February 14-20, 2007

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The Byrne Report

Abraham's Knife

By Peter Byrne

I seldom feel pity for a politician when the public relations machine turns against him overnight. But in the case of San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom, I find a morsel of compassion on my reportorial plate. He is clearly having a nervous breakdown, and the schadenfreudian twittering from his friends and foes alike demonstrates little or no comprehension of what is going on inside this man.

As a reporter for the SF Weekly for many years, I wrote about Newsom on a regular basis. He is, to twist a phrase, a Manchurian mayor, a guy who was programmed from birth to serve the political interests of a family fortune presided over by San Francisco billionaire Gordon Getty.

Getty's childhood friend, retired Superior Court judge William Newsom, Gavin's dad, has been the Fixer for the Getty family since the 1960s. He has escorted generations of Gettys in and out of drug rehabs; watched over Gordon's "other" family, a collection of daughters born to a woman other than his wife; administered the Getty's multibillion dollar business and charitable trusts; and, as Abraham did for Jehovah in the Old Testament, delivered unto Getty his first-born son.

No wonder Newsom has cracked up: he has never had a real life. Given his intellectual potential, he could have been a happy bartender, maybe a midlevel IT exec or, left to his more decent instincts, an acceptable mayor of San Francisco. Instead, his personality and political being has been shaped, molded, handled, tweaked and perverted by the imperatives of the super-rich socialite stratum that rules San Francisco and beyond. From the moment that Mayor Willie Brown appointed him to the board of supervisors in 1997, Newsom has been falsely portrayed by his handlers and the media as a "successful entrepreneur" (even though his PlumpJack restaurant and wine businesses are controlled by Gordon Getty); as "fiscally conservative" (a nonsense phrase); and as "socially liberal" (savior of the poor). When starstruck reporters such as the San Francisco Chronicle's team of Matier and Ross regularly labelled him as "Kennedyesque," Newsom began to believe the hype that he is political heir to the martyred brothers.

In an SF Weekly article in 2002, I humorously compared Gavin's minor accomplishments as a city supervisor to President Kennedy's record as a war hero and Congressman at the same age, 34. Early the next morning, Newsom, who was running for mayor, called me. He was pissed and defensive and wanted to talk. So I visited him in his office, a space replete with busts and photographs of the Kennedys. Badly dyslectic, Newsom is not much of a reader, but he was nonetheless informed and enthusiastic about certain municipal issues. I would not trust him with the nuclear trigger--but a traffic light siting in the Marina District? Sure.

Intrigued, I investigated Newsom's financial assets and wrote a story showing how they are completely intertwined with the Getty fortune and his father's holdings. By that time (late 2003), candidate Newsom had stopped talking to me upon instructions from his political consultant, Eric Jaye. But Judge Newsom talked to me intimately and at length (probably because Jaye had ordered him not to). The judge said he worried that politics might ruin his son's personal life. His own marriage to Gavin's late mother had collapsed after the judge ran for the state senate in 1968. I received the distinct impression that Abraham was having second thoughts about sacrificing his beloved boy to the Getty gods.

As mayor, Newsom's only claim to lasting accomplishment is his courageous stand on gay marriage. Otherwise, municipal corruption and ineptitude is flourishing as usual in San Francisco. In 2005, I interviewed the mayor in his City Hall office. He was riding high on sudden popularity, and appeared to be, well, Kennedyesque, with his rolled-up white shirt sleeves and big hair. The books behind his desk lay on their backs (so that a reporter could read the spines?). I took the bait, and we chatted about George Lakoff's hot new book on liberal politics. Newsom showed me his highlighted copy of Don't Think of an Elephant. Then his press secretary, Peter Ragone, left the room and returned momentarily with another book.

"Here is the new bio of Robert Kennedy," Ragone said.

"Oh, I've been dying to read it," Newsom responded, grasping it like a precious treasure.

As we walked out of City Hall together, a crowd of homeless protesters surrounded Newsom's limo. The mayor gave me an embarrassed look, as if to say, "I really do care." And he may care, but in my opinion, he does not possess the self-knowledge necessary to confidently govern a city, or his own life. Now, as his false image spins away like a kite caught in a hurricane, the real Gavin Newsom stumbles after it, lost and wondering what happened.

Let it go, Gavin.

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