Posted by Evan Maxwell, guest blogger.
I was offline at the appropriate moment last week but I still want to note the passing of a man who could be a bit of a loose cannon but who had a core of decency and honesty the likes of which I seldom encountered in 20 years of covering public officials.
I was a youngish reporter for the Los Angeles Times in the middle 1970s and had fallen in, for better and for worse, with the loosest type of police officers one could ever hope to meet: narcotics investigators. Narks, as they called themselves, were improvisors, wildmen, bone-deep pragmatists. I found them enormously entertaining and got a real education into the Underworld that still thrives today along the U.S.-Mexico border. A couple of them invited me to a statewide narcotics officers convention in San Diego and I jumped at the chance.
The speaker at the banquet was the burly, white-haired controversial chief of police of Los Angeles, Ed Davis. Ed was already known for his lack of temperance, calling for gallows at the airport as a means of dealing with hijackers, etc. And putting the blustering chief in front of 600 men and a few women, nearly all of whom had ingested substantial quantities of legal intoxicants, was like throwing gasoline on a bonfire. The Chief rose to the occasion and delivered a blistering speech full of sharp, quotable comments on criminals, politicians and lilly-livered bureaucrats. It as an amazing performance and everytime he said something really harsh, the narks in the crowd stood up on their hind legs and roared like MGM lions. All six hundred were on their feet, applauding, by the time the Chief finished, and I just sat there taking notes and shaking my head in amazement.
I no longer have access to the LA Times morgue, so I can’t say with certainty what Chief Davis said that night. I seem to recall that he took after several LA officials by name. I do know his remarks were among the strongest I remember any public official ever making. When I reviewed my notes the next morning in preparation for writing the story, I was more than a little apprehensive, as any reporter is when he sees quotes lying on the notebook page, smoking as though they were about to break into flames.
As I wrote the story, I realized that Chief Davis probably didn’t expect that a reporter would be in such an audience. That didn’t mean the story was improper, but I did feel a little uneasy about the possible ramifications. I was the only reporter there; there was no recording of the speech; it was going to be my notes and memory against his, if push came to shove. That’s the risk reporters always take, covering public officials who have no integrity. They can always say they were either misquoted or taken out of context, just so long as there is no way of challenging that comment.
So I turned in a very volatile story, one that caused ripples through LA television and radio news circles. I waited for the usual mealy-mouthing and backfilling that politicians can engage in. I expected at the very least to get a private message back through some of my nark contacts about how I had stabbed a great man in the back, etc., etc.
But Ed Davis faced up like a man, a big man. He called a press conference, invited in all the media, and said, in effect, “I think I probably shot off my mouth a little too loudly the other night. I said those things and I won’t even take them back, but I’ll try to be a little more respectful of others in the future.”
I never had the opportunity to meet the man, but I followed the rest of his career with interest and found that he maintained his own kind of dignity throughout, following his own instincts, learning and changing and always willing to accept responsibility. That is a wonderful thing in a human being, a great legacy to leave behind. As I get older myself, I admire Ed Davis’ example more and more.
That’s the nice thing about being a reporter. You get to see history in the raw, even in little bits and pieces. And sometimes the odd little memories are the ones that mean the most.