Warren Christopher: Mr. Secretary

Patt Morrison Asks

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.


What shaped your personal ideas of civil rights and human rights in your public career?

Best I can trace it is, when I was very young, my father used to drive me around when he was clerking for foreclosure sales in North Dakota in the middle of the Depression. On the way there, he would talk to me about the hardship the farmers faced. That certainly was the beginning of it for me. It's a constant struggle to try to improve the lot of people around the world. A lot of people live in poverty and deprivation, and we have to be constantly alert to do what we can, to always feel we have done as much as we should.


Can the United States be an exemplar to the world without also insisting that the world be like us?

President Obama, who is going through a particularly difficult first year, made a major change that enabled us to once again stand out as a beacon. We have really adopted a policy of engagement rather than a policy of going it alone. I think that enables us to persuade other countries to take a course toward peace. It won't be overnight, and it will require us to demonstrate our leadership around the world. I see this approach beginning to pay dividends in places like Russia, Myanmar, perhaps Syria, maybe over time Cuba. Administrations always learn how painfully slow diplomacy is. It is the only way, but it does not result in overnight achievements.


Foreign policy issues rise and fall -- who thinks about Quemoy and Matsu anymore? Now it's terrorism.

A principal reason we are concerned about Afghanistan is, it was a breeding ground for terrorism before 9/11 and our aim has to be to prevent it from being a breeding ground once again. Unfortunately there are a number of countries standing ready to provide that same kind of breeding ground. The ability of terrorists to be born in one country and train in another country and be subsidized by a third country, only to carry out their endeavors in a fourth country, is something we'll have to cope with. It will require a vigilance that inevitably is somewhat invasive of the privacy we've enjoyed.


That's a difficult balance.

It is a difficult balance, a thing a president constantly has to ask himself -- have we gone too far?


Can diplomacy work when you're dealing with stateless people like terrorists?

Diplomacy can play a considerable role because it can enlist the civilized countries to stop that kind of terrorism and prevent it from marauding around the world. We are greatly advantaged by our allies in Western Europe, who have so many of the same standards that we do.


Do you consider yourself a Californian?

Oh yes, this has been my home ever since I came here in 1939. So I care a great deal about California. Even though I've been a bit nomadic, I've always wanted to come back, and I'm very glad to be back now.


How then do you see California's fortunes?

California is in an extremely challenging period, and we need a reform movement to move us beyond that. We have so many natural advantages; at the moment, we seem to be squandering them. I was glad to see the state Legislature pass a water plan. It brings back memories of the days when [former Gov.] Pat Brown provided such marvelous bipartisan leadership. We need an infusion of that, which is almost hard to remember now, isn't it?


You jogged long before it was cool. Do you still?

I've been demoted to walking. I walk about two miles every morning, a substitute for the jogging I enjoyed so much. But I'm lucky to have good health.


In your book "Chances of a Lifetime" you describe how the Oval Office affects people.

I went to the White House several times a week for years, and I would never go there without a sense of awe, a sense of history, and all of that is compounded when you go into the Oval Office. Many people find it difficult to be candid in the Oval Office. People will tell you before they go in, "I'm going to tell the president this or that," and they get in the Oval Office and you find they told the president nothing but that they agree with him.


Did that happen to you?

I must not have been immune to that. After awhile, you develop more ease, so you can be more candid that you might have been.


You've been called on for so many significant public tasks -- what do you think you bring to the people who have said, "We need you to do this"?

Gosh, I don't know. I often wonder why they did!


patt.morrison@latimes.com. This interview was edited and excerpted from a longer taped transcript. An archive of Morrison's interviews is online at latimes.com/pattasks.

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