Lou Papan: Much more than his public persona

Reading Lou Papan’s obituaries, I can barely recognize the man I knew. Twenty years in office and all he gets in the official obits is this: “He was a bully who got speeding tickets.”

We would rather not think about it, but politicians are more like “us” than we would ever want to admit. Buried in each of us is the potential to rise to the noblest heights of seeking justice–or to drop into the darkness of the less noble. Too often, reporters (I was once one) dwell in the darkness of human frailty and miss the more noble qualities of the person. Here’s one example:
I served on Lou Papan’s staff in the early 1970s. A portion of my job was to carry “the signals” on how Assembly Speaker Leo McCarthy wanted members of his leadership group to vote. Senator George Moscone was carrying the state’s first bilingual-education bill.

McCarthy decided to punish Moscone for supporting Willie Brown for speaker, and not him. Moscone was running for mayor and McCarthy’s order to kill his bill had nothing to do with good public policy. It was payback. The Moscone bill was to die, but not in policy committee where it had the votes, nor on the Assembly floor where reporters presided with the wrath of public accountability.

No, the measure was to die quietly in Ways and Means. Bilingual education could wait another year. Lou Papan, a key McCarthy lieutenant, was the key vote.

Immaculately dressed, a thin, handsome Moscone entered the Ways and Means Committee alone–no staff, no line of supporters. This trial lawyer walked in like a matador without the trumpets. He knew exactly the play that day. “Before I get into the details about this legislation,” Moscone began, “I would like to tell you a story.

“There was once a little child sitting in a classroom surrounded by people speaking a language he could not understand,” Moscone said.

Papan swallowed. Tears flooded his eyes. Moscone continued: “This child couldn’t understand what the teacher was saying or the taunting words of his classmates. But that child wasn’t a Mexican kid; that child was a little Greek boy in Massachusetts who had immigrated from the Peloponnese in Greece.” Tears rolled down Papan’s cheeks. No one in the room had to be told the little Greek boy was Lou.

“Oh shit,” I thought, “this bill is going to the floor.” I ran into Art Agnos’ office. He was Leo McCarthy’s chief of staff. “Art, Lou is going to vote for the bilingual-education bill.”

“Did you tell him what we are doing?” Art snapped.

“Of course I did. But if you want to stop him, you better get up there and tell him yourself.”

But one look at Papan’s face and Art knew it was over. The Moscone bill was going to the governor’s desk.

Lou had a heart a thousand times the size of his head. He stood by his friends to his everlasting fault. Each of us is chased by the demons of darkness. Those demons feast on the power that eats at the frailty of human beings. God knows most of our lives are spent in error.

But most of us live private lives in virtual anonymity. We are largely protected from what our enemies and adversaries think of us. It takes a special courage to enter the public arena. Lou Papan had the heart of a lion and all the frailties that go with being human. In that sense he may have been the most flesh and blood person I ever knew. He loved his family. He gave his enemies no quarter and asked none. He had the instincts of a champion prizefighter and the soul of Thucydides.

Don Fields, on Papan’s staff from 1974 to 1977, joined KRON-TV as the Bureau Chief/Producer in 1978. He won an Emmy in 1982 for a documentary entitled Showdown at Diablo. After KRON-TV closed its bureau in 1988, Fields founded RF Communications Inc., which specializes in communications advocacy.

Editor’s Note: The Trisagion will be held on Thursday, May 3, at 7 p.m. at the Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church, 999 Brotherhood Way, San Francisco. The funeral service will be held at 10 a.m. the following day at the same church.

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