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Eulogy for Matsui

Thursday, January 6th, 2005 · No Comments

Growing up in Sacramento, Robert Matsui was always my Congressman. I wasn’t always as politically aware or active, but my family always has been. Congressman Matsui passed away January 1, 2005. My Dad wrote the following on January 4, 2005, which Sacramento Bee Columnist Daniel Weintraub has also posted to his blog:

My name is Peter A_nderson. I was candidate Bob Matsui’s first press secretary when he ran for U.S. Congress in 1978 in an unlikely, ultimately victorious campaign that was the first of many successful efforts to come. Although I have been out of the Sacramento loop of journalism and politics for many years, I respectfully offer my condolences to your community that was well-served and effectively represented by this man, a textbook-perfect United States Congressman.
If I may be anecdotal and light-hearted, I want to offer three humorous and poignant glimpses into this wonderful individual. His political legacy and overall efficiency as a public leader has been well documented in your pages by able political commentators and editorial writers, but my take is a more personal one.
When I was hired to be a part of his campaign staff while he was still on the City Council, it was clearly an uphill battle against two better-known and formidable foes, Phil Isenberg and Gene Gualco. Nobody, not even Mr. Matsui, gave us a fighting chance. But what I learned from this gracious man was the power that comes from quiet persistence and richly self-effacing humor.
One time, we were touring the Auburn Dam, then under construction but then (and always) light years from completion. Bob and I were both decked out in pinstripe suits (with vests), which was the chosen dress of the day (one of my first assignments when I joined the campaign was to go to Irwin Clothing, where Bob had an account, and get fitted for three pinstripe suits). He was always elegantly garbed, even when lounging in his living room on Sunday mornings when I would arrive to give him briefing papers for the week ahead. Anyway, inside the bowels of Auburn Dam and surrounded by a pack of media types and reporters eager to hear Bob’s take on the controversial construction, Bob kept pushing me forward into the limelight of cameras. We were both donning those incredibly ugly yellow hard hats absolutely mandatory for such visits. After the third push, I turned to him in mock anger and said, scoldingly, “Hey Bob, you are the candidate, remember? It’s your face that we want to see in the papers and on TV, not mine.”
He gave me this very sly smile, and said in a whisper: “Maybe so, but I can see how idiotic you look in pinstripes and hard hat, and I want no part of it.”
Another time, poignantly, the two of us were attending a student political rally in the outside common area of Sacramento City College. It came to be Bob’s turn to speak at the podium, and during his speech, a student asked him his views on citizenship. Abandoning his prepared notes, Bob cleared his throat and embarked on what remains for me one of the most moving, intensely personal monologues I have ever heard a politician utter. In a few flash moments, he recounted his days as a young man shamefully held against his will in a World War II California prison camp. He talked lovingly of his family’s struggles and heartbreaks, and proclaimed in a voice quaking with emotion how proud he was, despite all that, to be an American. Suddenly, tears got the best of him, and, apologizing profusely, he broke away from the podium. After a slight pause of intense silence, the student body broke into uproarious applause. In that first race for Congress, I still believe that was Bob Matsui’s most shining and defining moment.
“I feel like a fool,” he said to me. I said: “Bob, look around you. These are jaded, cynical students treating you like a rock star. You have just become a serious candidate.”
My third vignette has to do with the hardboiled edge of bigtime politics, and how this gentle spirit named Matsui managed to defuse even this bit of rough-hewn reality.
Bob’s campaign manager in that first race was notorious San Francisco political consultant Clint Reilly. Reilly had hired me because we had gone to high school and college together, because I had secured for him his first official campaign, and because we both shared a passion for getting good people, particularly Democrats, elected to office. Reilly knew the odds against Matsui beating Isenberg and Gualco were enormous, and he was determined to turn this lovely man into a snarling street fighter. Frequently during the early stages of the campaign, Reilly would complain that Matsui was “too nice,” and that he was fair game ready to be mauled by more savvy political players in town. The campaign manager had come to a conclusion that the only way Matsui could win in Sacramento would be to appeal to the guilt of the voters. Reilly had already crafted a mailing campaign around the “citizen-statesman” profile of Matsui — an activist in pinstripes, so to speak — but he was hell-bent on upping the ante.
One Saturday afternoon, Reilly and Matsui and I met for a sit-down inside the Hofbrau, then a downtown Sacramento eatery. Reilly was acting annoyed and on edge. He took out a crumpled sheet of polling numbers scrawled on yellow legal paper, and thrust it under Bob’s nose. “We’re not gonna win,” barked Reilly, “and the only way we have even a narrow chance is for you to sign off on this brochure.”
Reilly then presented the candidate with a draft of a lavishly photographed brochure showing Japanese prisoners of war standing behind barbed-wire fencing. Laced between the pictures were words praising Matsui for his perseverance against the cruelest of odds. I glanced across the table and studied Matsui’s face. The life had been sucked out of it, and he looked ashen. He also didn’t say anything, so I did, a foolish act which cost me my job.
“Clint,” I said slowly and with my Irish temper rising, “maybe you don’t realize this, but this tactic would represent one of the most manipulative and disgraceful strategies imaginable. The Japanese people would be horrified to see these images used in a political campaign.”
Up to that point in my life, I had never been kicked under the table. Reilly gave me a swift kick and glared at me with a look that would freeze Horsetail Falls. “Let’s go outside and talk about this,” he snarled, excusing himself from Matsui.
Bob gave me a knowing wink, and said, “Kick him back, Peter. You’re wearing cowboy boots.”
The remark thawed the moment, and even Reilly had to chuckle, sort of. We had a face-to-face on the sidewalk, and he said if I ever made such an intrusive comment again, I would be out of the campaign. I made it easy for him, and quit. A few days later, I was writing a daily humor column for The Sacramento Union.
I don’t know how the brochure issue was ever resolved — my memory is that Matsui agreed to use it in a modified, tasteful version — but I do know that Matsui always remained the quietly graceful, dignified, classy and high-minded gentleman through this and through two ensuing decades of hard fought battles in Congress. We remained friends, and frequently traded notes and comments on child-raising — we were both young parents and shared many laughs together about our irrepressible offspring. After his first term in office, I wrote an effusive column about the man, floating the notion that one day he would make a superb Secretary of State. I know my enthusiasm embarrassed him, but I am now grief-stricken by the fact that his loss means that this once far-fetched notion is gone with the death of my friend, Bob Matsui.

Tags: politics