Sanders, Richard Giesberg, Roz Wyman, Maury Weiner, Fran Savitch, Valerie Fields, Bruce Corwin — figure prominently in that triumph. Many of them were with Bradley even during his first try at City Council, in 1961, a recall bid against Sam Yorty-appointee Joseph Hollingsworth for the 10th District seat. Those early days and their alliances foreshadowed Bradley’s 1969 mayoral defeat followed by victory in 1973.
Yet, in the mayoral war stories, retold often this week, I learned something new. True, Jewish leaders recognized a winner in Bradley, a man who could forge a more progressive Los Angeles. But I hadn’t known that, in order to get him into power, they had to change not only the minds of bigots in the larger non-Jewish community but those of their fellow Jews as well.
When Bradley lost to Yorty in 1969, it was in part because Jewish voters stayed away. A last-minute mailer from the Yorty forces, circulated on Fairfax Avenue, linked Bradley, a moderate in style and political philosophy, with black militants.
“There was nothing we could do. The community didn’t know him,” says Ed Sanders. In the ensuing four years, Jewish leaders made sure that such scare tactics could never work again. “Bradley went to a lot of bar mitzvahs,” Sanders tells me. “In 1973, he was a stranger no more.”
This explains a lot, including why Jewish voters stayed with Bradley for so long, after every other group was drifting away. In his definitive study, “Politics in Black and White,” Raphael J. Sonenshein shows that, in 1985, Bradley would have beaten favorite son Zev Yaroslavsky in Zev’s his own 5th District. Which is why Zev did not run.
“I would have stayed with Bradley against King David,” says Bruce Corwin, Bradley’s first fire commission president and, today, a strong Yaroslavsky backer. The Jewish community was loyal to Tom Bradley, perhaps ashamed by its first failure of nerve. Once its heart is opened, it does not easily close.
Sadly, I was there for one closing. By the time I came to this paper, Louis Farrakhan’s 1985 Los Angeles appearance had already done its damage. While not the most difficult moment of Bradley’s years — certainly the 1992 Rodney King riots would be — it was a huge debacle for black/Jewish relations. Bradley, a UCLA graduate always as comfortable among Jews as among his own people, was caught between the two. Black church and civic leaders, for whom Farrakhan represented a crisis in leadership, urged the mayor not to condemn the Nation of Islam leader until after he had spoken. Jewish leaders demanded that the mayor come out strongly against anti-Semitism.
“Black leadership didn’t understand how terrified we were,” says Richard Giesberg. “They thought we were white people, with the world on a string.” So began an era of distrust among longtime friends.
Why talk of the Farrakhan incident now? Like the 1969 Yorty-Bradley race, Farrakhan offers lessons from hindsight. Jewish leaders this week were candid in their self-questioning: Despite Farrakhan’s potent and terrifying rhetoric, were they wrong to lean on a friend in this manner? What are the obligations of coalition partners? And, today, with as many as five Jews expected to run for mayor — including Councilwoman Laura Chick, Recreation and Parks Commission President Steven Soboroff and, perhaps, Supervisor Yaroslavsky himself — on what basis will strong coalitions with Latino and Asian communities be forged? Do we understand them even as we ask them to understand us?
The glory of Tom Bradley is the easy part of his legacy. The pain must be dealt with too.
We buried a statesman, this week, a man, a leader and a friend.
Marlene Adler Marks is senior columnist of The Jewish Journal. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org