Last updateWed, 18 Oct 2017 10am


Former U.S. Senator Alan Cranston was a major force in California politics

Passing of a giant

umerous friends and co-workers described Alan Cranston as a kind, energetic and thoughtful man who managed to make virtually every day of his 86 years on earth count for something.

A journalist, athlete, business leader, savvy politician and activist, the longtime Los Altos-area resident never once let up in his quest for making his community, nation and the world a better place.

In his youth, Cranston exposed the evils of Adolf Hitler by publishing an unedited version of “Mein Kampf.” In his final years, he vigorously championed nuclear disarmament through his own lobbying organization. In between, the idealistic Democrat forged a long and successful political career that included 24 years in the U.S. Senate.

Perhaps lost in all of his global and national achievements, Cranston, who died Dec. 31 of heart failure, was instrumental in the creation of the downtown Los Altos parking plazas. These proved an important transition from scattershot businesses along dirt roads to thriving retail center.

What they said

Mikhail Gorbachev

“I am deeply saddened by the death of Senator Alan Cranston. For many years we were linked by close ties of friendship, dialogue and common interests. Alan Cranston was a great American, with enduring faith in his country’s future and a profound commitment to democracy and the rule of law. Equally, he was concerned for the world, working tirelessly for nuclear disarmament and global security. His passing is a great loss. My condolences and sincere sympathy go to Mr. Cranston’s family and to those who worked with him for a better world.”

Daniel Perry, former staff member for Cranston

“By one count, there were 2,500 tallies in the Senate between 1969 and 1989 that were decided by fewer than five votes, and often by a single vote. Cranston was often a crucial player, not only for his vote alone but as a behind-the-scene strategist, head counter, marshaler of forces and shrewd compromiser who always lived to fight another day.”

Jonathan Schell, the Nation Institute

“Rarely in recent American political life have common-sense, effectiveness, persistence and vision been combined in one person as they were in him.”

Kim Cranston

“He never retired. He continued pursuing things most important to him.”

Emy Thurber

“He was a true democrat in the best sense of the word. He worked for his ideals right until the very end.”

Murray Flander

“He lived a long life, a very productive life. He did all the things he wanted to do - a very lucky man.”

Paul Nyberg

“He was one tough guy. Not only did he survive prostate cancer and alleged involvement in the Keating scandal at the end of his Senate career, he bounced back to tackle massive efforts toward nuclear disarmament. And while he and I were poles apart politically, as I got to know him in the 1990s, I grew to respect his passion for awakening the world to the potential of a nuclear holocaust. He was a kind man, listened carefully to others’ ideas and was unwavering in his pursuit of arms reduction.”

“We wouldn’t be anywhere without that parking plaza,” said Jane Reed, a former mayor and downtown business leader. “(The parking plaza was) Alan Cranston’s significant contribution to a vital Los Altos.”

Unpretentious, yet ambitious and task-oriented, Cranston earned the respect of Republicans and Democrats, and his friends numbered in the thousands. His death spurred a flood of tributes, including one from former Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev.

Governor Gray Davis last week ordered flags lowered to half-staff in Cranston’s memory.

“I was lucky to have him as my brother,” said sister Eleanor Cameron, who enjoyed a close relationship with Cranston.

“He worked tirelessly for what he believed in all of his life.” Her pride for her brother showed in her 1980 biography, “Cranston: The Senator From California.”

“He was a man of great integrity,” said Emy Thurber of Los Altos, who worked for Cranston from 1974-78 and 1982-84 including nine months on his 1983-84 campaign for president. “He had strong, consistent ideals combined with extreme political practicality, which is what made him so successful.”

For example, Thurber said Cranston baffled his liberal peers with his support of the controversial B-1 bomber. But his thinking, she said, was that the B-1 was safer than cruise missiles and could be called back. At the same time, production of the B-1 meant jobs for California.

For son Kim Cranston, who shared his Los Altos Hills residence with his dad, there were “no regrets. We saw each other frequently. I felt totally current with him,” he said last Friday. “There’s a real sadness not to have another opportunity to have a meal with him and share a joke.”

The son of real estate magnate William MacGregor Cranston and mother Carol, Alan Cranston was born in 1914 in Palo Alto. He spent his formative years in Los Altos, attending Los Altos Grammar School. His memories of Los Altos included a beautiful rural setting with orchards, and lots of dirt. He recalled Main Street had sidewalks before it had paved roads.

Cranston went to Mountain View High School where he was on the football and track teams. He also was on the yearbook and newspaper staffs. He also attended Pomona College and the University of New Mexico before enrolling at Stanford, majoring in English. He graduated in 1936.

At Stanford, he was a track star, part of a mile relay team that was the fastest in the nation in 1935. Later, Cranston set a world record for 55 year olds in 1969 running the 100 yard dash in 12.6 seconds. To keep in shape, Cranston carried weights in his briefcase.

After graduating from Stanford, Cranston became a journalist, landing a job with International News Service, reporting from Europe and Africa. His interest in forging a more secure peace and in defending civil liberties began in the late 1930s when he covered Nazi Germany as a foreign correspondent. Upon his return to the United States, he took special pains to sound the alarm by publishing an English translation of Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” with annotations highlighting the most evil aspects of the Nazi doctrine. On the cover read, “Not one cent of royalty to Hitler.”

Hitler’s agent successfully sued Cranston in court for copyright infringement - but not before 500,000 copies were sold for 10 cents a piece.

In 1939, Cranston became a lobbyist for the Common Council for American Unity, an organization opposing discrimination against foreigners. During World War II, Cranston served as chief of the Foreign Language Division of the Office of War Information. In 1944, he enlisted in the Army as a private, declining a draft deferment.

From 1947-52, as the Cold War was getting under way, Cranston became national president of the United World Federalists - an organization that advocated world government. He also founded the California Democratic Council and served as its president from 1953-1958.

He even found time to write a book, “The Killing Of Peace,” published in 1945, which dealt with the Senate’s decision in 1919 to keep the U.S. out of the League of Nations. The New York Times called it one of the 10 best books of the year. He also dabbled as a playwright, teaming with cartoonist Lee Falk in 1940 on “The Big Story,” a play about his journalism experiences. Critics predicted it would be a hit, but the play never made it to Broadway.

After the war, Cranston returned to Los Altos and ran his father’s business. Cranston, who inherited several downtown properties from his father, chaired committee of business and property owners that led to the passing of the parking plaza concept in 1956. “We have to decide whether Los Altos is to become one of the most beautiful shopping areas, or if it is to wither and die,” he said at the time.

“We didn’t have any sewers in downtown Los Altos,” Cranston told an audience of Los Altos History Museum supporters in 1999. “We had septic tanks behind the places of business and that was just open dirt that you couldn’t park on in the winter. We developed the concept of getting rid of the septic tanks, bring in sewers and then paving them over with the parking plaza we now have.”

Cranston’s leadership locally was only one of several steps on the road to capitol hill. As the parking plazas were being built, he headed for state office. Cranston served two terms as state controller, from 1959-67, before reaching the U.S. Senate in 1969.

As a senator, Cranston authored and pushed legislation backing civil rights, veterans rights, environmental protection, economic development and other high-priority domestic issues. Other than Hiram Johnson, Cranston is the only California to have been elected four times. He also spent 14 years as his party’s whip.

He was proud of his role in helping to end the war in Vietnam, but also played vital roles in arms reduction with the Soviet Union and in other international issues. At home, Cranston authored a freedom-of-choice bill that enacted Roe vs. Wade into law, a bill of rights for the disabled and co-authored the National Affordable Housing Act of 1990. He also penned legislation that created three major national parks and expansion of two others. He was the original author of the California Desert Protection Act, which became law after he left the Senate in 1993.

Alan Cranston - a timeline

1914: Born in Palo Alto.

1920: Attended Los Altos Grammar School.

1932: Graduated from Mountain View High School.

1936: Graduated from Stanford University.

1936-38: Foreign correspondent, International News Service.

1941-44: Chief of foreign language division for the Office of War Information.

1945: Wrote “The Killing of the Peace.”

1947-52: Joined United World Federalists.

1949: Helped found California Democratic Council.

1956: Lead successful effort to bring sewers, parking plazas to downtown Los Altos.

1958: Elected state controller.

1964: Ran unsuccessfully for U.S. Senate.

1968: Elected to U.S. Senate.

1977: First elected Democratic Party whip.

1983: Announced bid for presidency.

1993: Retired from Senate; returned to Los Altos.

1996: Chairman, Gorbachev Foundation USA

1999: Founded Global Security Institute.

Dec. 31, 2000: Died at home in Los Altos Hills.In 1983, at age 68, Cranston announced his candidacy for president. He said his age would be an advantage because the American people “want wisdom, maturity, and proven capability” in the White House. His campaign, however, never took hold, and his party opted for Walter Mondale.

His final years in the Senate were marred by his involvement with Charles Keating, the owner of Lincoln Savings and Loan. Keating was charged with defrauding investors. Cranston intervened with federal regulators on behalf of Keating, who had contributed more than $1 million to Cranston causes. That didn’t set well with his Senate colleagues, who reprimanded him for “repugnant” behavior. However, Cranston insisted he had done nothing unethical and that Keating’s contribution did not influence his action. Keating himself was eventually cleared of charges.

Other senators committed similar practices. But Cranston was singled out, supporters say, because of his outstanding success with fundraising. “He did it (fundraising) disproportionately,” said Murray Flander, Cranston’s press secretary for 24 years. “He was good at fundraising and more successful than the others.”

By the time Cranston left office in 1993, he was battling prostate cancer - his chief reason for quitting - but obviously smarting from the Keating debacle. Still, Cranston didn’t let such misfortunes bother him for long. Back in Los Altos in 1994, he plunged into business activities and looked for ways to maintain political involvement. He made a full recovery from the cancer. Interviewed by the Town Crier in 1994, Cranston said he had put the Keating drama behind him.

“Sure, it was an unpleasant experience, but that’s life,” Cranston said. “You know when you get into politics that it isn’t going to be easy.”

In 1996, Cranston became chairman of the Gorbachev Foundation USA, a research center based in San Francisco. Gorbachev founded the think tank to promote world peace. Cranston eventually formed his own lobbying organization, the San Francisco-based Global Security Institute, to pursue to cause of abolishing all nuclear weapons. He seemed more acutely aware than most of the dangers these weapons posed, especially given lax attitudes in the post-Cold War era.

“The actual fact is that in many ways, it’s more dangerous now than it was then,” he said in a 1998 interview. “Nuclear weapons are sort of on the loose in the world. There was some order during the Cold War and the United States and Russia sort of restrained others from turning to or developing nuclear weapons. But that restraint is now gone. There could be an unauthorized accidental use of nuclear weapons out of Russia because of the economic and political uncertainties there and it is known that terrorists, leaders of rogue states like Iraq and even criminal drug syndicates are now seeking nuclear weapons. And if they get them, they’re not likely to be restrained in what they do with them.”

He further promoted his anti-nuclear message through collaboration on a “60 Minutes” documentary, “Sleepwalking To Armageddon,” that proved the most watched program in the history of the show.

Cranston carried around a quote from Chinese philosopher Lao-Tzu that he used as a guide: “A leader is best when people barely know he exists, less good when they obey and acclaim him, worse when they fear and despise him. Fail to honor people and they fail to honor you. But of a good leader, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will all say, ‘We did this ourselves.’”

Kim Cranston said the quote is especially meaningful to his supporters, who must carry on his deeds without him.

“With his passing, it has put greater emphasis on the notion - it is up to those who collaborated with him to do this ourselves,” Kim said.

Cranston was married twice. Both wives are now deceased. He is survived by his son Kim, a daughter-in-law, Collette Penne Cranston, and a granddaughter, Evan Cranston, all of Los Altos Hills. He is also survived by a sister, Eleanor Cameron.

A memorial service, open to the public, is set for 3 p.m., Tuesday, at Grace Cathedral, 1100 California St., in San Francisco. For more information, call (415) 561-6686.

In lieu of flowers, donations in Cranston’s memory can be sent to the Global Security Institute, P.O. Box 475160, San Francisco 94147.

Clyde Noel contributed to this report.

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