Deus ex Machina, Or How I Learned to Love the
by Betsey Culp
A group of young politicians, reported the Examiner, has
pulled off a series of startling victories at the polls and are changing
the way things are done in San Francisco. “Because of their avowed
liberal stance, they are viewed with alarm in some quarters. ‘Dangerous’
is a word occasionally applied to their usually united front’;
‘threatening’ is another.”
The secret of their success? They created “as high a
turnout as possible” by tapping into the aspirations and frustrations of
low-income voters – especially “the minorities, the elderly poor, the
labor unions, and the Democratic clubs.” Their method? Says the most
successful candidate, “I ignored all endorsing groups and newspapers,
and decided I’d meet as many voters personally as I could.”
No, these young politicians are not named Daly,
Gonzalez, Sandoval, Maxwell, and McGoldrick. Nor is their leader Tom
These young men were Philip Burton (aged 40), John
Burton (33), Willie Brown Jr. (30), George Moscone (36), and Josiah
Beeman (31). The year was 1967, and the Examiner had just discovered the
existence of “the Burton Machine.”
At the time, Philip Burton was serving in the U.S. House
of Representatives; John Burton and Brown were in the State Assembly;
and Moscone was a state senator. Beeman, who had cut his teeth as Philip
Burton’s administrative assistant, was a newly appointed San Francisco
supervisor. (He later left the Bay Area fold, serving as U.S. ambassador
to New Zealand and presently as Chief of Staff of the U.S. Broadcasting
Board of Governors.)
The Burton Machine.
The term is being bandied about with much gusto this
spring, as San Francisco prepares for an election on March 5. One
so-and-so has profited from an affiliation with The Machine; another
so-and-so has spent a lifetime battling The Machine.
What is this mechanical monster that has invaded our
city? What kind of machine are they talking about? What on earth is
a political machine?
Turns out it’s a contraption that spits out votes and
sends them along the assembly line to the ballot box, while politicians
stand around like Ethel and Lucy, trying to keep the scene from
degenerating into chaos.
It’s a vote-making machine.
And it only operates smoothly if it is oiled regularly
with lots and lots of voting data. The Examiner described Philip Burton
as “a man who eats shredded precinct sheets for breakfast” and, Beeman
added, “that’s almost literally true.” The Machine’s Dr. Frankenstein
was very good at his job.
But if you stop to think about it, the ostensible target
of this year’s election debates bears little resemblance to the evil
oppressor that the campaign rhetoric describes. Philip Burton, says
veteran reporter John Jacobs, “took the New Deal coalition of Franklin
Roosevelt and extended it beyond what anyone thought imaginable. That
began in his first successful race for the state assembly in 1956, when
he campaigned on behalf of labor unions and San Francisco’s Chinatown, a
previously unrepresented constituency historically at odds with labor
groups in California who long and successfully had pushed anti-Chinese
exclusionary laws. He also crusaded for civil rights for blacks at a
time when his labor supporters were doing everything possible to keep
blacks from joining their unions and competing with them for jobs. In
the 1960s, he pushed the coalition to include the burgeoning antiwar
movement. In the 1970s, he married, where possible, the conflicting
interests of labor and environmentalists. And in the early 1980s, in the
final campaign of his life, he united police officers and gay activists.
No one else had ever put together such large and improbable coalitions.”
It sounds like he’d fit right in with the young
progressive upstarts who are seeking public office today.
Do you sense some spin going on here?
In their heart of hearts, the candidates who fulminate
against The Machine would like nothing better than to create one of
their own, one that functions just as efficiently. And perhaps just as
Maybe they are doing just that. For what’s at stake here
is political power, for which a smoothly running machine is a necessary
prerequisite. It is the only way to achieve repeated victories at the
polls. And it’s the only way, as Burton demonstrated, to ensure the
passage of a whole program of legislative changes.
To attack The Machine is lazy politics. It sets up a
series of cheap shots; it spews out a series of buzzwords that elicit
quick unthinking responses. And it trivializes the real issues at stake
in the campaign.
People on all points of the political spectrum recognize
that the city of San Francisco is in a sorry state, economically and
socially. The crux of the debate should be whether our present crises
are the result of misguided policies and/or genuine corruption, and
whether the introduction of new blood into the veins of the body politic
will produce a cure. Anything else degenerates quickly into
name-calling, an activity that satisfies emotional needs but little
In the remaining weeks, let’s forget about The Machine.
It’s an obsolescent model that’s well on the way to being dismantled or
retooled anyway. Introduce the voters to some real live issues – and let
the party begin.