Jim Copley was a friend of Richard Nixon, and in later years would frequently boast that in the 1960 presidential election he had "delivered" San Diego for Nixon by slanting the coverage of his papers. It was an important achievement, Copley pointed out, given that Nixon carried California, his home state, by a razor-thin margin. If not for the votes he picked up in San Diego, Copley said, Nixon would have lost California and any subsequent chance of picking up the pieces for another presidential try.
On the occasion of Copley's becoming Mr. San Diego, his papers reported he "has publicized San Diego not only here but elsewhere through his displays of a relief map of the county and a photo exhibit called 'City Alive.' " Copley, said a report in the Union, "deeply appreciated the honor being conferred on him. He said he has been doing what he believes will help San Diego and the entire southwest corner of the United States. He termed the area 'the most important corner in the country.' "
Copley would live to see Nixon -- who took to calling San Diego his "lucky city" in honor of the fawning pro-Nixon coverage in the Union and the Tribune -- ultimately become president. Copley staffers such as Herb Klein and Gerald Warren, who in the past had been frequently "lent" by the newspapers to Nixon as campaign operatives, took jobs in the Nixon White House, and Copley would frequently play host to Nixon and his friends at Fox Hill, Copley's sprawling La Jolla mansion.
Copley died of cancer in October of 1973, just as Nixon began the long slide that would end in his ouster from the presidency less than a year later. He left his newspaper empire to his second wife Helen, his former secretary with whom he'd had a long affair while still in his first marriage. After taking command of the newspapers, Helen vowed to rid them of what critics derisively called Jim Copley's "sacred cows," friendly biases toward establishment institutions such as the San Diego Zoo and local politicos favored by Jim, but her promises were never implemented and soon forgotten. Years later, editorial writers would discreetly brag that the Union-Tribune had foisted the Chargers ticket guarantee and an expensive and unnecessary new downtown baseball stadium on a gullible public just as Jim Copley had boosted Nixon to the presidency.
After Copley in the line of Mr. San Diegos came Murray David Goodrich, described by the Union as a "merchant and industrialist." He actually owned a military surplus shop and a small aluminum smelter. Goodrich would later run unsuccessfully for mayor. Next was Fred A. Heilbron, a plumbing contractor, ex?city councilman, and chairman of the county water board who was credited, along with Harley Knox and others, with bringing in the Colorado River water that fueled the city's explosive development.
No one took more advantage of that growth than C. Arnholt Smith. In December of 1960 he was named the tenth Mr. San Diego. A one-time Depression-era bank teller born in Walla Walla, Washington, Smith had built a San Diego empire of tuna boats, banks, taxi cabs, hotels, real estate, stock brokerage, and even an airline. He also owned the minor-league Padres. Smith's grand induction as Mr. San Diego was feted by "300 civic leaders," according to an account in the Union. The cozy days of the Grant Club's intimate lunches had long since past. The city was verging on the big time, or so Smith said.
"I have lived most of my life here and want to see our city grow and become a major playground of the world," Smith said in his acceptance speech. "I hope we create a harbor that will make it the most beautiful playground of the West. Also, I hope our future bay development and planned San Diego face-lifting will bring more and more industry to our shores."
Among the "messages of good will" received by Smith, according to the Union, was one from then?vice president Richard Nixon. "We of the Republican party have leaned heavily on you. We wish to thank you. And we offer congratulations on your being named Mr. San Diego." The Union noted that Smith "has served as director of the Convention and Visitors Bureau and as a delegate to several GOP national conventions."
Smith and Nixon, friends since Nixon's days as a congressman from Whittier, would share a common fate. Smith, who was present in Nixon's New York hotel suite when Nixon won the Republican nomination in 1968, piggybacked on Nixon's political successes. His grandly named United States National Bank grew to become a regional power, and his baseball team was made part of the National League. A relentless campaign in Jim Copley's newspapers, led by sports editor Jack Murphy, overcame traditional public resistance to the notion of a taxpayer-supported stadium. Both Copley and Smith contributed heavily to Nixon; it was later revealed that Smith had laundered hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Nixon presidential campaigns as well as other Republican causes.
But when Nixon began his downfall, Smith's fortunes also reversed. Protected by Nixon's cronies from the prying eyes of federal regulators, Smith, it was later revealed, had systematically looted his bank of millions of dollars by making bad loans to companies controlled by himself or his friends, many of them connected to the Mafia. The notoriously mobbed-up La Costa Resort was financed largely by money from Smith and the Central States Teamsters Union pension fund. But as Nixon's hold on power weakened in the fall of 1973, auditors finally blew the whistle. The bank, with nearly a billion dollars of deposits, collapsed in October 1973. It was, to that date, the biggest bank failure in United States history.
Smith, whom his friend Jim Copley once dubbed "Mr. San Diego of the Century," lived a long and comfortable life after his fall from grace. He spent just eight months in a county halfway house in 1984 after being convicted in 1979 of state income-tax evasion and grand theft. Years earlier, a friendly plea bargain had kept him out of jail on federal bank-fraud charges. He died in a Del Mar nursing home in June of 1996, not far from his own century mark at age 97.