The Los Angeles Times
July 7, 2006
Bright Days for Gray Davis
Times Staff Writer
Gray Davis is smiling now.
He's talking about becoming older and wiser, about getting the most
from his days. A jury in Texas settled the biggest grudge in his life,
sort of. He has time for his family, and ground to make up. He is
earning money again. He's picking his shots when he speaks out. He's
loosened up -- which is not to call him fun-loving by ordinary
standards, mind you. He won't be seen kicking up his heels on Sunset
Strip. But look closely, and there's plainly a spring in his step.
"Nobody likes change," says
the former California governor. "You can put me in the front of the
line." To prove it, he bites into a turkey sandwich. "I've had
the same lunch for the last 32 years." Thick-sliced turkey, flatbread,
a light swipe of mustard, raw vegetables in a baggie. This one was
assembled by his wife.
But change was forced on him
in one of California's biggest political upheavals. Three years ago,
fanned by a whirlwind of anger, opportunism and novelty, the recall
began. That autumn, Davis was swept from office, cutting short a
lifetime of public service. He remembers boarding an airliner in
Sacramento on the day it all came to an end.... He doesn't finish the
For many Californians, the picture ended there. A movie star named Arnold Schwarzenegger took the stage.
Catching up with Gray Davis
now, you find him settled into a new life in Southern California -- and
not so bad a life, either, from the looks of it and what he says of it.
"I view myself as a teacher and an elder statesman," he says.
For 80% of his workdays -- by
his count -- he practices corporate law as "of counsel" to Loeb &
Loeb in Century City, a firm where attorneys wear casual attire, even
Davis, and which American Lawyer magazine called one of "best places"
in the country to work.
When you look past the three
flagstaffs behind his corner-office desk, you can see the downtown Los
Angeles skyline. You can also glimpse a couple of holes of the nearby
Los Angeles Country Club. His office is only blocks from his spacious
new home in Westwood. He drives himself to work in his Lexus.
"I am enjoying this chapter of
my life," he says. "There's room for growth, for fulfillment, and I
have more time with my family."
If you have known Gray Davis for 33 of his 63 years and spend time with him now, you are inclined to believe him.
He still picks his words
deliberately, yes. That was never a pose. He still prefers a qualifier
to an exclamation point, and that is natural too. But a great weight
has come off his shoulders. Of the many things that were said about
this Democrat who won five statewide elections -- controller,
lieutenant governor, governor -- there was rarely a complaint that he
didn't give it everything. Today, the heather polo shirt in the office
seems to suit him fine, even if his hair still looks freshly starched.
"Whenever Arnold sees me," he says, "he asks how come I look so good. I tell him it's because he's got the responsibility."
And there's the smile.
Television was never particularly kind. His smile often had the
self-conscious stiffness of someone with a fresh face-lift. It's a
bigger smile now and it comes easier, particularly when he turns his
wit to himself.
"Oh, that," he'll say when the
conversation turns to the heady years when his ambitions were as
boundless as the possibilities. "That was when I knew everything there
was to know." The remark brings a grand smile.
Then he's not smiling. He's
reflecting on his curtailed second term. "Do I think about it? The
answer is yes. Do I talk about it? No.
"There are highs and lows in
life. On balance, I feel I'm ahead of the game.... If I look at the
totality of my public life, I feel fortunate to have served for more
than 30 years. And I believe I was part of positive developments."
Lawyers have high esteem for
experience. Those who achieve senior stature are thought to have wisdom
and a responsibility to share it with the next generation.
That's how Davis expresses his role in politics.
"Life is a relay race. You run
as hard and as fast as you can. Then you pass on the baton. If a
Democrat wants my opinion, I'll give it." He has met privately with
most of the Democrats seeking statewide office this year.
If a group or a school wants
him as a speaker, he might do that as well. He was a guest lecturer at
UCLA's School of Public Policy last semester, teaming up with former
Republican state Senate leader Jim Brulte. Within a span of a few days
recently, he traveled to San Diego to attend the retirement dinner for
the county superintendent of public instruction and to North Hollywood
High School to talk about state budget priorities with graduating
seniors. If he sees the chance, he will defend his achievements -- the
high school exit exam, for example. He's writing an introduction for a
journalist's book on the Amber Alert system for missing children, a
cause he championed.
That makes up the other 20% of his workweek.
He interrupts. He wants to
make something clear: Gray Davis is not out seeking attention. This
isn't campaign 2006, where he's working the phones to gin up fresh
interest in himself. He's taking calls, not making them.
Not that he couldn't. He has
one of the biggest Rolodexes in California, and he worked it with a
reputation for relentlessness for three decades. But he is not lobbying
now, he says. Not officially nor unofficially. Not once, he says, has
he sought a favor from a legislator. However, as a political coach, he
will point people in a direction and suggest whom to call and what to
As for this story, he didn't
telephone and ask to be interviewed. He didn't extend an invitation to
lunch or for nine holes of golf. You called and asked.
Now you must ask another question; it's part of the interview ritual.
"I don't see it," he says
about another run for office. "There's a time and a place for
everything. I've moved on. Even if people could talk me into it, I'd
have to deal with Sharon. She doesn't want to go there."
Sharon and Gray Davis have
been married for 23 years. No longer in the spotlight as first lady,
she is active on the boards of UNICEF Southern California, Loyola
Marymount University and the Sisters of Providence of Terre Haute, Ind.
During a recent conversation in San Diego, she put her husband's
sentiments into different words: "In so many ways our life is better.
Now there's time for that family reunion, for that golf vacation, those
things we didn't have....
"You know, we've always been
there for each other. When he needed me, I was there. When I needed
him, I knew he'd be there. We haven't always been in the same place."
You can see the spring in her step too.
"It's just the two of us," he says later. "We're very close."
Davis was traveling on
Interstate 95 out of Jacksonville, Fla., when the Enron verdicts
rendered by a Texas jury were announced. He spoke to reporters from the
cellphone in his car. There was requital in his voice that day, and
it's there on this day too.
"Ken Lay and Jeffrey Skilling, more than anyone, are the reason I'm talking to you now from this law firm."
Enron's market scams and the
blackouts of 2000-01 staggered the state and its governor. The
incremental, free-market Democrat who always began with the assumption
that most companies were out to do the right thing never recovered. So
there is a little of the Old Testament's eye for an eye in his tone
when he observes that Skilling "will spend a good portion of the rest
of" his life in prison.
"It's justice of a sort: poetic justice, not pure justice."
As for Lay, who died suddenly
in the predawn of Wednesday, Davis takes a breath. "In many ways the
victims of his fraud were shortchanged. Watching Ken Lay go to prison
would have brought closure to a lot of people.... People were looking
for closure and they never got it."
He shakes his head. Lay and Skilling "could have made a fortune legally. But that wasn't enough for them."
Before the state energy
crisis, Davis' approval rating hovered near 60% in public opinion
polls, and he was on knowing lists of presidential prospects. A booming
economy during his early years as governor made it possible to sharply
increase education spending and reduce car license fees.
Then, with blackouts and
soaring energy costs, his popularity nose-dived. The dot-com bust left
the state facing colossal deficits, painful cuts and an increase in the
A word to the wise, he tells
the class of seniors at North Hollywood High: "Don't take something
back from people once you've given it to them."
Instinctively a consensus
politician, he found himself governing in an era when consensus was no
longer in fashion. Legislators in safe districts didn't split the
difference for their constituents but appealed directly to the faithful
-- left or right -- who held sway in primary elections and who, to
generalize, were less interested in giving ground than in taking it.
The force of personality
necessary to bring about a meeting of minds during these challenging
times eluded him, and he got the odd reputation of being both cautious
and imperious, both beholden to supporters and unable to satisfy them.
His approval rating fell to 24%.
In 2003, Republican leader
Brulte told The Times that Davis lacked the basics of political
collegiality to pull him through hard times. "I never felt I got to
know him ... I always felt a little sorry for him."
That's changed now.
Brulte and Davis are classroom sidekicks these days, trying to pass
along their shared understanding of governance to a new generation of
"Just watch him, you'll
see," Brulte says. "If the Gray Davis I know now was the one I
interacted with up there, he'd still be governor."
Now Davis wants to write a book. He waited for the Enron trial's conclusion this spring.
"I'm not prepared to say
what it is," he says. "But I'm prepared to begin the journey.... The
verdicts sounded a bell, and I'm ready to get into the ring." With the
help of his secretary, Anne Chang, who followed him from his campaign,
he also has undertaken the task of getting his speeches and press
releases posted on a website, a small-scale virtual library of his
administration that aims to leave behind "a sense of what went on
during those five years."
No, he hasn't let go completely.
Does he feel the old
urge to speak out on today's policy debates? He pauses and looks out
the window. "Part of me thinks that part of life is behind me."
I t's the weekend, and Davis is on the golf course now.
During his years in
office, he was skittish about being seen at play. He erected a wall
around his private life. Curiously, that was one of the things that
worked against him. Even his friends felt snubbed. For all those years
in the public eye, he created the image of a man who wasn't fully
revealed. Work wasn't enough for a public official. Insiders wanted in;
they wanted to pal around with him, maybe grill some hot dogs and never
mind the turkey.
Cracks have opened up in
the famously impenetrable wall now. That's the most apparent change of
all. Life is less about playing defense.
It's not a duffer's
casual game for Gray Davis, but a craftsman's athletic soliloquy. His
love of the game goes back to the very beginning. His parents were
golfers, his mother a club champion. His father died on the 13th hole
at 74. He's seen photographs of himself with a club in his hand at age
7. He played on the Stanford golf team with a two handicap.
His drives aren't what
they used to be. Rail thin, as always, and wearing a Dodgers cap and
sunglasses, he's in and out of the rough. "My father told me that you
reach an age when you take satisfaction in every good shot." His short
game has lasted, though -- precise, lips pursed, teeth biting down on
his tongue, steady and commanding.
He shoots a 44 for nine holes this day; Sharon, a 52.
Dusk. After 22 years in
a hide-out condo in West Hollywood, Gray and Sharon Davis moved to a
Wilshire Boulevard high-rise home twice as large.
Change has given the couple the gift of space, as well as time.
Furnished with English
antiques in a style Sharon Davis calls "traditional," their home is
open, uncluttered, the pale lemon paint softening the light. Walls of
glass provide views of the distant ocean and of downtown.
"People sometimes come up and say they wish I was still in office," Gray Davis says with another smile.
"I tell them, yeah, but then I wouldn't have time to hang out with you."