The weirdest thing the late George Mitrovich ever told me was that he was descended from Oliver Cromwell.
He hadn’t nailed down the exact genealogy, apparently, but said it was family lore. What piqued my curiosity wasn’t whether or not it was true — did Cromwell even have any descendants? — but why George would claim such an unsavory character as a remote forebear. If you’re going to pick an unlikely family tie, why not someone a little more obscure and less off-putting?
George told me that Cromwell story around 1992, and a few months ago, I was still wondering about it. I decided to call him up and ask. But as we hadn’t spoken in some years, first I thought I’d do a little legwork on my own, through the modern magic of the internet. And turns out Cromwell did indeed have descendants — scads of them; thousands roam the earth today. As for George’s end of the genealogical tree, I found that he was Virginian and English on his mother’s side, with a large extended family arriving in San Diego in the early 20th century after a short spell in New Mexico. My research, unfortunately, fades out in the mists of mid-1700s Virginia, where forebears are countless and hard data are few. So I never quite tied up the connection between George Mitrovich and the Lord Protector of the Commonwealth.
And, alas, I never got around to phoning him up. And then in late July, I read that he’d passed on.
Suits and eyebrows
When the obits came out, the cliché about George was that he was “the man who knew everyone.” Exactly what he did, however, was never clearly explained. Even George had trouble describing himself. His thumbnail bio, accompanying his occasional contributions to The Huffington Post and other journals, was “San Diego civic leader.” Whatever that may be.
He ran a City Club in San Diego, but he also had one in Denver, and some kind of writers’ forum connected with the Boston Red Sox. He was a Republican, except if you thought he was really a Democrat; he was happy to go along with that, too. Fundamentally he was a facilitator, a booster. A public-relations consultant. He was your go-to guy who knows a guy who knows another guy.
Here is a story from many years ago, when I naively imagined that somebody who knew everybody could probably get anybody a job. I had this shy friend, and brought her along to meet George. She was a recent (though somewhat superannuated) San Diego State graduate whom I knew from a terrible temp job on Clairemont Mesa Boulevard.
We got together for lunch at some outdoor café downtown. George tried to ferret out what sort of job my friend was looking for, but my friend couldn’t really say, beyond “someplace where the people are really nice and interesting.” In the end, she just sat there looking at him while George’s and my conversation drifted into political trivia: for example, what it was like working on the Bobby Kennedy campaign in ’68?
This could have been the uncomfortable lunch from hell, but it was ludicrous fun, and George was always the gentleman. Later, I asked my friend what she thought of him.
“He cuts his eyebrows.”
And so he did. Or rather, the barber did. Like many men of a certain age, George had some unruly, ambitious eyebrow hairs, and these got trimmed as part of his regular haircut.
But why would one notice something like this? For that matter, why did George’s eulogists like to mention his “exquisite suits” or whatever? That’s rather like saying a 50-year-old actress takes really good care of her skin. He’d been a Capitol Hill press aide, for goodness sake; a smart appearance went with the job. When the Age of the Slob and Casual Friday descended on us three decades ago, it came far too late to affect George’s grooming.
Not to say George was never casual. I have a mental picture of casual George on a hot day in August 1994. He’s wearing a red-and-white matelot jersey and navy shorts. This is at an informal meet-and-greet for former Senator Eugene McCarthy. We’re at George’s canyon-backed house in Kensington, and the still-gangly but paunchy McCarthy is giving his talk in sweaty shirtsleeves and necktie. Beside him is our host Mr. Mitrovich, dressed like Gerald Murphy at Cap d’Antibes in 1925.
“Tell George he still owes me that thousand dollars!”
Around the San Diego Press Club in the early 1990s, there was a public relations whiz and congressional in-law who would make jokes about George Mitrovich. Lots of people did, of course, but this guy was good.
The PR hotshot liked to do an imitation of grandiloquent George introducing a speaker at the City Club: “Of course it should be noted that, as the renowned English journalist (and personal friend of mine) Peregrine Worsthorne once confided to me, ‘There is oft a slip twixt cup and lip,’ an observation I am not prepared to gainsay. But much the same might be said of this month’s City Club’s speaker. And so let me introduce—.”
In the fullness of time (as my good friend Lyndon Johnson used to say) I discovered that the names George dropped were people he did indeed know, even if they were not always quite his best buddies. It went with the territory. His main occupation at this point was running the City Club, and his job was to keep snagging people like Richard Reeves, Ben Bradlee, Tom Wolfe, Pat Buchanan; any hack politician who’d written a book, any distinguished English journo who was in the vicinity. He’d started running these lunchtime speaker forums when working as a press secretary in DC in the early 1970s. Twenty years later, his Rolodex was quite full.
So when my company sent me to London for a few years, on and off, and I thought I’d make a little pin money freelancing for The Spectator or The Oldie or whatever, I decided to ring up George. And George gave me a whole string of names of “close personal friends” who might be of use.
The former D.C. correspondent from the Daily Telegraph seemed a bit peeved when I mentioned George’s name. No, he said, he couldn’t see me, because right now he had to go have lunch with the Chancellor of the Exchequer. So I worked my way down the list, and soon found a friendly voice — someone apparently fond of George, and eager to take me to lunch on the Guardian’s expense account. This was Simon Hoggart, who had been the Observer’s U.S. correspondent in the 1980s, where he did a sort of Alistair Cooke turn writing mildly amusing explanations of American customs for the Brits while turning up regularly on CNN or National Public Radio to explain Great Britain to the American cousins.
It was Simon, more than anyone else, who spread the word about how Joe Biden in the 1988 primaries plagiarized a speech by Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock, telling how he was descended from impoverished coal miners and was the first in his family in a thousand generations to go to university. (“Because there were no universities 25,000 years ago,” Simon pointed out.)
It was about this time, 1988, that Simon first came to speak at the City Club. He and George got on like a house afire. The only snag was getting paid. Somehow the $1000 speaker’s honorarium never reached Simon.
“Tell George he still owes me that thousand dollars,” said Simon during our first lavish lunch with wine. (We usually did two bottles.)
And this went on for years. Whenever I saw Simon, usually at a restaurant, once in the Commons press refectory (lunch was always on the Guardian’s chit), and once at my house, he’d always ask after George, say how wonderful he was, and tell me to remind him about that thousand dollars.
“Oh, no, no,” George would always say upon receiving said reminder, sounding mortified. “I’m sure we paid him.”
I assume this issue was eventually cleared up, because Simon spoke at the City Club of San Diego once more, and the next time I saw him, he made no mention of the debt.
I’m pretty sure it wasn’t George who was in error. The City Club once paid Tom Wolfe $60,000 when he came to speak. Obviously, Simon just lost the check.
The Great Goodell
My dossier on George was spotty and lopsided, missing all kinds of key elements. Until he died, I had no idea, or else had completely forgotten, what a baseball fanatic he was. Which raises the idle question: how do you acquire a passion for the National Pastime when you’re growing up in San Diego in the 1940s, and the nearest Major League team is in St. Louis? And yes, I do realize Don Larsen (Point Loma High School) somehow managed it, as did Ted Williams (Hoover High School); and George apparently played ball when he was at Helix High School and Pasadena Nazarene College.
And speaking of lineups: back in the 1990s, it completely eluded me that George had been a featured player in the J. David Dominelli scandal. That was the Ponzi-scheme deal that brought down the political career of Mayor Roger Hedgecock. I wasn’t living in San Diego in the mid-’80s, and the only reason I even knew about it was that 60 Minutes once did a segment on it.
The L.A. Times stories about the 1985 Hedgecock trial make hilarious reading today. The prosecutor was accusing mild-mannered George Mitrovich — PR director at now-defunct J. David & Co. — of being a “co-conspirator” and “bag man.” He suggested that George had been funneling illicit contributions from the J. David firm to the Hedgecock campaign in 1983. Furthermore, according to the prosecutor’s theory, this Mitrovich fellow was also using his so-called City Club of San Diego as a “front” to ensnare the well-heeled and gullible.
Not surprisingly, the judge disallowed this line of argument. And a potential media circus — or train wreck — was avoided.
But George had been witness to a far worse career tragedy 15 years before the J. David matter, and this was something he did like to talk about: the sad story of Charles Goodell, U.S. Senator from New York (and father of current NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell). Charlie Goodell was George’s beau ideal and everlasting hero.
Young George Mitrovich had been an aide to Sen. Robert F. Kennedy at the time when RFK was assassinated in 1968. Gov. Nelson Rockefeller appointed Goodell, an upstate Republican congressman, to fill the Senate seat, and in due course, George became Goodell’s press secretary. Now, Goodell had been a popular, if rather conventional member of the Party of Lincoln — at least according to the standards of 1959, when he first entered Congress. That is: generally a moderate on domestic issues, but wary of overseas interventionism and what Dwight Eisenhower called the “military-industrial complex.” Such were Republicans in those bygone days — consider Bill Scranton, George Romney, or even Richard Nixon. (Never mind Rockefeller; he was as fierce a hawk as any 1960s Democrat.)
Accordingly, Charlie Goodell was no fan of the Vietnam War. He supported Richard Nixon for president in 1968 because Nixon was the guy who said he was going to get us out of that quagmire. But Nixon didn’t end the war, at least not immediately; in 1969 and 1970, he looked to be escalating it. So Goodell proposed a bill to cut off funding if the troops weren’t pulled out within a year. The Nixon administration read this as disloyalty, and set about maneuvering to wreck Goodell’s election chances in the next senatorial election.
That 1970 Senate contest emerged as a three-way, neck-and-neck horserace among Goodell, a downstate Democrat named Ottinger, and a Conservative Party candidate by the name of James L. Buckley (older brother to William F., Jr.) Candidate Buckley started gaining in the polls, siphoning so many Republican voters away from Goodell that the Democrat was near-certain to win.
But then, a few weeks before the election, Vice-president Spiro T. Agnew stepped in and began hammering Goodell. Agnew characterized Goodell as a turncoat who’d flipped on all his old policies; Goodell’s about-face was so drastic it was like he’d had a sex change. This last, tasteless metaphor was a masterstroke of political oratory (authored by Pat Buchanan). Crude and mean-spirited, but it did just what it was supposed to do. It brought out the sympathy vote for Goodell, pumping just enough Democrats into the Goodell column to give third-party Buckley a narrow win. Goodell came in a distant third, and Agnew cackled with glee.
“We got that son of a bitch,” Agnew said.
And after that, Charles Goodell “had a very bad time,” George used to tell me. I didn’t know the specifics until I found a feature article from the Buffalo News (February 3, 2018), the Goodell hometown paper. In that piece, George and a fellow aide recall that the senator was so devastated after the election that he had a “mental breakdown.”
In the article, George is quoted as describing this outcome as the price Goodell paid for taking a difficult and lonely stance: “The ramifications for that moral decision by [Goodell] were severe… The immediate effect was he wound up in a hospital. Those of us who loved Charlie Goodell were very concerned. I’m sure there was a medical diagnosis, but many of us thought it was the strain of a challenging campaign, and then you lose, and all the things you cared and fought for, particularly to a guy like Buckley, were lost.”
Charles Goodell eventually recovered, wrote a book, and in 1975 visited San Diego, where he was the City Club’s very first speaker.
The oracle of normalcy
There’s a concept in political science called the Overton Window: an imaginary space that describes the range of opinions considered permissible in public discourse. The reason George Mitrovich was so persistent a presence is that he grasped this concept intuitively. George knew exactly what could and could not be said at any given time. He hewed to the middle-ground of acceptable opinion, and this gives us an interesting look at how the view through the Overton Window has changed through the years.
Example: Back in the mid-’90s, there was a lot of open debate on such issues as race-and-IQ, curbing illegal immigration, and the dangers of the “global economy.” This was the era of Pete Wilson’s governorship, Proposition 187 (denying public services to undocumented aliens), Peter Navarro’s mayoral candidacy (“Prevent Los Angelization Now!”), Prof. Charles Murray’s The Bell Curve (1994), and Forbes editor Peter Brimelow’s anti-immigration book Alien Nation. George Mitrovich rode the wave of this discourse, bringing in Brimelow and Navarro to speak at the City Club, and hosting former Sen. Eugene McCarthy to talk about his 1992 political memoir, A Colony of the World; America’s Senior Statesman Warns His Countrymen. In that book, McCarthy, a frequent City Club visitor, apologized for having helped to sponsor the Hart-Celler immigration act in 1965. He voiced deep regret over the damage it had done.
During a reception at George’s house, McCarthy put the blame for the immigration crisis on the agribusiness lobby, which longed for cheap quasi-slave labor. “Their message always seemed to be that we need to bring in millions of Mexican workers, because we can’t live without cheap Mother’s Day carnations.”
But that was then. Today the bien pensants would consider such talk to be beyond the pale. The gracious and witty Gene McCarthy is long dead, while Peter Brimelow’s 1995 appearance at the City Club is nowhere to be found in the club’s list of past speakers.
And where is the midpoint of acceptable opinion these days? Who’s the likely Democrat nominee for 2020? What would George Mitrovich say?
Well, George was very fond of Joe Biden, who has long held the lead position as City Club speaker — 20 appearances to date. My guess is that George would be placing a safe bet on Joe.