Politics as Unusual

Garry South has a gift for gab, no doubt about it. Along with many other gifts, not least among them astonishing recall. At the end of a five-hour interview, I find my jaw sagging, perhaps from exhaustion, but also because he has just rattled off the names of all the state officeholders in Montana in 1974, as well as the makeup of the state legislature. I’m afraid if I let him go on he’ll list all who served in those bodies as well.

In the last few years South has emerged as one of the top political operatives in the country, up there near Karl Rove and James Carville. His latest achievement is getting Gray Davis re-elected governor of California in 2002 — while Republicans were winning almost every place else.

When the idea of doing an article on South had been floated for the Montanan, I jumped at the chance. And, being the editor of the magazine, I didn’t have to get by too many bodies to do it. I knew Garry years ago. In the self-indulgent, high-octane decade of the ’70s, we both were making our opinions known, I in editorials for the Montana Kaimin, he as a flamboyant UM student body president.

I flew to Los Angeles, wanting to see just how much he really knew thirty years later. Turns out, quite a lot. Those hours of discussion ranged from growing up in Miles City to a detailed description of the 1998 California primary campaign for governor to Garry’s latest brouhaha with Arnold Schwarzenegger. I’m engaged, entertained, educated, and — if it weren’t for the exhaustion — game to go a few more hours.

It only makes it more intriguing when he tells me he learned just about everything he knows about politics while student body president at UM.

The other thing that is interesting is how much we have in common. We’re the same age, grew up in eastern Montana in small towns along the Yellowstone River a scant forty-five miles from each other, hid beef we didn’t want to eat at the dinner table to get rid of when our parents weren’t looking, and have politics in the blood. The main difference I see is that he’s risen to the top of his field and is making six figures, easily, while I’m editing UM’s magazine part-time for peanuts.

We’re at a sidewalk café near his home in Brentwood having lunch. Garry is dressed in corduroy pants and a soccer shirt. I’m wearing a business suit. He is vibrant and healthy at fifty-one, surprisingly comfortable, graceful even, in his lanky frame. I tell him that lunch is on us and he quips, in that case, maybe we should have gone someplace more expensive.

Garry seems singularly proud to be living in a place where we can have lunch outside in February. He’s explaining his love for California, beginning with trips his family took to the state when he was a kid. This is the typical story of the naïve small-town kid from the north who discovers the winter warmth, sunshine, and flowers of California. And the story of a man who is still somewhat surprised by — and definitely proud of — his rise from a modest childhood in eastern Montana to being a player in “Never Never Land.” Garry remembers his family leaving Miles City in a blizzard, heading to L.A. for Christmas and how he found the blooming flowers and warm temperatures magical and “mesmerizing.” I moved to California in 1982 and left in 1994. I may have found it mesmerizing for a few months.

It took him a while to get here. Garry grew up in a political family. His father, Vernon, a carpenter, served on the Miles City City Council for years, a seat his older brother Carroll filled when Vernon retired. Garry was active in politics at UM, but took time out to run a couple of campaigns, graduating in 1976 with a bachelor’s degree in political science and history after six years of undergraduate school. I graduated Kappa Tau Alpha in four years.

He ran Carroll’s winning campaign for the Montana Legislature in 1974 and worked on other state campaigns, including Pat Williams’ loss in the democratic primary for Congress in 1974. I worked for Pat as well, but on his winning campaign in 1978.

Garry picked Jimmy Carter as a long shot in the 1975 presidential primary, leading the effort to get him on the ballot in Montana. When Carter won the primary, Garry was asked to run his presidential campaign in the state. From there his life careened from a regional post for the Democratic National Committee, to advance man for a Secretary of Agriculture, to a Senate campaign in Illinois, to Democratic operative for the National Association of Realtors, to communications director for Ohio Governor Richard Celeste.

In 1991, with a small savings account and $8,000 cashed out from his Ohio state pension fund, Garry landed in Los Angeles. “I came here in ’91, hoping to get away from politics,” he tells me. “That was my intent. I had no idea what I was going to do. I wanted to write screenplays and I had a couple of friends who were out here that were actually involved in the entertainment industry.” Garry never wrote a screenplay. He took rock-drumming lessons instead and laid on the roof of his apartment building, getting a tan. I did write several screenplays, none of which saw the light of day. After eighteen years of dramatic writing, one of my plays is being produced.

“I never quite mastered it [drumming], but I had wanted to plunk on the drums since I was a little kid,” Garry is saying. “My grandmother bought me a little toy drum kit one Christmas and I beat the hell out of it, I mean, literally. By the time I was done not only were everybody’s ears filled with all this racket, but literally I broke it apart — pounded on it until all the things came off the drums, then the sticks broke. My parents threw it away and never wanted me to get another one.”

Uh-huh.

Garry did a few radio spots and wrote short articles for a Glendale newspaper — “for $60 a pop.” Then came a call from a friend in Sacramento he knew from past political battles. The friend said there was a woman running for Los Angeles County Supervisor who “seems pretty sharp.” Maybe he should meet her. At that point Garry had no clue about Los Angeles politics, but his money was running out. And he liked Gordana Swanson right away. She was a Republican and a Serb who had survived a concentration camp, “a very interesting woman.” Garry became her campaign manager. Swanson made it into a runoff, but lost the general election. “They threw everything at her,” he remembers, “but it got me known by the L.A. press corps.” Like Al Pacino in The Godfather, just when he thought he was out, they pulled him back in again.

The next stop was Michael Woo’s primary bid for mayor of Los Angeles in 1993, another loss, but memorable to Garry because it was during this campaign that he met his wife, Christine. They were married in 1995.

He also met Gray Davis in 1993 and they formed a strong bond. Davis, the quiet, under-sung California controller, was looking for a James Carville-type to lead his campaign for lieutenant governor in 1994. Gray couldn’t remember Carville’s name, calling him “that bald guy Clinton has” but Garry knew what he meant and he was ready.

Other staff members and potential campaign workers weren’t so ready when Lieutenant Governor Davis decided to run for governor in 1997. Davis was known as a policy wonk in California and the word boring often was attached to him. Garry stayed with Davis while thirteen staff members jumped ship over the course of the primary. “There were literally days when it was just him and me, plus a couple of people to answer the phones,” he says.

The primary left Garry with a bleeding ulcer that required five days of hospitalization, but when it was over he and Davis had pulled off a surprise win over multi-millionaires Al Checchi and Jane Harman. Davis handily won the general election in 1998 and Garry was named Campaign Manager of the Year by the American Association of Political Consultants. In 2002, with Davis heading the ticket, Democrats took all statewide offices, regained control of the state Senate and Assembly, and dominated California’s congressional delegation, the nation’s largest.

It’s clear Garry could describe down-to-the-minute details of those campaigns, but there are only so many hours in a day. Today he has left his lucrative job as Davis’ senior political adviser (paid for by the state Democratic party) and is on his own again. He has his sights set on the next presidential election and he’s been talking to potential candidates. His main mission is “to get Bush,” he says. (In July he signed on as senior political adviser with the Joe Lieberman campaign.)

Garry is one of those rare people who not only has politics in the blood, he eats, sleeps, dreams, and, well… you know… Many of us are interested in politics, dabble in it, become involved in various campaigns, even run for office. But there are only a few, like Garry, who play it to the bone. And that intensity, along with back-to-back wins in California, are what have placed him on the short list when the big races come up. But it’s time to get back to what I came here for. I finally get to ask a question: “What do you remember from your days at The University of Montana?”

Here we go…

“I have some of the fondest memories of my time at The University of Montana of anything I’ve ever done in my life, which was the reason I stayed there so long. I would have never left if I hadn’t run out of eligibility for student loans. I did go to Eastern [Montana College] my first year, but that wasn’t the same kind of student body that you find at The University of Montana, which was very diverse, with kids from all over the world.

“I got involved in student politics there, which I would have to tell you was really the training ground for everything I’ve done subsequently in politics because student politics at a campus — and I think other people will tell you this who have been involved in it — is the most elbow-throwing, no-holds-barred, vicious political environment that you will ever be involved in — for a couple of reasons.

“Number one, when you think about it, these kids are only here for a very limited period of time. It’s not like they have sixteen years to make their mark. I was there for six, but most people are only there for four, some of them for only three and a half. And then they’re gone. So if you’re going to do anything in student politics, you’ve got to do it now. You don’t have forever. And the second reason is you know you don’t have to live with the consequences of your actions because you’re going to be gone. It’s not like you’re on the City Council of some small town and you have to face these people every day down at the drugstore.

“The things that happened there in student politics… stuff that literally would get you charged with a felony if you did it in real politics. And I was guilty of it to be honest with you. And I’m not even going to tell you what I did. I’m not proud of it. I wouldn’t do it again.”

I have to laugh: This guy who has been labeled ruthless, brash, “a nice pit bull” in stories found in the California and national press, this guy who “talks in paragraphs,” not sentences, this spin doctor who described the California energy market in 2000 as comparable to a Turkish rug bazaar, this guy who had a sign on his door that said, “Whatever doesn’t convict me makes me stronger,” says he was a tougher player running for office at UM.

“Are you saying you’re actually softer now?” I ask.

“It’s hard to believe, but I am.”

Garry was president of the UM student body in the 1973-74 school year. He dressed in three-piece suits and had Kennedy hair. I wore patched bell-bottoms and tried to crimp my long, straight hair to have that kinky hippie look. He was known for a few things, chief among them for being the guy who got in the face of the athletics department.

“We had a student activity fee of, I believe, $15 a quarter,” Garry remembers. “Just like a governor, I proposed a budget to the Central Board [student senate]. There was usually a separate athletic fee and then this other student activity fee that funded everything from the band to the student yearbook, to the twirlers club, drama club — everything under the sun. Prior to my getting there, these fees were collapsed into one fee and it was assumed that the same revenue stream would keep going to athletics department. Well, I said screw that, they can come in and fight for their money like the parachute club and everybody else.

“And so, basically, what we did was we cut off part of that money going to the athletic department, and they went bananas. Jack Swarthout, who was the football coach, was just livid about the whole thing and came to Central Board and berated everybody and had his big football players in there. My feeling was we have duly elected representatives. Don’t come in and tell us how to spend our money.”

Garry also accomplished two other things while president that were perhaps more significant and lasting: under his leadership, a student representative was given a permanent seat on the state Board of Regents and twenty-four-hour dorm access was instituted. But today it’s the student fee controversy that’s on his mind.

“It was really vicious,” he continues. “Both me and the editor of the student newspaper at that point — Conrad Yunker — got anonymous death threats in the mail and his actually mentioned his wife. We kind of laughed it off when we got them but we turned it over to campus security and they called the FBI, who came in and moved me to a safe house.

“That really was the training ground for politics. Every place I’ve ever been, whether it was Washington, Illinois, Ohio, California, there are things I can look back on in terms of my involvement in student politics that have played a significant role in how I approach politics. As I say, I was more over the top then than I am now, although it would surprise some people. It’s the only time I’ve ever got a death threat, I’ll tell you that. I’ve been threatened with a libel suit by Arnold Schwarzenegger’s lawyer, but that’s it.” I recently was threatened with death by a disgruntled young woman motorist I cut off on Orange Street.

The Schwarzenegger story fits in with Garry’s general philosophy about politics: it’s a blood sport, not a race. “The proper metaphor for a campaign is more like a boxing match where two people are up there in the ring,” he says. “Only one is going to come out the winner, either by knockout or by points. And for someone to watch a campaign and say, ‘Why are these two people criticizing each other?’ is about as inane as someone going to a boxing match and saying, ‘Why are these guys hitting each other?.’ Your job in a campaign is to point out the differences and the contrasts between you and your opponent.”

Garry also compares politics to a chess game: “I like to match wits with somebody — play on that big chessboard of politics, try to outsmart people….” Part of that strategy is to do something to unsettle the opponent, hoping he will react and expose a weakness.

Garry has been goading Schwarzenegger in the press and in person for months since the Terminator indicated his interest in running for governor of California. He does it to get a reaction out of the big guy as much as anything. Garry notes that many wealthy people don’t understand the “fight” in politics. He does an eerie imitation of Arnold asking a reporter “Why does this guy have it in for me?” Garry laughs, adding, “He doesn’t get it.” Meanwhile Garry gets the good press, one newspaper calling him “the real Terminator.”

After a few hours at the café, it’s time to head over to Garry’s place. On the way he answers an earlier question in more depth: why, after running for office in college, has he chosen to be the “back” man, not the candidate. Earlier he explained that he thought politicians had to have more patience in dealing with people and policy than he had, that he was more in it for the fight. But in the car I learn something new. He says, actually he owes that to my father, John Melcher.

My dad had been elected to the United States Congress in 1969 and to the Senate in 1976. He practiced veterinary medicine for twenty years before being elected to Congress and so it was just a typo that resulted in a story that claimed he was the only vegetarian serving in that august body. Dad, a carnivore of high standing, thought the whole thing was funny and used it to get national attention, staging a press conference wherein he ate a rare steak to prove the point.

But the effect on Garry was something different. He was horrified. He noted the Montana Stock Growers yelling that it had better not be true and he realized that he could never run for office in Montana. He hated beef, had since his childhood. I’m still not crazy about steak or pot roast, but I’ll eat a hamburger now and then. He decided then and there his political career in Montana was over.

We arrive, having had a very nice drive in his new Mercedes (I drive a 1990 Saab 900, a classic), enter his gated condo, and meet his wife, Christine, who Garry is proud to announce has journalism degrees from UCLA and Columbia. He notes more than once over the course of the next few hours that Christine loves beef.

Ah, the ironies of life.

It’s obvious he’s very close to his family, which includes three older brothers; his mother died in 2002. Last summer he arranged for a Lear jet to pick up his father and fly him to a nearby airport, saying it was hard for a ninety-two-year-old man to make the drive from Miles City to Billings and then fly commercially to L.A.

Smiling poses of Garry and Christine are scattered throughout the entryway and living room, most of them with Gray Davis and his wife or with former President Clinton and other national leaders. He pulls out photos and mementos from his time at UM, then snapshots of vestments he designed. Yes. Along with collecting glass buffalo, gourmet cooking, and faux painting, this is one of his hobbies. I have dogs to walk and an unruly yard.

He designs vestments for Episcopal priests, in fact, designed the vestment worn by the priest when he and Christine were married. Garry explains that he grew up in a fundamentalist Pentecostal church. When he found the Episcopal Church as a student at UM, the symbolism and accoutrements of the church fascinated him. He sees the hobby as a “fusion of my interest in religious history and art and design.” I’m slightly aghast. I look to Christine for some sort of explanation and she mouths to me, “Weird.”

He says other reporters have been as surprised as I am by it, telling me they have written about the duality of Garry South: the pious and the profane.

Indeed.

After more jawboning about Montana, UM, and national politics, it’s time for me to go. I say goodbye and head out to face the L.A. traffic. I’m exhausted, but the subject of my interview no doubt is thinking about what to do with the rest of the day.

In the car I realize that Garry has probably lost nearly as many races as he’s won. In fact, some Californians are trying to undo the 2002 win through a recall of Governor Davis. A day before we went to press Schwarzenegger announced he would be a candidate in the recall election. But, like the pugilist, Garry’s still standing. And he’s ready for the next one.