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Wednesday, Sep 17 1997
Half a Century of Chasing the News
Election season for California political writers is well under way; last Friday's San Francisco Chronicle ran a front-page story on the nagging question of whether U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein will run for governor next year. Among the droves of journalists who will be writing about the 1998 contest in coming months, one has a historic perspective on California state politics that can't be rivaled. For Mary Ellen Leary, now California correspondent for the Economist magazine, 1998 will mark over a half-century of writing about this state's politics.

Leary covered her first session of the California Legislature for the San Francisco News in January of 1945, five years after her first reporting assignment. Women in positions of power were scarce in the Capitol. Leary chose to capitalize on her outsider status, referring to the legislative press corps as "the boys" and addressing her stories to "Mr. and Mrs. Citizen." More than 50 years later, Leary, age 84, is still writing about California politics and issues of the day for the more sophisticated audience of the Economist, the 600,000-circulation, London-based weekly news magazine.

Leary got her first newspaper job in 1937 at the age of 24, after earning a master's in English at Stanford University. It was at the News, then San Francisco's fourth-largest daily. At that time, she says, women who wanted to write were "shunted into the women's department." Instead, Leary opted for a non-reporting job as secretary to the city editor.

It turned out to be a valuable introduction to newspapering. Leary observed editors plan the paper and react to reporters' stories. "They were quite vocal," she says.

Leary's break came three years later, in typical Front Page fashion. A murder took place near the paper at a time when the city room was empty of reporters. She convinced her boss to send her out. The mounted policeman at the scene was the same officer whose horse Leary regularly plied with sugar cubes. He took her aside and gave her all the gory details, and she literally stepped over the body to phone in the first, and most complete, story on the slaying.

When she wrote for a daily, Leary says, she considered her audience to be the streetcar motorman, someone who felt himself a part of the city, and knew its values and people and actually traveled among them. Also, she knew, the motorman would be tired at the end of the day, so she'd have to work to catch his interest.

To do so, Leary pulled off a number of journalistic stunts. She posed as a penniless, single woman who'd just hitchhiked into town and recorded people's responses to her requests for aid. For the most part, people just shooed her on.

After a number of women died from abortions, which were illegal in California then, Leary posed as a pregnant woman and secured appointments for abortions from some of the better-known underground practitioners in the city.

Leary included the abortionists' names and addresses and reported how the police were taking protection money from some of them. Raids ensued, and those places were closed down, but Leary says nothing substantial changed as a result of her story. Abortions remained illegal and available from practitioners willing to break the law.

Leary recalls a few "crusades" she and the News embarked on over the years. Although it was owned by the not particularly liberal Scripps-Howard chain, the News' editors had been permitted to fill the pro-labor niche in what was then a strongly labor city. When a strike shut down the large department stores, a major source of advertising revenue for newspapers, the News broke rank to write pro-labor editorials. The department stores pulled their ads for a time in retaliation.

Back then, the San Francisco Chronicle was strictly Republican, Leary notes, and, along with the Oakland Tribune and the Los Angeles Times, constituted the Republican Party in California. The Hearst-owned Examiner and Call-Bulletin were almost as conservative.

Perhaps the bitterest News crusade involved the building of the Embarcadero Freeway (the first section of which opened in 1957). The Chron said the city would wither away without it. The News railed that it would blight San Francisco, prompting the News editors to be dubbed "pansy planters."

Leary felt so strongly on the subject that she visited some top-level Chronicle editors on the sly, hoping to persuade them to soften their stand. "It was the only time in my life I ever did this," says Leary, who was a mere reporter at the time and never told her bosses of her trip. The Chronicle, of course, spurned her suggestions.

"LUZON SHELLED," screams the headline on the Jan. 8, 1945, front page of the News, which led with a story about the war in the Philippines. Just below it is a story, under Leary's byline, about the opening of the legislative session in Sacramento. Gov. Earl Warren was expected to ask for "sharp advances in state responsibility towards the people." Those advances, which would include government-funded medical insurance, would "bite into the succulent surplus" the war economy had created, Leary wrote.

When Leary arrived at the Capitol, she'd been a reporter for five years. She'd never covered state politics before. Her competitors, she recalls, had been on the beat for 10 or 15 years and "wrote for the politicians."

Leary covered the state Legislature during an era when legislators were still part-timers who met every other year and who were openly cajoled and blandished by flamboyant, well-paid lobbyists (as opposed to today's more sedate and subtler influence-peddling).

The News' political columnist advised Leary to regard the Legislature as freshly as if she were "Mary's little lamb." Leary followed his advice and wrote things as she saw them.

The result was prose that is far more dramatic and descriptive than most of the journalism of its -- or our -- time.

She took readers on a tour of the chaotic bill room, where the latest bills and amendments were distributed to legislators and the public. It looked, she wrote, "like a housing project for pigeons ... 4,980 coo-sized bins which can hold 690,000 sheets of paper."

She told San Francisco readers where their legislators sat in relation to other representatives, and, in a move that caused her unending teasing from her male colleagues, noted that the Senate and the Assembly had different-colored curtains. The former's were red; the latter's green, dark as a Victorian parlor -- a color, she averred, that "may relate to the tender inexperience of novice assemblymen."

"When I began reporting, I was very aware that a lot of what went into the paper was a formula," she says. She was especially aware of the formulaic nature of journalism when she started writing about politics from the Capitol -- and tried her best to break out of the formula.

Leary was in Sacramento during the days of Artie Samish, the alcohol-industry lobbyist who ruled the Legislature from the end of Prohibition until the early '50s. Samish was eventually convicted of federal income tax evasion in 1953 and served 26 months in federal prison.

For every barrel of beer sold in the state, the industry tithed itself five cents, which went straight into a bank account over which Samish had exclusive control. It amounted to a yearly budget of $150,000, which Samish was free to spend on candidates and lobbying campaigns to promote the liquor industry's interests. Samish also knew how to count and curry voters. He kept close tabs on the state's 50,000 liquor licensees, each of whom he figured, with friends and relatives, could provide 10 votes.

"Those were the days when influence on the legislators was very open," Leary says. But everything Samish did was legal (except the final accounting slip-up that led to his tax conviction). And covering such wide-open influence-peddling was problematic. "You could never really expose the thing," Leary says.

But Leary could describe Samish standing in the back of the chamber as the legislators recorded their votes and write how "people would go back and talk to Samish and go up and change their vote. I wrote about that because I could see it."

Leary has come far since her cityside and legislative days. She was among the first women editorial writers on a San Francisco daily, and she and another woman were the first of their gender to be selected for Harvard University's prestigious Nieman Fellowship program. Her gender aside, Leary is recognized among longtime observers of California politics as one of the state's most astute and fair-minded reporters. She is among a select group of influential figures interviewed for the Regional Oral History project of UC Berkeley. A separate volume, A Journalist's Perspective: Government and Politics in California and the Bay Area, is dedicated to her remarks. It can be found at the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley. Also, Leary wrote a book on Jerry Brown's 1974 gubernatorial campaign, Phantom Politics, that describes Brown's successful race as calculatedly shallow and pandering to the media.

Leary works out of her sizable house in Piedmont, relying on her manual typewriter, which she keeps "out of inertia," she says, and her clipping files. She is already gathering information for a story on California's 1998 gubernatorial contest. She'll have the context down pat; this will be the 16th such election she has observed as a reporter.

Phyllis Orrick can be reached at SF Weekly, Attn: Unspun, 185 Berry, Lobby 4, Suite 3800, San Francisco, CA 94107; phone: 536-8139; e-mail:

About The Author

Phyllis Orrick


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