Former California Sen. Alan Cranston died Sunday after collapsing suddenly. He was 86, 14 years shy of his goal of living past age 100.
Cranston came to know disappointment in the course of a career that had started with such promise. A son of privilege, Cranston had become a foreign correspondent for Hearst's International News Service after he graduated from Stanford University. In 1934, he found himself in the same room as Adolf Hitler.
In 1939, back in the United States, Cranston saw an English-language version of "Mein Kampf" that seemed sanitized, designed to keep the American public from under standing the sinister side of Hitler's world plan. Cranston edited his own abridged 70,000-word translation of "Mein Kampf," a "Reader's Digest-like version (showing) the worst of Hitler," as he later described it to the Los Angeles Times. Hitler's publisher successfully sued for copyright infringement and won a court order halting the sale of Cranston's translation. No matter, Cranston's "Mein Kampf" had already sold a half million copies. The young man had educated thousands of Americans about Nazism.
He quit journalism and became involved in world politics. Yet, he is known to many Californians today, not for his scrap with Hitler, and not for leading the fight for arms control in the Senate from 1968 to 1992, but because he was the chief water carrier in the Senate for savings-and-loan kingpin Charlie Keating.
Of the five senators enmeshed in the Keating scandal, Cranston emerged as the one who squeezed the most money out of Keating -- more than $1 million of the $1.5 million Keating gave to the five senators' pet political organizations. Cranston also was the senator who leaned most heavily on federal regulators, who were earning their salaries by investigating Keating in 1987. When the Federal Home Loan Bank Board finally shut down Keating's failed Lincoln S&L, taxpayers were stuck with a $2.6 billion tab.
In 1991, the Senate Ethics Committee reprimanded Cranston for his "improper and repugnant" conduct on Keating's behalf. An investigation had found that Cranston's office frequently mixed policy talk with fund raising. For example, a Cranston aide asked a Keating lobbyist for a $300,000 loan after they discussed an amendment the S&L kingpin opposed.
The full Senate had considered censuring Cranston for his actions until Cranston threatened to name the names of other senators who also had gone to bat for big contributors. Cranston won that round. The Senate did not censure him, but Cranston was still left with an ugly legacy. In going to bat so frequently and fervently for Keating, Cranston had championed an institution that soaked American taxpayers and bilked some 23,000 bond holders of their hard-earned savings.
He later blamed the pernicious influence of money in politics. Cranston also endorsed many so-called reforms, such as public financing of campaigns, even though he of all people had to understand how easy it would be to circumvent such laws. (Most of the money Cranston raised from Keating went to Democratic get-out-the-vote campaigns that would not be affected by the public financing proposals.)
"Obviously, the Keating thing will be recalled," Cranston noted when he left the Senate, after choosing not to run for re-election. "I did have a lapse of judgment, but I think it will finally be regarded as an aberration in an otherwise exemplary career."
An aberration or a too typical story of an expedient pol selling out? Well-intentioned crusader goes to Washington to do good things, sees maintaining his position as his top priority, and starts cutting corners and leaning on the wrong people?
Cranston started public life as an enemy to a genocidal tyrant, and left Washington a water carrier for an S&L con artist. It is the oldest story in the world, and it is heartbreaking.