When integrity and compassion won the day in politics: Remembering Tony Beilenson


A former Congressman from my home state of California passed away this week and many of the friends and colleagues I’ve gotten to know during my 40 years in New York will most likely not recognize his name.

He was Anthony Beilenson. Tony. Remember that name. Repeat it.

And if, like me, you occasionally find yourself struggling to think of viable political strategies that might somehow lead us out of the living nightmare that is the Trump administration, say the name Beilenson again.

Learn about him. Read about his place in the turbulence and protests that marked Ronald Reagan’s tenure as governor of California. See what is possible when it seems that all the political ducks are lined up against you.

Tony Beilenson somehow made it out to California after an almost story book Eastern establishment upbringing.  If he had attended Groton instead of Phillips Andover, you could have read close to three paragraphs of his biography thinking you had accidentally turned to the entry on FDR.

Eventually, after over 13 years in the California state legislature, Tony served 10 terms in Congress. But I get ahead of myself. For a young kid in southern California with political aspirations, it was those terms in the state Assembly and Senate that provided unforgettable inspiration and lessons about persistence that would last a lifetime.

After Ronald Reagan took office in 1966, it quickly became clear that many of Governor Pat Brown’s greatest progressive achievements were in jeopardy.  For a student at the University of California, the achievement that meant the most to us — building and nurturing the greatest of all state University systems — was almost immediately at risk. Reagan’s political strategy included active and angry opposition to that great institution.

We were afraid. We were beleaguered.

And then came Tony.

Truth be told, at first we had no idea who he was, and I recall positions of his that had some of us running quickly in the other direction.  But something was going on in Sacramento, and while most of us were focused on a war on the other side of the world, Tony was pulling off the ultimate lesson in how to reach and realize a hopeless objective during  a seemingly hopeless time.

Over five years before Roe v. Wade, Tony had crafted one of the earliest abortion rights bills, and – after building support in the legislature – managed to convince Ronald Reagan to sign the bill. That’s right. Ronald Reagan.

Now every 17-year-old with political ambition wanted to know:  Who is this Tony?

The answer was even more baffling than his unlikely legislative success.

I won’t try to list some of the positions he held  that got him nowhere with young progressives. His positions on immigration were something that many of us were never able to accept or understand. But with all the contentiousness of those years, it was still a time in politics when rock solid integrity and honesty could earn you serious respect, even when that respect did not extend to every position held by a candidate. And he earned it quickly, as we got to know a man as guided by the core principles of compassion and honesty as any elected official in 1960s California.

Some of us even came to see him as a US Senate candidate we could enthusiastically support, but the same complexity and iconoclastic views that we admired didn’t translate easily into a state-wide race.  He lost the primary to Sen. Alan Cranston. In his 10 terms in the US House of Representatives, he could make deals with the best of them, but the most valuable political capital he accumulated and spent was his integrity.

What a quaint idea:  people on both sides of the aisle being willing to listen to someone simply because he could be trusted to tell you the unvarnished truth, and do it with unmatched civility.

And that’s why I was moved to write this tribute:  I am sick of truth-telling and integrity being quaint.  I am sick of elected officials who would rather launch personal attacks than engage in honest debate.

But even more, I want to remember — and perhaps even be inspired by — the memory of a man who walked into the ideological storm of Reagan conservatism and came out – drenched, to be sure — with what very well might have been one of the seminal achievements in the history of the fight for women’s reproductive rights.

Remember that name. Tony Beilenson.