Patt Asks

Warren Christopher: Mr. Secretary

Warren Christopher sounds so, well, diplomatic. The former secretary of State sometimes prefaces his observations with "it seems" and "I think" -- as considerations rather than pronouncements.

This is a man who has been at the fulcrum of the world's remarkable and sometimes lamentable recent events -- a Mideast peace accord, renewing ties with Vietnam, Bosnia, Rwanda, Haiti, the 2000 Florida recount. In the pop-culture shorthand of Moe the barkeep on "The Simpsons": "There's not even any wars no more, thank you very much Warren Christopher."

If only. But maybe the longest peace he will have brokered is the one between the Los Angeles Police Department and the people of Los Angeles. The Christopher Commission's 1992 recommendations and reforms after the Rodney G. King beating, trial and riots are still flourishing.

Christopher came to California as a teenager -- in the picture, he holds his Rough Rider Award from his home state, North Dakota. He earned degrees from USC and Stanford, clerked for Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, and before he became secretary of State to Bill Clinton, he worked in Lyndon Johnson's Justice Department and Jimmy Carter's State Department.

To those who don't call him Mr. Secretary, he is Chris, and despite all those high-level peregrinations, if he claims pride in anything, it is that every year for 14 years now, 10 college scholarships in his name are awarded to LAUSD 10th-graders, and every last one of the winners has gone on to college.


You advised Mayor Villaraigosa in choosing a new police chief. How did that turn out?

I thought that was one of the mayor's finest hours. Los Angeles has come a long way since 1992. I was so pleased to see the civilian control of the Police Department so firmly ingrained. Chief Bratton leaves a strong legacy, and I think the new chief has the capacity to move it to the next level.


How has that transition gone?

The new chief will be able, I think, to move down to even more of a working level some of the reforms Chief Bratton was helpful in instituting. The federal consent decree played a role, but I think it's time for us to follow our own precepts in Los Angeles. The major reform that the commission tried to insist on was to ensure that the chief of police is no longer a lifetime role. We also made recommendations to avoid the use of excessive force. So all the credit is due the Police Department and its leadership. It was very refreshing to see the Hispanic mayor and the African American chairman of the Police Commission explaining why it was perfectly all right to have three white males under consideration for chief of police. That's an indication of how far our city has come.


The term "public servant" seems tailor-made for you. Are people more reluctant to go into public life now? Do they regard public service differently?

There's no doubt that the intensity of the political situation in Washington is somewhat inhibiting, especially the hearings, which are so invasive and which make it impossible for a number of people who'd like to serve in government actually to serve. On the other side, I'm in contact with people at the college level. There's a high degree of idealism among our very best people, a desire to serve in government, to provide the things that make our democracy work. So I'm constantly refreshed by my contact with young people.

I teach a course at UCLA in the [undergraduate] honors program. We spend the course examining the hot spots the students choose. I'm getting ready to teach another one in January; I'm really very excited about it. It gives me an opportunity to talk to students about the complexity of world affairs. I think they come away seeing that there are very few easy answers. They're expert enough to make it interesting, but they also have some idealism left. I find graduate students often are quite cynical; college seniors maintain a high degree of idealism that makes it a particular joy.


You're back at O'Melveny & Myers, which will be 125 years old next year. It's where you began your legal career almost 60 years ago. Everything old is new again?

The firm has given me the responsibility to try to maintain the old-fashioned values: excellence, leadership and citizenship. This year already the firm has provided more than 100,000 lawyers' hours in pro bono programs. We've had some quite stunning victories: a large judgment for an Indonesian domestic worker who was enslaved by a banker and his wife in La Canada, and a settlement for a woman who'd been denied fertility treatment because she was a lesbian. Victories like that are very important to the fabric of the community. It's not just a single case but the precedent that's created.