McKinnon in his Pacific Beach office. What’s an 86-year-old millionaire doing with a personal computer? Reconciling his monthly portfolio statements on Lotus 1-2-3? “Oh...I’m writing the story of my life."
What, we have here is a profile of Clinton D. McKinnon, Jr., grand old man of San Diego publishing and politics. Such a colorful career you never did see —least ways, not among flesh-and-blood locals, folks you can still bend an elbow with. Is the man beloved? According to old-timers who worked under him in the '40s, when he put out the San Diego Daily Journal on a shoestring budget and paid his employees accordingly, it does appear the man is beloved. Is he admired? “Eighty-six years old and sharp as a tack!” says Roger Hedgecock. “A canny old Scotsman,” says Sea World founder George Millay. “A shrewd businessman, and always blessed with incredible luck,” says ex-newsman, ex-Congressman Lionel Van Deerlin.
"Mckinnon would go downtown to Horton Plaza, where all the buses stopped, and greet the people as they got off. Gave them cards and handshakes."
The McKinnon public record is simon-pure, which is remarkable for an ex-Congressman, ex-newspaper tycoon. No scandals, no business failures; married for 60 years to the same woman; an attentive father, a sane employer, an engaged and public-spirited legislator. That’s the McKinnon dossier. The only allusions of naughtiness I found were the sorts of things you’ll always hear about an old fellow who’s been in the public eye.
McKinnon's own newspaper announces his 1948 congressional victory. "Mac was lucky in getting into Congress; he ran against a real boob. Charlie Fletcher was always saying the dumbest things."
Of course, if you want to be persnickety, I suppose you could put Mac’s politics into the minus column. He was a real ’40s liberal, the sort who used to regard Eleanor Roosevelt as a living saint. (I’m not saying Mac himself venerated La Boca Grande; in fact, he never mentioned the woman during our interviews, but he does have a picture of her hanging in his office.) When McKinnon was in Congress, ’49 to ’53, he backed all kinds of legislation that hindsight has shown to be wrongheaded, like keeping temporary war housing up longer than necessary and making FHA loans available to practically anybody and thereby blighting city and suburb with tacky housing.
Mckinnon with Jack Vietor (San Diego Magazine founder) and John F. Kennedy, c. 1960. McKinnon’s political leanings were populist-Democrat.
If there are other sins in Mac’s past, at this point they’re probably known but to God and McKinnon. That is one of the advantages of living to a ripe old age. The really big names who had run-ins with him — guys who might have been able to provide a well-considered, salty assessment of the McKinnon career — are long dead. In particular, Jim Copley, Charlie Fletcher, and Bill Knowland.
Lionel Van Deerlin: “The reason the Journal had prospered was that during the war there were newsprint restrictions, and the Union and Tribune couldn’t handle all the advertising."
Someday Mac may spill the beans on himself. He has this computer, a 386 Packard Bell, like the ones they sell at the office discount stores, and it sits on a wood-laminate computer desk in his office in Pacific Beach. I got to wondering: What’s an 86-year-old millionaire doing with a personal computer? Reconciling his monthly portfolio statements on Lotus 1-2-3?
Eventually I asked him, and he said, “Oh...I’m writing the story of my life. I’m about halfway through. Been working on it for a year and a half. Don’t know what I’ll do with it...” And then he winked at me.
With Adlai Stevenson, c. 1952. "I handled the Stevenson campaign for president in ’52. I liked him, Adlai Stevenson, but I never thought he’d make it to the White House. I never thought he was a good administrator."
If you’re under 50 and not up on local history, you may not be too sure just who Clinton McKinnon is. So here are the broad outlines of his life. Born in Dallas in 1906. Moved to California while a boy. Educated in public schools in San Diego and Los Angeles, at Stanford, and finally the University of Redlands. Worked at smalltown papers (both the business and the editorial ends) till the early 1940s, when he made a small pile on a San Fernando Valley shopper and a paper for aircraft workers. Came back to San Diego in ’43, bought a thrice-weekly shopper, and turned it into the San Diego Daily Journal, an evening paper and the first new daily San Diego had seen in decades.
With Eleanor Roosevelt, c. 1954. He was a real ’40s liberal, the sort who used to regard Eleanor Roosevelt as a living saint.
Sold the Daily Journal in ’48, went into Congress as a Democrat. Ran for the Senate in ’52 and lost resoundingly in the primary. Briefly owned the L.A. Daily News. Owned and ran other newspapers, including the La Jolla Light and the Coronado Journal, for varying periods of time. Owned TV and radio stations and a number of other businesses. Chaired the San Diego Economic Development Corporation in the mid-1960s. Currently owns a few patches of real estate in Pacific Beach and a 300-acre ranch near the Barona Indian Reservation.
Lisle Shoemaker. "There was this old Chinese restaurant south of Broadway called Georgie Joe’s. Well, Shoemaker went there a lot and saw that all these Chinese cooks and waiters were tapped for subscriptions."
On the surface, there’s little extraordinary there — the career trajectory of one more 20th-century Sunbelt businessman who dabbled for a while in politics. And McKinnon seems to be happy with the footnote status history has assigned him. (In the coffee-table history books compiled by Richard Pourade for the Copley organization, Mac rates only the briefest mention; even during his Congressional days, he got little newspaper linage outside the Daily Journal.) He had his time in the sun, and it’s clear he found being a public figure a nuisance. He’s hasn’t said that in so many words, but once, when he was criticizing local pols (“Most members of the city council have never met a payroll”), he let this observation slip out: “There are too many regulations today in politics. We discourage good people from running. I think we’ve been trying to be too honest, demanding too many details about the people who run. It takes away the attraction of the job.”
Forty-five years ago it was very different. McKinnon was viewed by the national press as an extraordinary figure, a young dynamo who was really shaking things up in that insufferably snobbish Peo-ria-on-the-Pacific known as San Diego. By the time he was 40, he had been profiled in Time and Newsweek and was being hailed as everything from the next press baron to the likely leader of progressive West Coast politics.
Everything that the crusty old San Diego establishment was, Mac was not. They were Republicans; he was a Democrat. They were oldsters with roots in the East and Midwest; he was a youngster born in Texas and raised in a half-dozen different places, including San Diego and L.A. The San Diego old guard was insular and cliquish; McKinnon was cosmopolitan and eclectic in interests.
One afternoon early last February I showed up at McKinnon’s office building in Pacific Beach for our first in-the-flesh interview. I found an unmarked office door, locked but presumably McKinnon’s, and sat down on a bench in the hall, waiting for him to show. This bench faced the open doorway of a neighboring office, and from time to time a grey-headed, dour attorney would look up from his work and glance at me. “Are you here to see me?” he asked finally. Embarrassed, I shook my head, gathered up my things, and went back down to the street. Clearly I had come to the wrong place.
But a chubby blond woman in a ground-floor realtor’s office told me that I had the right building after all and that I shouldn’t be surprised if old Clinton didn’t show. “That’s just the way he is. When you’re as old and rich as he is, you can do whatever you like.”
I returned to the upstairs bench and spent another half hour playing eye-tag with the lawyer and thinking about the first time I’d encountered the name Clinton McKinnon while researching the history of the old San Diego Tribune. The paper was essentially an editorial amalgam of all the papers it had gobbled up. Now, generally, when publications merge, the weaker party disappears in everything but name. But the opposite seemed to happen when the Tribune swallowed the San Diego Sun (1939) and the Daily Journal (1950). The spirit of the weaker paper, along with many of its editorial features and much of its staff, tended to dominate. As a result, the 1951 Evening Tribune, with its screaming banner-headlines, its syndicated columns by Lippmann and Winchell, and its “Crosstown” by Neil Morgan, more closely resembled the 1949 Daily Journal than it did the 1949 Tribune-Sun.
But the irony went a lot deeper than the simple persistence of the Daily Journal’s editorial tone. The Daily Journal had been founded specifically to provide a sort of populist, working-class alternative to the Republican Babbittry of the Copley Press. Conveniently enough, McKinnon’s political leanings were populist-Democrat. But more to the point, starting a Democratic newspaper in the San Diego of 1944 was a smart business move.
During the war, the city was quickly being transformed from Heaven on Earth (as furniture man and civic booster Joe Dryer put it) into Milltown, USA. More than 100,000 newcomers — war workers, servicemen, and their families — were now crowded into cheap housing, trailers, and jerry-built back rooms all over town.
Old-timers still thought of the place as a genteel resort community and dreamt of the day when the city would be able to dredge the swamps of Mission Bay and turn San Diego into the recreation capital of the world. But the fact of the matter was that the city’s economy was now based on heavy manufacturing. The migrants who had come in to work at Ryan and Rohr and Consolidated Vul-tee had more in common with the folks back in Kankakee and Hamtramck than they did with the people in “Beautiful, exclusive, restricted” Loma Portal and La Jolla.
McKinnon understood all this. When he drew up plans for the Daily Journal, he made it as non-parochial as he could. You wouldn’t read much about local society doings in the Journal, but you could read “Dick Tracy” (the Copley taste ran more to “Nancy”). Journal readers wouldn’t get any of the self-congratulatory nostalgia pieces that were a staple of San Diego journalism, but they could read the latest gossip from Broadway and Hollywood. Not too much city news, but lots of war reports ripped off the wire services.
Of course, it wasn’t only populism or a desire to pander to lowbrow tastes or transient aircraft riveters that determined the Journal’s editorial format. Mac started out with a shoestring staff and found it easier and cheaper to fill the paper up with syndicated features and AP dispatches.
There are two well-worn stories about the Journal's founding. Both give a sense of the intense hostility of the Copley organization toward McKinnon’s paper when it started up in 1944. First, the newsprint-allocation story. Technically it was illegal to establish a new newspaper in the middle of World War II. In order to save pulp and newsprint, the War Allocation Board in Washington had banned new dailies for the duration. McKinnon got around this rule because he hadn’t started the Journal from scratch; he’d simply bought a three-times-a-week paper and made it a daily. As a result, he did not have to petition the War Allocation Board or find a newsprint supplier in order to publish. And he noticed that the WAB’s ban on new dailies applied only to newspapers delivered through second-class mail. The Daily Journal was never mailed, only hand-delivered and sold by newsstands and hawkers.
The Daily Journal was launched in March 1944; by the end of April the Copley interests had nearly persuaded the War Allocation Board to shut it down. Mac went to Washington and presented his second-class mail argument to a five-man appeals board. Over the protests of Copley lawyers and representatives from other papers, he won. Undoubtedly it helped that Mac was a Democrat with press connections to FDR. “We need a Democratic paper in San Diego,” President Roosevelt is supposed to have told him.
The second legend about McKinnon and the Daily Journal is the Bishop Buddy story. Mac had chosen March 17, St. Patrick’s Day, for the inaugural issue of his new evening paper. The first Daily Journal hit the streets with a conventional front-page ode to shamrocks and leprechauns and a top-right wire service dispatch about Irish-British diplomatic tensions. None of this would be worth recalling today, except that the Copley papers had chosen to treat the day’s celebrations in a very different mood. In a spirit of whimsy, the Union and the Tribune-Sun ran mock-exposes “debunking Ireland’s patron saint as a Scot and a fraud,’’ as Newsweek later put it.
On March 18, the Most Rev. Charles Buddy of the Diocese of San Diego delivered a sermon that defended St. Patrick and slammed the Copley newspapers for their ill-timed jest. Buddy went further; he welcomed the arrival of the Daily Journal and asked his flock to remember that they now could get another side of the news in San Diego. The Copley papers apologized for their spoofery, but the damage was done. The Daily Journal had gotten the bishop’s nod and now was off and running.
For the next few years, Clinton McKinnon got a lot of mileage out of these two stories about the Journal. Time and Newsweek profiled him as a coming young man in the SoCal media market (he was 38 when he launched the Journal) and described his moxie as the “Luck of McKinnon” or “Irish luck.” (Actually the Baptist-bred McKinnon is more Scottish than anything else.) The Newsweek piece in March 1946 became a primary source for later flackery. It concluded:
“Tell the story. Tell it all. Tell it fairly," McKinnon told his small staff. He plugged for better housing for veterans and war workers, gave labor a fair shake in news and editorial columns, and paired off such columnists as Dorothy Thompson and Drew Pearson, Walter Lippmann and Samuel Grafton, Eleanor Roosevelt and Walter Winchell. The Journal’s full page of comics includes such sure-fire bets as Dick Tracy, Terry and the Pirates, Moon Mullins, and Gasoline Alley — all unexplainably overlooked by the Copley papers.... McKinnon, the “little giant,” has come a long way.
Over the next few years, the key Mac myths — how he started a business on a shoestring and faced down the fearsome Copleys — became well burnished with repetition. When McKinnon sold off the Journal to West Virginian John A. Kennedy and entered the 1948 Congressional race, his old associates at the paper indulged in shameless praise. “McKinnon’s Career Like Alger Saga — From Newsboy to Halls of Congress,” ran the post-election profile headline. This press release bio ends with a laundry list of organizations in which the civic-minded McKinnon claimed membership:
He has been vice president of the San Diego California Club, Community Chest treasurer, chairman of an Urban League demonstration-study group, subchairman of the juvenile delinquency prevention committee of the Community Welfare Council.
In addition, he has held directorships in the Red Cross, San Diego Chamber of Commerce, Indoor Sports Association, and the University Club.
McKinnon is a member of the Pacific Beach Community Presbyterian Church, San Diego Club, Sales and Advertising, Rotary and Cloud Clubs.
The Journal fawned over “our Mac” when he got to Capitol Hill. For a while, McKinnon kept up a weekly newsbriefing column, “Your Congressman Reports...” Even after the Journal was bought out by the Republican Copleys, the post-merger Evening Tribune, heavily larded with ex-Journal staffers, never had an unkind word to say about Mac. (Col. Ira Copley died in 1949. When his adopted son Jim purchased the Journal the following year, he evidently didn’t care to continue the anti-McKinnon vendetta.)
The McKinnon PR drive hit its zenith in early 1952. Ralph Friedman, writing in San Diego Magazine, put out a piece called “The Little Giant: Will Ambitious, Aggressive Clint McKinnon Be San Diego’s First U.S. Senator?” It was a grab bag of everything that had ever been published about McKinnon.
The Journal reached the street on St. Patrick’s Day of 1944. The first day’s sales numbered 32,000.... The first reaction to the Journal was “(it’s) about time....” McKinnon hired smart, ambitious young men and women, trumpeted for better housing and war workers, and gave labor, in the words of a local trade union leader, “a fair shake of the dice.” With his usual zeal, he helped deliver papers to the newsboys and gave them tips on how to sell them.
He spoke to everyone he met on building a greater San Diego. A friend of his recalls: “Wherever three people got together, Mac was on hand to make a speech.” He wrote editorials, delved into circulation problems, sold advertising, contacted hundreds of merchants personally, and joined a slew of organizations....
He burned the midnight oil at least five nights a week. He was fond of saying, “I have yet to read the success story of a man who applied the 40-hour week to himself." But the harder he worked, the more he seemed to enjoy it.
Newsweek called him “the bantam-sized publisher whose friendly, youthful face sometimes makes strangers mistake him for head office boy." In 1944 the Journal’s average circulation was 26,000, but two years later it had jumped to 35,000. And in the meantime McKinnon had established San Diego’s first 5,000-watt radio station, a CBS affiliate.
Public relations-wise, that 1952 piece was McKinnon’s swan song. Later that year, Sen. William Knowland, a Republican appointee with a war record, trounced the Little Giant in the Senate primary. The popular and canny Knowland had listed himself on both the Republican and the Democrat primary ballots. Mac retaliated by cross-listing himself on the Republican ballot. It was no use. Mac lost two to one, statewide. He stayed out of politics after that. Maybe his heart had never really been in politics. Even in the 1948 House race he had dithered about running. Right after he sold the Journal and his radio station and announced for Congress, he was distracted for two months by a new business interest. An odd little left-wing evening newspaper in New York City, PM, had come up for sale. Mac put his House campaign on hold and flew to Manhattan. Through the spring of ’48, he negotiated with PM’s owner, department store heir Marshall Field, Jr., and met with the paper’s editors and press-union officials. Only after he decided against the takeover did McKinnon return to San Diego and begin to campaign.
On Capitol Hill, Mac was very capable. He began his first term with a flurry of legislation. He arranged for appropriations to build a dam in the Santa Margarita watershed area and helped shift Convair defense contracts from Ft. Worth to San Diego. More subtle but farther reaching were his housing bills. To the dismay of San Diego city planners, McKinnon pushed through an amendment to the wartime Lanham Act. The amendment delayed the destruction of thousands of temporary housing units that had been scheduled to come down in 1950. As a result, San Diego’s housing shortage was partially alleviated, and defense and aviation companies were able to maintain stable work forces. (The downside was that the war-housing areas in San Diego remained blighted for years afterward, and some districts in Chula Vista, Linda Vista, and Chollas View never recovered.) McKinnon also backed Federal National Mortgage Association guarantees for the construction of new “defense” houses. These privately owned tracts would set the growth pattern of San Diego for the next two decades. The most extensive of these subdivisions were built in the hills and mesas just east of Pacific Beach and are now known collectively as Clairemont.
“I got tired of the House,” McKinnon once explained when asked why he decided to give up his seat for a kamikaze attempt on the Senate in 1952. “I just got fed up. I had a very small staff. Didn’t feel I could accomplish anything more. I was the last in seniority in the California House delegation.
“I knew Dick Nixon pretty well. We were both in the House when I entered, then he ran for the Senate in 1950. We were pretty good friends. I used to play paddle ball with him. Once, after he went into the Senate, I was over playing paddle ball at his home. It was cold outside, and afterwards we went in and stood with our backs to the fire, getting warm. I told him I was thinking about the Senate. He shook his head slowly. “Mac,” he told me, “California is a biiiig state.”
Except for the aforementioned puffery in San Diego Magazine, McKinnon’s Senate run was almost totally ignored by the California press. The San Francisco Chronicle and the Los Angeles Times scarcely mentioned him. For that matter, the entire 1952 California Senate race was treated as a non-event. Senator Bill Knowland was regarded as a shoo-in for re-election. Dwight Eisenhower, Bob Taft, and Earl Warren had all declared for the Republican presidential nomination, but otherwise, political races weren’t front-page news.
In the last days before the June 3 primary, McKinnon’s race finally got a tiny bit of notice — in the Evening Tribune, where so many of his old Journal employees now worked. Under the headline “McKinnon Drive to Wind Up in S.D.,” the Tribune ran a condensed press release from the campaign:
- “California can’t afford to have two Republican senators.” (His opponent, William F. Knowland, and the junior California senator, Richard Nixon, are Republicans.) “California has many problems which must not die in the Senate, where Democrats have been and will continue to be in control and where incumbent Republicans have been unable to get decisive action.
- Sen. Knowland has been “completely indifferent to the bread-and-butter problems of California.” McKinnon said his record shows he has effective interest in such matters.
- When it has come to a voting decision between special interests and the general welfare, “Knowland has voted with the special interests.” He cited the senator’s stand on social security benefits, water and power development, and farm legislation.
- In the Korean issue, McKinnon said he favors “winding up the action there as quickly and as honorably as possible.” But his opponent wants to spread the war in the Far East, the San Diegan said.
- The record of the achievement in handling of San Diego matters in Washington makes a favorable contrast to Sen. Knowland’s record for California, McKinnon said. In addition, he has taken time to write prompt, personal replies to San Diego requests in Washington, he said, “whereas Sen. Knowland uses impersonal form letters.”
That was May 30,1952. Four days later it was all over. The Los Angeles Times and the San Francisco Chronicle scarcely noticed that a Senate primary had taken place.
For the time being, at least, Mac was washed up in politics. By the early ’50s, the good fortune that had blessed him a few years before looked more and more like one of the lucky flukes of wartime and its aftermath. When he ran in ’48, a quarter of the population of San Diego was living in Federal housing, and the city’s economy was still on a quasi-war footing, with defense contracting and the military providing the majority of the jobs. By ’52, the city had begun to close the public housing, and the economy was back on a civilian basis. Convair’s biggest contracts were for commercial airliners. Subdivision development was changing the contours of the city. Factory workers were moving to the new suburbs and beginning to style themselves as “middle class.”
And of course, McKinnon lost his biggest cheerleading squad when the Copley papers bought the Journal from John A. Kennedy in 1950. After pumping funds into the Journal for two years, Kennedy decided to give up on print media and move into radio and TV. He sold the Daily Journal to James Copley. The Tribune-Sun took on many of the Journal’s staff and features and reverted to its 1939 name of Evening Tribune.
“I was really mad when I found about [the sale of the Journal],” Mac confessed, adding that the only reason he had sold the paper to Kennedy in ’48 was that he was going to run for Congress and “didn’t think it was appropriate for someone in politics to own a newspaper.”
McKinnon has been giving this explanation of the Journal’s sale for more than 40 years. But that peripatetic repository of local trivia, City Club president George Mitrovich, tells it differently. “He was a smart businessman, and he saw the end coming. He knew the Journal wouldn’t be able to compete for long after the war.”
Lionel Van Deerlin, TV newsman and Journal alumnus who served in Congress during the 1960s, offered the same explanation in more detail. “Mac saw the end coming. I’m sure that he perceived that the reason the Journal had prospered was that during the war there were newsprint restrictions, and the Union and Tribune couldn’t handle all the advertising. Before the war, the Union and Tribune had bought cheap newsprint from Norway and Sweden. Then the Nazis overran Norway, and American mills practically had a monopoly in the U.S. Naturally they favored those [newspapers] who’d stuck with them from before the war. So the Copley papers were in trouble; they couldn’t find enough newsprint. So once McKinnon got around the War Production Board restrictions on newspapers, with Roosevelt’s help — I’m sure Clint has told you all about this — there was enough advertising to support a third newspaper in San Diego. But after the war the U-T’s newsprint sources were restored, and the Journal just couldn’t go on for much longer.
“Howard Chemoflf, who was business manager under [John A.] Kennedy, said to me that the paper had finally reached a point where running the Journal could no longer be profitable,” Van Deerlin summed up.
“The thing you’ve got to remember about McKinnon is that he was always very, very lucky,” Van Deerlin said. “Launching a new newspaper in 1944, in the middle of wartime restrictions, is one example. Then there was the Soap Box Derby. Every year a tire company sponsored this national race for boys with their homemade racers, called the Soap Box Derby. The boys would race locally, and then the winner from each town would go to Akron, Ohio, for the championship. The derby never got much support in San Diego until McKinnon came along. Well, the first year the Journal sponsored it, a San Diegan won. Of course, it made the front page of the Journal.
“Mac was lucky to find incredible good people to staff the Journal, too. Lisle Shoemaker — the promotions manager who handled the derby — is a good example. Shoemaker was a journalist. He started out in the old sports department of the Sun in ’38. After the war, McKinnon took him on and decided he should be promotions manager. One day McKinnon decreed that everyone at the Journal —all the reporters, all the staff— would sell 17 subscriptions. In those days there was this old Chinese restaurant south of Broadway called Georgie Joe’s. Well, Shoemaker went there a lot and saw that all these Chinese cooks and waiters were tapped for subscriptions. Shoemaker sold Georgie Joe ten subscriptions —for a bunch of Cantonese who couldn’t even read English, most of ’em.
“Of course, [MacJ was lucky in getting into Congress,” continued Van Deerlin. “McKinnon would have had a hard time winning when he ran in ’48, except he ran against a real boob. Charlie Fletcher was always saying the dumbest things. There was a public meeting where people were complaining about the housing problem in San Diego — how difficult it was to buy a house —and Fletcher said, you could buy a nice house for $4000. The Journal had a field day with that. The Journal got pictures of houses you could buy for $4000 — oh, you should have seen them — and ran ’em on the front page. All these run-down shacks.
“And another thing Fletcher did. Once in a speech he referred to Okies and Arkies. The Journal really jumped onto that.
“Fletcher didn’t know how to campaign. McKinnon — he’d go downtown to Horton Plaza, where all the buses stopped, and greet the people as they got off. Gave them cards and handshakes. He knew how to spend time better as a candidate than anyone I knew.
“This guy was so smart. I remember one piece of good advice he gave me. Never spend anyone else’s money in an election. Because if you spend someone else’s money you become that person’s employee.”
So why did McKinnon pull out of the House after two terms? “It was 1952. He saw it was going to be a Republican sweep that year. Another factor in his decision not to run for re-election, I think, is that when he won in 1950, he won by only 3000 votes.”
The second time I dropped by the McKinnon office, the door was open but Mac was not about. Again I took my post on the bench in the corridor. After a minute, Mac appeared. First impression: small, wiry, ruddy-faced. Quite recognizably the same figure I’d seen in a half-dozen old newspaper clippings from the 1940s.
His office is just one room, about 10 by 15, fitted out with the sort of stuff that office-furniture shops put out on the sidewalk on sale days. The photographs on the wall attest to the man’s public career (Mac with Adlai Stevenson; Mac with Eleanor Roosevelt; Mac with Helen Gahagan Douglas). And there are a few mementoes of family members (a broadcasting trade journal with son Mike McKinnon on the cover; a large model airplane with son Dan’s charter airline markings). All the memorabilia on display wouldn’t fill two legal-size file boxes.
Taped to McKinnon’s desk is a list of naturopathic healing clinics. While he lit one of his Benson and Hedges menthol 100s, I asked him the secret of his longevity and good health.
“Oh, heredity. My mother died in her 80s. She stayed away from doctors. Which is odd — she was a nurse. And I stay away from doctors. I think doctors make you sick. Living long — I think it's all a question of attitude.”
With 80-some years of recollections to draw upon, McKinnon often leaps back and forth over a sweep of several decades as he tells his story. In these cubistic chronologies, local personalities invariably appear in the form in which Mac first encountered them. Former Tribune editor Neil Morgan’s scant hair has been white for two decades, but he’s still “the redhead” to McKinnon. Dick Silberman, now an imprisoned senior citizen, is the “young Jewish fellow” involved in franchising and Democratic politics. When Mac mentions the “old days” in San Diego, it’s often unclear at first whether he means 1918 or 1943.
“My first memory? I suppose I was two or three. We were living in a boarding house in St. Louis. My dad was taking a post-grad course after graduating from the Rush Medical School in Chicago. He waited tables in some swank club to make his tuition.
“My father enlisted in the Army when the U.S. joined the war. They stationed him in an Army hospital in San Diego. I sold papers — the San Diego Sun — at Broadway and Fourth. The paper cost two cents. I got a penny and the paper got a penny.
“In those days, San Diego ended at 40th Street and El Cajon. Route 101 was a two-lane road. If you were going up the Torrey Pines area in a Model T, you had to drive backwards because of the fuel lines. The gas couldn’t get to the engine otherwise. Mission Bay was a mudflat, with a four- to eight-foot depth. We used to take boats into the bay and have picnics on the islands. We always had to watch the tides when we did that. If you didn’t get your boat back quick enough, you’d be stranded there by the low tide.
“After the war, after he got over the flu, my father went over to work as a surgeon in a lumber mill in East Texas. Lots of accidents there, I suppose — people losing their arms right and left.
“They had a small-gauge railway there, for the lumber mill. I had a delightful time there, playing by the railway with the sons of the lumber employees. Westville, Texas. I got into a fight there, and the other fellow beat me senseless. It had something to do with a girl. Well, my dad bandaged me up and got me out of town. He sent me to California to live with my aunt and uncle.
“They ran a general store in Heever, Imperial Valley. After I got there, they sold the store. We drove around in a Cadillac for a while. Then they settled down in L.A. and I went to Jefferson High School. This was principally black. Then my dad was stationed at Veterans Hospital in Palo Alto, so I moved back in with my family up there. My dad got sick again and died. We had a very hard time for a while.
“I went to Stanford for one semester. I played in the band and did ROTC, rode horses... At the end of the first quarter I went to work over the holidays at the post office. I fell ill with pneumonia. The doc said if I didn’t get out into the desert I’d be dead of TB.
“I ended up in Barstow, where I worked in the post office and played sax and clarinet in dance bands. Played in the bands for fun, but I made more money than I did in the post office.
“After working in the post office for a while, I went to [University of ] Redlands. I earned my way through college working on the paper. I was business manager of the Redlands paper. Also got a little money winning first prize in an essay contest, from the Southern California Eugenics Society. The topic of my essay was ‘How do college students prepare themselves for marriage?’ I went to the girls’ dorm and the boys’ dorm and asked them questions — how were they preparing themselves for marriage? Were they planning to get married or live a life of sin?
“Then, after college, a buddy and I decided to see the world. We went to New York and stayed at the Seamen’s Institute. I ran into a queer there. He was taking me up to his room to see his discharge papers, he said. Well! I discovered he had his discharge papers.
“My buddy and I paid $95 apiece to sail to Cherbourg on the America, on the United States Line. We got to Cherbourg and lived in the back room of a bakery — very cramped. We bicycled around, saw that part of France, and after a couple weeks decided to hitchhike into Paris. We didn’t even know how to get to Paris or what we were going to do when we got there. My buddy spoke French real well, so we weren’t worried. We didn’t stay in Paris long. Found out you could only find a job if you could do a job the French couldn’t do — like washing dishes, etc.
“We left town, hitchhiked around France, Belgium, Germany, Switzerland. We had no money to spend, but in France we always had an 80-franc note each on our person. If we didn’t have at least 80 francs, they would pick us up for vagrancy.
“In Grenoble we saw a Stanford buddy of mine, stayed with him. He’d gone to graduate school in Grenoble. I liked the place. A nice little college town.
“The buddy I was hitchhiking with wanted to go to school at the Sorbonne, so he left and went back to Paris. As for me, I wanted to go and see the League of Nations. I enrolled in the University of Geneva and would go and sit in while the League was in session. Saw [French statesman and Nobel peace prize winner Aristide] Briand speak.
“I bought a one-way ticket to Genoa. When I got to Genoa, I hit the beach. That was the expression for what people did when they came to town and didn’t have any money for hotels. I was lucky enough to be standing in the U.S. consulate one day when someone came in from the Merchant Marine. We got to talking and I got myself a job on a ship — the President Garfield. I stayed with the crew till we got to San Francisco. Then the chief engineer, who liked me, asked me to stay on again. So I stayed on, went around the world with him.
When we got back to California, I decided it was time to make some money. I hadn’t made much on the ship. I tried selling insurance for Unity Mutual. Hated it. I found people just don’t want to buy insurance.
“But I did know newspapers. At a dinner at college I’d met a woman who wrote for a weekly paper in Brawley. She saw our newspaper at Redlands and said, ‘My, who is responsible for selling all these ads?’ We were introduced, and the woman, Edith Allen, told me that if ever I wanted a job to look her up in Brawley.
“So Brawley was the first place I looked for a job on a paper. [The Brawley News] offered me a job as a reporter. I worked under a fellow named lames Taggert, night editor of the Brawley paper. A tough Irishman. He sneered at me when we met. ‘So! You think you’re a reporter?’ But we got to be good friends, pretty much ran the paper together, and nearly bought it together.
“It was while in Brawley that I met my wife. Lucille ran the finest beauty parlor in town. We played bridge together. Later on we’d say, we weren’t much good at clubs but we were good at hearts! This went on for a year, and then we got married.
“In those days you had to go through a blood test — a three days’ wait. (You still do? I wouldn’t know.) It also took three days to drive up to L.A. and back; she wanted to get married in L.A., where her parents lived. Well, we didn’t have the time to wait for the blood test — I couldn’t take that much time off the paper anyway — so we figured out a way around the problem. We went to Yuma and got married right away. Then the following weekend we went up to Covina, where we got married. Most of her kinfolks lived around Covina.
“Just before we left for the church wedding in Covina, Taggert at the paper came to me and said, ‘You know this paper is for sale. You want to buy it with me?’
I said, ‘Tag, we haven’t got the money. I don’t have it, and you’re always overdrawn at the bank. Anyway, right now I’m going away for a few days to get married.’ I went up to L.A. with Lucille for the wedding and let Taggert figure out how we were going to get the money.
“When I got back from Covina, Taggert was gone. ‘What happened to Taggert?’ I asked, and the publisher said, ‘I fired him because he was disloyal.' Disloyal? ‘He was trying to buy the paper out from under me without telling me about it.’
“The publisher liked Lucille and me, and a few days later he and his wife had us over to dinner. We talked about his paper being up for sale, and I asked him if I could buy the paper. He said no, but he said he liked me and liked the fact that I came out and asked him instead of doing it behind his back, like Taggert.
“So I worked for the paper another month, and then the publisher said, ‘We’re going to have to let you go.’ He made out that it was money problems, but I knew the real reason was that he knew I was in with Taggert. But he liked Lucille, and we’d just gotten married, so that’s why he waited a month before firing me.
“Right after he fired me came the Bank Holiday , when all the banks were closed. The bank found the publisher was broke and seized the assets of the paper. The publisher left town. The banker in Brawley came to me and said, ‘I’ve got this paper on my hands, why don’t you buy it?’ So I ended up buying the Brawley News anyway.
In those days there were 10- or 12,000 people in Brawley, and we got a fair amount of advertising in the weekly paper. It was basically an agricultural-based economy. There wasn’t really a depression in Brawley, it wasn’t hard hit. We carried the same amount of advertising as before.
“I sold the Brawley News after a year and went to San Bernardino, where I ran a weekly called Gate City Enterprise. This was an eight-page paper where I was the only editorial man. We had two guys selling ads. There was a market we wanted as an advertiser, and I had the idea of going to the manager of the market and persuading him to go to the office of the daily newspaper, where he advertised, and picking up his ad from them so we could print it without having to make up a new ad for him. I kinda messed up this deal. The story got back to the daily paper, and I got a helluva bawling out for it.
“Same day I messed up the deal, I got a call from Taggert. Now he was at the Sun-Record, a twice-weekly in North Hollywood. He offered me a job as ad manager. I stayed with the paper for a while and built up its advertising. A small paper, six pages in the Monday edition, eight in the Thursday.”
After a few months with the Sun-Record, McKinnon decided to start his own giveaway weekly in the San Fernando Valley. The year was 1935, and the paper was called the Valley News. For the sake of a good story, McKinnon would later tell interviewers that he had founded the Valley News with some paltry amount or other — anywhere from $100 to $300. The truth seems to be that he founded the Valley News on no capital at all other than whatever sum was needed to pay the first printer’s bill.
In the beginning, the paper was literally a ma-and-pa venture, owned and operated by Clinton and Lucille McKinnon. Lucille helped with the delivery, and most of the other work — ad sales, editorial, production — was Mac’s. The throwaway weekly grew steadily for the next eight years. Mac finally sold the Valley News Co. in 1943 for $100,000.
By that point the little publishing company was putting out a total of three papers. In the early ’40s, McKinnon had spotted a new opportunity in the thousands of defense workers who were flocking to the Los Angeles basin. He dreamt up two more small-budget freebies, the Los Angeles Aircraft Times (later called Aeronews) and the Shipyard Times. McKinnon ran them for a couple of years, then, when the war and circulation seemed to be peaking, he cashed out and looked for a new venture. It didn’t take him long to find one.
“Newspapers Sold to San Fernandan” was the way the San Diego Union put it in September 1943, when McKinnon bought the Progress-Journal and a weekly legal sheet called San Diego News from local businessman H.W. Maguire. There are several ironies in that sneering, one-column notice. It portrays McKinnon as an outsider muscling his way into San Diego publishing. Actually, McKinnon was a bit more of a San Diegan than the Union’s Ira Copley, a Chicago utilities tycoon and onetime Congressman who liked to be called “Colonel.” Young McKinnon had sold newspapers at Horton Plaza in 1917; Copley didn’t put down roots here till 1928, when the Colonel decided to retire from the electric-power business and buy a brace of San Diego newspapers. As for McKinnon being a “San Fernandan,” he and Lucille spent most of their L.A. years living in North Hollywood.
Mac lost no time in sizing up the social and business milieu of 1940s San Diego. “When I came back here in ’43, ’44, it was a very conservative town. Merchants were very conservative, not the promoting type. I found this out when trying to sell them ads. Everyone knew everyone else. Soon after I got here, one guy said to me, This town is interrelated to beat the band. Be careful whom you talk to. You may be talking to someone’s brother-in-law.’
“And to be a Democrat? Well, that was like being a Communist. Of course, I found all this out in my first year back in San Diego, when I had all the Copley people fighting me because I started the Daily Journal.
“Back in the ’40s you could meet just about every important person there was walking down Broadway. There were two famous arch-conservatives in town. One was a music-and-organ man, don’t remember his name. The other one was Old Man Sefton, who owned San Diego Trust & Savings. His son Tom just retired.
“What changed San Diego eventually, I think, was UCSD. That made them start letting Jews into La Jolla. I had an old friend, a Jew, from North Hollywood. Wanted to live in La Jolla. I had my wife go with him when he went looking for houses. He didn’t really look Jewish, I mean, the way most Jews look. And he didn’t have a Jewish-sounding name. And they sold him a house, no problem at all.
“Our first move was to Talmadge Park, but we stayed only about 90 days. English Tudor place. When we founded the Daily Journal [March 1944], we had a staff party at the foot of Pacific Beach Drive. I saw the area and liked it and bought a house there. Now it’s the Sanderling Condominiums.
“I started out buying a 75-by-300-foot lot in ’44. Later on I bought the two 50-foot lots to the east. So this gave me 125 feet on Mission Bay.! paid $22,500 for it. Kept the entire property till ’75 or ’76. Then I sold it to a builder — the area was getting crowded. Part of the deal was, I have a condominium on the top floor laid out to my specifications.
“When I founded the Daily Journal in ’44, there were three things that convinced me that San Diego could support another paper. One, they [the Tribune-Sun ] didn’t have a Sunday paper. Two, they didn’t have the newsprint to print a Sunday paper. Three, I had the capital.
“So I bought this triweekly that had a second-class mail permit and started the Daily Journal on $50,000, plus a $ 15,000 loan. I had a friend at Union Bank in loans, fortunately. The Union-Tribune, I think, brought pressure on some banks to make sure they wouldn’t lend me money.
“Then after the war, the big trouble we had at the Journal was with the Communists. Now I know Communists well; I’ve been fighting them all of my life. And most Communists are very intelligent people. There was one in Congress while I was there, and we were good friends. From New York, a fellow named Marcantonio. In Congress as a Democrat: Everyone knew he was a Communist, but still he stayed very popular in his district.
“The Communists in San Diego had a little cell that was trying to take over the Journal. A general called me up one day; ‘Do you realize you have three Communists in your editorial department?’ One was a city editor, two were on general assignment. One of them was a woman named Pat Killaron, from Hollywood. I called the president of the guild and told him I was going to have to fire them all, and he said, no, you can’t fire them. He told me there was a clause in the contract. If I fired them the guild would bring a grievance against me.
“But I got an out. A funny thing happened one day. Now, my private office was right in front of the city desk. And Joe, the city editor, was being extremely angry and insulting toward Pat. Finally Pat said, I quit. I waited till she left, then I came in and fired Joe for speaking to a woman editor that way.
“And the third Communist? We found a way to get rid of him, too. Convair was on strike in ’46 or ’47, and we tapped this reporter’s line at the Journal. He was checking with the Communist organizer of the strike to find what slant to put on the story. We went to him and gave him the opportunity to resign.
“I found with Communists you have to fight fire with fire. We were a pro-labor paper, and after the war labor was having a lot of worries about the Communist influence that had grown up during the war when the U.S. and Russia were supposed to be allies. I don’t think we ever really were allies, but as a result we had a lot of people around who were soft on Communism — in labor, in the press, in politics. Roosevelt always had lots of pro-Communists around him, going back to the days before Pearl Harbor. I don’t think that attack was a surprise; I think Roosevelt knew Pearl Harbor was going to happen.
“Before I went into Congress I nearly bought PM in New York from Marshall Field, but I couldn’t reach an agreement with the unions. The Newspaper Guild there was run by Communists. The paper eventually folded, but it hung on for another year or so after I tried to buy it. The lawyer representing (John A.) Kennedy came to me after I ran for Congress and said he wanted to buy it. I said it’s a good opportunity, but you have to watch the Newspaper Guild. Be sure to get a contract. I don’t think he did.
“After Congress, in ’53, I bought the [Pacific Beach] Sentinel. I wanted to put my boys to work. A kid who works when he’s young will work when he gets old. Also, I just wanted to get back into newspaper work. I’d just bought the Coronado Journal and thought I could run the Sentinel out the same office. At the time, the Sentinel was controlled by Herb Cormack. One of the owners said to me, you can buy my share — 25 percent — but I wish you’d buy Cormack out. Cormack wouldn’t have anything to do with me. I went to Charley Muley, a friend who owned a big department store in P.B., one of the Sentinel’s biggest advertisers. I said, ‘Will you do me a favor? When the ad people at the Sentinel come by next time, tell them, ‘This will be my last ad with you while Cormack runs the paper.”
“Cormack and I ran into each other a couple months later, in LA., at the Biltmore. He had a bottle of Black & White scotch and took it out and said, ‘Shall we fight, or shall we have a drink and get along?’ So we had a drink. We agreed on a price, and he sold me the Sentinel. Eventually we had Sentinel editions in Clairemont, Kearny Mesa, Pacific Beach, Ocean Beach, La Jolla.
“In ’52 I’d attended the Democratic State Central Committee meeting in Sacramento and was elected chairman for Southern California. I handled the Stevenson campaign for president in ’52. I liked him, Adlai Stevenson, but I never thought he’d make it to the White House. I never thought he was a good administrator. His birthday and mine were the same, February 5. I was born in 1906, he in 1901, I think.
“When I was on the state central committee, I was in a bar with Bill Bassett — this was in 1954. Bassett was secretary-treasurer of the central labor council for LA. County. He said to me, ‘Why don’t you buy the Daily News?' So after a lot of haggling with Bob Smith, who was the publisher, and this big oil man who was financial backer, Sam Moser, I agreed to take the thing over. If I could turn it around in a year, good; if I couldn’t. I’d give it up.
“Bob Smith was a friend of Howard Hughes, always telling me he’d got another call from Hughes. Hughes would tell him to meet him at midnight at the corner or 12th and Flower or someplace.
“The Daily News was losing a lot of money. We went to Moser to see if the deal could be consummated. It was 5:00 p.m., and the custom there was to have a drink at five. So Smith closed off a part of his office, and he and Moser and I sat down and had a drink and talked. I told Moser I was offering $25,000. He wanted $2 million because he’d lost that much. Finally he gave in. I took the paper over on December 24, 1954.
“Manchester Bodie had been owner and editor of the paper till a couple of years before when Bob Smith bought him out. Smith and Moser thought they could turn it around, now it was my turn. I brightened the paper, sharpened up the writing. Got the advertising staff out working instead of going to the motion picture show — or whatever they were doing.
“And classified. They only ran one and one-half pages per day. The girls who took the ads were paid on commission. I finally convinced them to change that. We got five or six pages of classifieds.
“I was a working publisher. Worked from 9:00 a.m. to 1 or 2 in the morning. Managed to increase circulation 25 percent, advertising 305.
“Bill Bassett had promised me at least 5000 in circulation from labor, but he didn’t come through. At the end of’55 I could see we weren’t quite going to make it. I sold the paper for what I’d paid for it.”
“In 1961 I wanted to buy the La Jolla Light. I already had the Coronado Journal, and the La Jolla Journal, which was produced out of the same office. I went to Burt Fairbrother, owner of the Light, to see if he’d agree to a merger. He wouldn’t sell. I set up a lunch meeting with him. We drank our lunch. Fairbrother said he didn’t want to sell, he was saving the La Jolla Light for his kids. But 30 days later he changed his mind. Fairbrother died a few years later, in ’66.
“In ’73 I sold the Sentinel papers to the Harte-Hanks chain. They ruined them, and eventually they folded. They turned them ail into tabloids, like the National Enquirer. That kind of journalism I knew wouldn’t work in a local paper. Not in San Diego.”
One overcast Saturday afternoon, McKinnon and I met for lunch. We drove the few blocks to the Catamaran in McKinnon’s old ranch wagon, one of those vehicles that look like a sedan in front and a low-slung pickup truck in back. The hostess and waitress at the restaurant gave Mac a royal welcome, so I asked if he were a regular at the place.
“I own the land underneath, with a partner, Vern Taylor. The Evans family owns the restaurant and hotel.”
“And what else in town do you own?”
“Oh.” He paused a moment. “I’ve sold most of my property. All I own now is the land here and my unit at the Sanderling and a couple of tire stores in P.B.”
“One of them was the building where we put out the Sentinel, at Cass and Grand. I inherited it from one of my original partners in the newspaper. Outside of town I have a ranch up by the Barona Indian Reservations. I'm about a mile away from it. Three hundred acres, with a house. I get up there once every couple of weeks, work on the place. Last time I was up at the ranch I installed solar panels.
“I used to do a lot of sailing, but I got tired of scraping barnacles off the ship. So I sold it and bought the ranch around 1981.”
During lunch our conversation careened, herky-jerky, among a range of topics. Mac launched into a long story about some relative of his wife’s who had an illegitimate child. “We adopted the baby. Our daughter, Connie. She lives in New York, works in a hospital. A medical technician. Much younger than Dan or Mike.
“And what’s Dan doing these days?” I recalled that McKinnon’s son Dan had had a post with the Reagan administration and once ran unsuccessfully for Congress.
“Nowadays Dan flies Israelis from New York to L.A. He had a Jewish friend who worked for El Al, the Israeli airline. Together they set up a charter operation to take the Jews to LA. El Al flies them in, and Dan and his friend take them out to Los Angeles as part of a tour package. Before that, Dan was chairman of the [Civil Aeronautics Board] for five years. The last [chairman]. He’s been married three times.
“Mike, of course, is in television and lives in Corpus Christi, Texas. I got out of broadcasting a while ago. The first TV station I bought was an NBC affiliate in Tucson. Bought it from a friend in ’55. Then I found an ABC affiliate in Albuquerque that was in trouble. I turned it around. That was ’57. Then there was an ABC in Corpus Christi. The owners went broke, and the license came up for a competitive hearing. I applied and proved I knew more about broadcasting than ABC.
“After that, Mike bought his first station, in Beaumont, Texas. In San Diego he put KUSI, Channel 51 on the air. Mike only married once.” I asked for opinions on public personalities, at random:
Pat Brown, former California governor: “A warmhearted man who liked people. Very able. Pat offered me the head of the state college system, but I would have had to move to Sacramento. I said, we’ve moved so many times — I wasn’t going to do it again. I’ve met his son but don’t think much of him. He’s not his father. Dick Silberman invited me to be part of his team around young Brown, but I didn’t join.
Dick Silberman: “He knew me because he was a friend of the fellow who bought my radio station back in ’48, when I ran for Congress. Takes care of his appearance. Looks Jewish but has always maintained a good weight level. He craves power. The business about him and Helen Copley — that was probably the source of that. I think he was playing around, but Helen was serious.
Helen Copley: “Helen and I are good friends. I think Helen’s brought a lot of good for the [U-T], but I still question the sagacity of closing [the Tribune] down. Helen said she was going to keep the paper going. But newspapers can’t compete these days with television news. My son Mike, his TV station in Corpus Christi has more listeners than the newspapers. I think the day is coming where with television you can punch up just the stories you want and they’ll come up. It’s bound to come someday. That’s the trouble with television news now; you have to watch things you’re not interested in. You don’t get that kind of a problem with newspapers.”
Jim Copley: “A cold man. Jim was a difficult man to get to know. I remember what he said to me once at the Whaling Bar. They used to have a custom there on Christmas Eve — free drinks till one o’clock. This was somewhere between ’55 and ’57, and Jim turned to me at the bar and said, ‘McKinnon, you’re a helluva good newspaperman, but I don’t like your politics.’ I think Helen’s endeared herself to people in a way Jim couldn’t. A cold guy, very conservative.”
Sen. William Knowland: “He had a wonderful wife, Helen. She and I liked each other very much. Bill’s father owned a newspaper, the Oakland Tribune. I think Bill’s real ambition was always to be president. That’s why he ran for governor in ’58, after “Goody” Knight. He thought the way to get to be president was to be governor. Of course, he lost to [Pat] Brown. During his time in the Senate they used to call him ‘the Senator from Formosa’ because he made so many speeches about that.”
San Diego Mayor Harley Knox: “Best mayor I ever knew. But he was also the first San Diego mayor I ever met, so maybe that helped to impress me.”
San Diego Mayor Frank Curran: “I voted for him. A good mayor, poor looks. Fat, pudgy, and used poor language for a mayor. He made good decisions, though.”
Mayor Roger Hedgecock: “An able administrator, I always thought. A Republican, but I voted for him. They chose me for the jury for one of his trials. Hedgecock’s attorney and I got along great. The DA’s assistant felt I had too much rapport, so he tried to get me kicked off the jury. Asked me a series of questions: Did you vote in the last two elections? Whom did you vote for? I said I had voted once for a Democrat and once for a Republican. The next morning the DA and the judge and Hedgecock’s attorney decided to excuse me from the jury.”
Joe Dryer, the late San Diego businessman and promoter: “A real booster. Quite a guy. Used to tell a story about the time he was back East in a hotel. Saw a young lady in an elevator. But she was foreign, and he didn’t speak the language. So he draws picture of a table and drinks and shows it to her. She drew a picture of a bed. And Joe would say — the punch line — ‘How did she know I was in the furniture business?’ ”
James Hervey Johnson, atheist, eccentric, and county assessor: “I liked him. He was fun. I like a hairshirt.”
Roscoe “Pappy” Hazard, San Diego developer: “I had one run-in with him. After I got out of Congress, the investors in Clairemont were in trouble. It went into Chapter 11. Art Jessop came to me and asked me to be trustee. I didn’t want to do it, but I said I’d do it if the investors all agreed. Art asked them all, ‘Are you in favor?’ and old Hazard said, ‘I’m not going to have a damn Democrat handling my money.’ ”
On a trip from San Diego to the McKinnon ranch near the Barona Indian Reservation, the early part of the drive, through Mission Valley, provided a bit more fodder for McKinnon reminisces.
“I built that bank over there,” Mac said, pointing to a cylindrical brick structure that now bears the name Great Western. “It was a savings and loan. The name? Sentinel! Same as my newspaper. Sentinel Savings & Loan. I started it in 1963, later got out. I sold it to Palomar Mortgage, and they sold it to Great Western. I didn’t think it was a good business to be in. I had concerns about how S&Ls could make money over the long run. You give out these 30-year mortgages — and in those days we got only about three or four percent interest — and I got to wondering, what about inflation? How were we going to make money with little or no spread? I wanted to offer a flexible interest rate that would go up and down with the inflation rate, but the industry wasn’t ready for it yet. I knew S&Ls were going to get into trouble.
“Youth for Christ. Gene French founded that with some ministers and local businessmen. (Maude Ryan and I gave a lot of money to it. It’s nondenominational, an organization composed primarily for high school students, to give them some direction. Some kids stay in, others fall by the wayside. I think you have to believe in the supernatural to have some direction in life. Do I? No, not now. I think when you’re ‘daid’ you’re ‘daid.’”
Asked what he knows about his neighbors, the Barona Indians, Mac replied, “They were a tribe — not really a tribe, just a group of what they used to call Mission Indians — and they used to live at Lake Cuyamaca. The city bought their property and gave them some land up here instead. I employ some of them occasionally to do work around the ranch. They’re not good workers, you always have to keep after them.
“Everyone always feels sorry for the Indians. But they’ve brought most of their trouble on themselves.”
The McKinnon ranch begins with a narrow, twisting drive behind a padlocked gate. The house sits at the top of a hill and commands a fine view in all directions. Just beyond a rim of evergreen trees is the reservation. The house itself is nondescript modern, with vaulted ceiling, exposed beams, and an open architectural plan in the main living area.
A quick inventory of the place: stale chocolate-chip cookies on the kitchen counter, bas-relief map of California in the hall, an old electric organ in the corner. The organ did not work. There was no electricity for most of the house. Mac said he’d have to start the gas generator for that. Apparently, the new solar panels weren’t yet hooked up to the main circuits of the house.
Titles in the bookcase: A few old detective stories, many Readers Digest Condensed Books collections from the ’60s and ’70s, and two copies of the Alcoholics Anonymous Blue Book. When asked, McKinnon said, “I go to AA every now and then. I started going of my own accord. I don’t consider myself an alcoholic.”
As the afternoon wore on, I became aware increasingly aware of what a chilly and lonely place the ranch was, at least when the generator wasn’t going. The house’s only telephone, a cellular, had a dead battery. There was no hot water.
On the drive back to San Diego, Mac talked about the first vehicle he’d ever owned. “First car was a Ford roadster. A lovely car, all souped up. I had an uncle who was very good to me; we used to go sec him in Glendale when I was little. He had a son in the Navy, and it was the son’s Ford roadster that was sitting in the garage in back for months and months. I was in college now, and I needed a car, so my uncle said, ‘Oh, sure, I’ll sell it to you for $10. Can’t give you the pink slip, ’cause my son’s on-board ship now. When he gets back I’ll get it to you.’
“So I gave my uncle the $10 and drove off to Redlands. It had special carburetors, and my buddies congratulated me on what a great car it was. One day I drove over to San Bernardino for tires. A guy drove up in a bakery wagon and said, ‘You have this car? Do you have the pink slip? I have the pink slip, and I’m going to have you arrested.’
“I told him the story of how I got the car, how my cousin was in the Navy and I paid my uncle $10 for it. After a while, the guy with the bakery truck cooled down. Still wanted to take me into the station and have me arrested for driving a stolen vehicle, though. I said, ‘Okay, how’s about taking me up to that pie shop over there. Then we can go to the station.’ So we sat down and ate some pie and the cops came, and the cops had a piece too. We chatted and joked about the whole thing.
“I hitchhiked back to Redlands. When my uncle found out that his son had sold me a stolen car, boy, was he sore.”
"You look back on our history, and we’ve always had a hard luck time in San Diego. The transportation situation — they’ve never been able to agree on building a new airport. And long before that there were the railroads. And our own population were basically sunbathers and hedonists. We didn’t have the work ethic. And for a long time it was a closed town in many respects.
“One problem is that we’re down at the end of the state. So many of our industries here are branches with headquarters someplace else. Most of our stores are managed by people from the outside. We’re a satellite. It hurts in commerce.
“A big difference between San Diego and other areas is that the real estate here is so un-level. We don’t get a comparative value in land for the price. I remember back in the early ’50s, when I was in Congress and Clairemont was coming along. There were four main investors in that project, and one of them came to me in 1951 and offered me a share — land selling for $2500 an acre. I was on the Banking and Currency Committee and thought it would be embarrassing to be involved. But also I didn’t think Clairemont would work. It finally opened in ’53, ’54, but they had real problems with it, even beyond the investors’ financial troubles.
The settlers were pioneers. Some of the streets weren’t paved. People had trouble with telephones and utilities. It was a new city, really, but they had little business in the area, lrv Kahn took over the commercial end and made special deals with merchants to get them to move into shopping centers. I was an investor with lrv; had first met him when I was at the Journal. He was a funny little guy, just out of the service and wearing a trench cap. He introduced me to my advertising manager at the Journal, Hobby Myers. Irv said, ‘Hobby’s been at the U-T for years, but he’s not going to be able to get up in the organization because he’s Jewish.’
“By the ’60s, Clairemont was in a real downturn because of problems at Convair. It started when this fellow Hughes ordered new 880 and 990 jets and wouldn’t take delivery. The jets were all just sitting out there by the airport. Convair shut down the program. People were leaving their homes, couldn’t meet their mortgages. There were vacancies all over in ’63, ’64.
A bunch of businessmen got together — Larry Patton, Sol Price, me — and decided we didn’t want this to happen again. We started the Economic Development Corporation in ’64, ’65 to keep small business in town. Worked out a deal where the city would loan you the money to buy a piece of land if you employed a certain number of people. Most of these small businesses were started around Linda Vista and Clairemont. Though George Scott put up a spot in East San Diego, College Avenue. I thought that area was pretty much a substandard area. Another thing we did was push the extension of Balboa Avenue [through Kearny Mesa].
“Nowadays you ride up Balboa, on the other side of the tracks, west of Kearny Mesa, and it’s surprising how many small industries we have today. Of course, UCSD has helped a lot — a bulwark, particularly in the medical sciences. We’ve finally managed to diversify local business. One out of ten businesses may go broke, but we still have nine others.
“The future of the U.S.? We’re not going to go down the tubes, but we won’t be a first-rate power. It’s a fact that neither our workers nor our management know how to work anymore. Perhaps we’ve had too much prosperity. What we need is a little less government help and assistance.”