September 9, 2004
Father of the Leftist Guard
Stanley Sheinbaum may be slowing down, but his concern for humanity still burns bright.
Stanley Sheinbaum is in his element. As 40 members of Americans for Peace Now and their allies sip white wine, nibble brie and heatedly discuss the economic and moral injustices of Israel's occupation, the éminence grise of liberalism watches and listens with the rapt attention of the Stanford University graduate student he once was. When guest speaker Rep. Lois Capps (D-Santa Barbara) says that the "ethical aspiration of Judaism is to stand up for the downtrodden," including African Americans, homosexuals and Palestinians, Sheinbaum nods his head in agreement.
During the two-hour gathering held at his Brentwood estate in late August, Sheinbaum says little. But don't mistake Sheinbaum's diffidence for indifference. At 84, he might have slowed down some, but his concern for the fate of humanity burns as brightly as ever. His legendary "salons" are still vibrant, intellectual gatherings. Sheinbaum continues to support an array of liberal groups, ranging from Peace Now to Human Rights Watch to the American Civil Liberties Union, whose local affiliate will present an award named in his honor at a Sept. 12 fundraiser.
"He is truly one of the leaders of the progressive Jewish movement," said Luis Lainer, Americans for Peace Now's board chair.
A wealthy money man for liberal Democrats seeking office, private counselor to kings, presidents and diplomats, and the glue that helped build the Westside's powerful, mostly Jewish bloc of left-wing liberals, Sheinbaum has led several lives in eight decades on the planet.
Like a modern-day Forrest Gump -- albeit one with a Phi Beta Kappa key -- Sheinbaum has witnessed history up close and personal, leaving his thumbprints all over some of the defining moments of the past half-century. Whether acting as the police commissioner who led the successful fight to oust former LAPD Chief Daryl Gates in the early 1990s; heading a controversial delegation of American Jews to the Middle East in the late 1980s to convince Yasser Arafat to publicly renounce terrorism and recognize Israel's right to exist; fighting for divestment from South Africa as a University of California regent; or raising nearly $1 million for the successful defense of Pentagon Papers principal Daniel Ellsberg, Sheinbaum has made a difference.
Sheinbaum said the upcoming election is the most important in recent memory and that helping John F. Kerry become the next president is his major priority.
"Sheinbaum keeps the New Deal torch alive in an age when it's not fashionable to do so," said former senator and presidential candidate Gary Hart, a longtime friend. "He's a voice of conscience."
That voice is a little less robust these days. Sheinbaum must take 10 medications daily and a nap or two to recharge his tired body. Doctors have grounded the former globetrotter for the past three years because of health concerns. Sheinbaum walks with a slight limp and jokes about visiting a "cardiologist, a neurologist, a sexologist and a pissologist."
But his mind remains razor sharp. Surrounded by colorful paintings and sculptures in his comfortable home, he proudly points to framed photos with Fidel Castro, King Hussein, Barbra Streisand and other world leaders and A-list celebrities. Dressed in a red-and-white striped jacket, blue vest and khakis, Sheinbaum's firm handshake, direct gaze and measured words reveal a man at ease with himself and confident about the future.
And why not? For more than 30 years, luminaries such as Bill and Hillary Clinton, Jesse Jackson, Queen Noor of Jordan and former Sen. Hart, among others, have made the pilgrimage to his Westside salons in search of intellectual stimulation and money for their pet causes -- sometimes their own political campaigns.
"I am addicted to famous people," Sheinbaum quipped.
The salons, Sheinbaum added, are more than just a forum for rich liberals to pat each other on the back and pass around the collection plate. Sometimes, the gatherings spawn new groups that try to shape public opinion, fight for human rights or help the needy. To cite but one recent example, activists including U.N. weapons inspector Scott Ritter and 1960s counter-culture icon Tom Hayden met at his home in October 2002 and conducted a teach-in that helped lead to the formation of Artists United Against the War.
Even Nice to Republicans
Despite Sheinbaum's progressive politics, he has occasionally opened his meetings up to critics and conservatives -- even Republicans.
One detractor, Larry Greenfield, director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, Southern California, said Sheinbaum belongs to the "old leftist guard" that has failed politically. Greenfield also blasted the octogenarian for befriending the "terrorist" Arafat, an unworthy peace partner.
But a couple months ago, Sheinbaum pleasantly surprised the local Republican leader by inviting him to an event at his house featuring the pro-Israel Middle East Media Research Institute, or MEMRI, which translates the sometimes anti-Semitic Arab press into English and other languages.
Similarly, Sheinbaum has won over Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Wiesenthal Center and formerly one of his fiercest critics. Just two years ago, Cooper wrote in Ft. Lauderdale's Sun-Sentinel newspaper that "peace activist" Sheinbaum blamed the Israeli government rather the Palestinians for suicide bombings. Today, Cooper calls his ex-nemesis a "mensch."
That's because Sheinbaum, at Cooper's request, recently contacted Arab leaders, including Arafat, to ascertain the fate of Israeli soldiers missing in action. Sheinbaum's willingness to risk alienating his contacts for the benefit of concerned Israelis impressed Cooper, who later received an invitation from Sheinbaum to a luncheon that featured high-ranking Syrian government officials.
Sheinbaum's "somebody operating with his eyes open, with an open mind, and, in the case with the Israeli MIAs, an open heart," Cooper said.
Still, Sheinbaum's activism, especially his embrace of Arafat, has stirred strong passions on both sides of the political divide.
To his supporters, the man whom the Los Angeles Times once dubbed "the Kingmaker" has fought the good fight on behalf of the dispossessed, downtrodden and disenfranchised. Where other rich men might have contented themselves playing golf at country clubs and summering at Malibu beach homes, Sheinbaum has put his reputation and fortune on the line to help make the world a better place.
"I think he's addicted to fairness and justice," said television producer Norman Lear of "All in the Family" fame. "All of us start off as the proverbial grain of sand on the beach of life. In that context, Stanley Sheinbaum has moved mountains."
To his critics, Sheinbaum is a relic of a bygone radical era. His politics, in sync with the Southland's Jews in the 1960s, have become anachronistic as area Jews have drifted to the center, said Joel Kotkin, senior fellow with the Davenport Institute at Pepperdine University. Sheinbaum, he said, is the quintessential limousine liberal railing against the world's injustices from the comfort of his gated, multimillion-dollar home.
"I don't want to be lectured about social justice by people who have an income ten or hundred times mine," Kotkin said. "Money buys access. Money buys power. Money buys influence. If you took away his money, I don't think he'd be a major force."
Not true, said Los Angeles Times columnist Robert Scheer, a friend of Sheinbaum's since the pair collaborated on a series of anti-war articles for Ramparts magazine in the mid-1960s and unsuccessfully ran for Congress together on an anti-Vietnam ticket.
Handsome, charming and bright, Sheinbaum made a name for himself well before his 1964 marriage to Betty Warner, daughter of movie mogul and Warner Bros. co-founder Harry Warner, Scheer said.
After graduating from Stanford with highest honors and enrolling in a doctoral program there, Sheinbaum moved to Paris as a Fulbright scholar. Although he never completed his dissertation, Michigan State University (MSU) hired him as an economics professor.
At MSU, the young academic found himself unwittingly caught up in America's growing involvement in Vietnam, a conflict he would come to despise. In the late 1950s, Sheinbaum directed MSU's Vietnam Project, which helped train South Vietnam's police force, among other responsibilities.
After souring on the war and learning that several men he hired for the MSU program were really CIA operatives, in 1960 Sheinbaum joined an elite Santa Barbara think tank named the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions. Headed by former University of Chicago President Robert Maynard Hutchins, it attracted intellectual heavyweights such as Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, economist Paul Samuelson and Harvard professor John Kenneth Galbraith. In this rarefied environment, Sheinbaum stood out for his formidable debating skills and supple mind, Scheer said.
"Stanley was one of the best and brightest," said Scheer, who helped finance a new documentary about Sheinbaum called "Citizen Stanley." Time magazine co-founder "Henry Luce liked Stanley. Everybody liked him. He could have easily gone off and worked for Time or at the White House."
But he didn't. After marrying into money, Sheinbaum embraced full-time political activism as his career, becoming one of the most influential liberal powerbroker in the country. Some years, he and his wife contributed up to $750,000 to causes and candidates in which they believed, cutting back only after they began dipping into their principal.
All that money -- which Sheinbaum nearly doubled in the early 1970s by betting the U.S. dollar would go off the gold standard -- undoubtedly bought access and influence. But Sheinbaum has done more in the past 40 years than simply sign fat checks, observers say. Like an entrepreneur, he has made investments in people and organizations that fire his imagination. And he has taken a hands-on approach to ensure their success.
Sheinbaum and his wife "have a fearless activism, are genuinely honest and humble students of what is going on and are smart as hell," said actor Warren Beatty, a friend for 35 years.
Making Things Happen
As head of the ACLU Foundation of Southern California from 1973 to 1982, Sheinbaum headed up the outfit's fundraising and helped increase contributions by tenfold. More important, Sheinbaum -- who continues to serve on the ACLU National Advisory Council -- urged the local ACLU affiliate to increase its visibility, membership and relevance by educating the public on major civil rights issues. Partly because of his prodding, the ACLU of Southern California now has a public policy specialist to galvanize support for such initiatives as making the three-strikes law less punitive, local Executive Director Ramona Ripston said.
Sheinbaum's brand of outreach has helped fuel a 65 percent jump in membership over the past decade to 38,000, she said.
"He's made the organization stronger by being actively involved," said Ripston, who first met Sheinbaum more than 30 years ago during the Ellsberg trial.
Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles) said Sheinbaum has served several important roles in her life: stalwart friend, mentor and an important connection who first introduced her to such politicians as former presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.
Sheinbaum, a strong proponent of divestment from apartheid-era South Africa during his 12 years as a UC regent, advised her on the subject while she served as a state assemblywoman. Through Sheinbaum, Waters said she learned much about the workings of the investment community and how public pension funds could remain profitable without holdings in South Africa. Armed with that knowledge, she successfully sponsored legislation that called for the divestment of state pension funds.
"I've used him as a sounding board for years," the congresswoman said. "He has been influencing progressive politics in this country, really the world, for a long time."
Sheinbaum's early years in New York City hardly foreshadowed his later renown. He was a mediocre student who grew up poor. The Depression wiped out his family financially, plunging his father in and out of bankruptcy for years. After graduating from high school, Sheinbaum bounced from job to job, eventually moving to Houston to work in a printing plant. His hardscrabble youth, he said, gave him empathy for the poor and less fortunate that marks him to this day.
After spending most of World War II in the service making maps, he returned home with the expectation of going to college on the GI Bill -- unfortunately the 33 schools to which he applied failed to share his enthusiasm. Devastated but not defeated, he re-enrolled at his high school to take college prep courses and get his grades up. "I was sitting here at this place where I had gone 10 years earlier," he said. "My legs were too big for the desk."
That tenacity paid off. Accepted at Oklahoma A&M, he did well enough to transfer to Stanford the following year. He went on to do graduate work in economics but never completed his thesis, which burned in a freak fire years later.
Sheinbaum's move to the far left occurred in the 1960s as his disgust with the Vietnam War mounted. He led teach-ins, participated in demonstrations and served as a California delegate for peacenik Eugene McCarthy and twice unsuccessfully ran for Congress on an anti-war platform. That anti-war activism led Sheinbaum to help assemble a team of attorneys for Ellsberg, which successfully fought charges against the former Pentagon official who leaked classified material to the press.
Not all of Sheinbaum's activism had such unambiguous outcomes. Some of his highest profile adventures produced decidedly mixed results.
As president of the Los Angeles Police Commission, Sheinbaum led the fight to force Gates from office after the videotaped beating of African American motorist and paroled armed robber Rodney King by a group white police officers. With the LAPD's reputation in tatters, Gates, under growing pressure from Sheinbaum and fellow commissioners, reluctantly resigned.
But Sheinbaum's reputation took a hit when the ACLU, an organization closely associated with him, published a newspaper ad in the early 1990s comparing the Police Department to a street gang. And his unstinting support for Willie L. Williams -- whom Sheinbaum called "the best" at the time of his appointment as Gates' successor -- could be seen, in retrospect, as misguided. The LAPD's first black police chief proved so ineffective that he lasted slightly more than five years, although Sheinbaum blamed departmental racism and hostility from the rank-and-file officers for Williams' difficulties.
If Sheinbaum overestimated Williams' ability to reform and lead the LAPD, then he vastly underestimated Arafat's willingness to transform himself from a terrorist into an agent of peace, critics say.
In their view, Sheinbaum naively rehabilitated the president of the Palestinian Authority by leading in 1988 a delegation of American Jews that "persuaded" Arafat to recognize Israel's right to exist and renounce terror. Arafat's promises, which many now think were insincere in light of the failed Oslo peace accords and the proliferation of suicide bombers affiliated with his Fatah group, helped earn him the Nobel Peace Prize.
Daniel Pipes, director of the Middle East Forum in Philadelphia, said Sheinbaum's delegation exhibited poor judgment by thinking Arafat wanted anything less than Israel's destruction.
"How desperate these fools were to have the wool pulled over their eyes," Pipes said. "They begged Arafat to trump them and take advantage of them, and he did."
Even television producer Lear, Sheinbaum's close friend, said he thought Arafat had failed Sheinbaum.
But Sheinbaum hasn't given up on Arafat, whom he still calls a friend. He said he doesn't think Arafat is a terrorist, although a few Palestinians are. Sheinbaum said Arafat was a man of peace when they first met 16 years ago, but ran into opposition from all sides -- the Americans, Israelis and the Palestinians. He said Israeli and Palestinian intransigence derailed the process, and that the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin buried it.
The failure of real peace to break out in the region has devastated Sheinbaum. With Arafat and his nemesis Ariel Sharon locked in a never-ending battle of words and wills, the outlook remains dim, he said.
Sheinbaum makes no apologies for trying to broker a peace, even if his efforts have largely come to naught. He said he paid a high price for his activism, including being shunned for years by some in the local community and having a skinned pig tossed onto his driveway. Still, he said he would continue to hope, pray and fight for peace in the Middle East. As a Jew, it's his duty.
"These are my people," he said. "I'm not going to walk away."
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JewishJournal.com is produced by TRIBE Media Corp., a non-profit media company whose mission is to inform, connect and enlighten community