READ IT AND WEEP: No media allowed. I didn’t like it. But I got it. Political fundraising, after all, is a lot like masturbation. By that I mean it’s best done in private and absolutely not in front of the press. So when former president Bill Clinton rolled into town this week for a big-ticket flesh-press at the Hope Ranch manse of former county supervisor Susan Rose, I presumed I would not be welcome. Who would want to be seen shelling out $2,700 just to have one’s photo taken with a former president? But when I was likewise informed no media would be allowed at Clinton’s meet ’n’ greet with a list of “community leaders” — culled and curated by dynastic Democratic dynamo Laura Burton Capps — at the Canary Hotel in downtown Santa Barbara, my angry leg syndrome kicked into overdrive.
To be truthful, I didn’t really care. But I felt duty bound to at least act as if I did. Don’t get me wrong; I’d have loved to see Clinton. Yeah, I know his bill deregulating the finance industry greased the slippery slope that led to the Great Collapse. And who can forget how his omnibus crime bill contributed to our monstrous prison-industrial complex? On the flip side, how many ex-presidents ever could hope to riff with Clinton’s omnivorous knowledge and enthusiasm about such saxophone colossuses as John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy, and Ornette Coleman? How many ex-presidents know anything about Sun Ra and his Intergalactic Arkestra? (Imagine Duke Ellington abducted by space aliens, and you’re in the ballpark.) Or who can speak with authority about Sleepy LaBeef, the onetime rockabilly legend from Smackover, Arkansas? The answer to all these questions can be answered with just one finger. Clinton, it turns out, only decided to become president after concluding he’d never play sax half as good as these guys. In other words, the White House was his Plan B.
When I showed up at the Canary, a security dude sporting the bald, bad, and bearded look so de rigueur among insecure macho types notified members of media assembled under the Canary’s porte cochere that we were trespassing on private property and needed to vacate posthaste, ipso facto, pronto tonto. Maybe this was his version of a “command and control” voice. When the choir of black-suited security personnel by the entrance became otherwise occupied whispering sweet nothings into their lapels, I slipped in the front door and headed for the basement ballroom. Sensing a presence behind me, I ducked into the men’s room. The presence followed me in but maintained a discreet professional distance. When I concluded my facilitations, the presence politely inquired whether I was a guest. When I answered in the negative, he informed me — again most graciously — I should be someplace else. Conspicuously, he was neither bald nor bearded. It turns out he was part of the McGrew clan — which, like the Clintons and the Capps, ranks as yet another political dynasty of note and influence — whose footprints and fingerprints remain all over the city’s police and fire departments.
Political relations between the Clintons and Santa Barbara go way back, and by any definition, they qualify as wrought and fraught. Bill Clinton started hanging out in town back in 1992, famously playing sax at the Nugget in Summerland. In 1994, Hillary Clinton did a Miramar fundraiser for Walter Capps, then a beloved UCSB professor waging a whimsically quixotic Mr. Smith Goes to Washington campaign against Republican Andrea Seastrand, the religiously devout right-wing whack job who blamed Santa Barbara’s floods, fires, earthquakes, droughts, and mudslides on feminism and its mystical corollary, Wicca. Capps lost that one but came back for a rematch two years later. Right before the second election, President Bill Clinton — then cakewalking to reelection — was persuaded to drop everything and hold an outdoor Capps campaign rally on the Santa Barbara City College campus. Accounts vary as to who did the persuading, but all sides agreed 20,000 people showed up. Attendance was free, but tickets were required. To get a ticket, one had to give political organizers all pertinent contact info. This proved invaluable to the Democrats’ last-minute get-out-the-vote frenzy. Capps won by 12,000 votes. Without Clinton and the City College rally, it’s questionable that Capps ever beats Seastrand. Without Clinton, there’s certainly no Capps dynasty, and maybe Santa Barbara is represented by Republicans in Congress as it had been for the previous 50 years.
As everyone knows, Walter died of a heart attack after serving nine months, leaving it to his wife, Lois — the quietly steely school nurse — to take over for the next 18 years. Without Clinton, Capps’s then 22-year-old daughter, Laura, doesn’t land a job in the White House with presidential adviser George Stephanopoulos and probably doesn’t go on to marry Bill Burton, spin-meister and political trench warrior for a guy named Barack Obama. When it came time for Capps to endorse for the 2008 presidential nomination, blood trumped politics, and Capps lined up behind Obama. It was the right call. But anyone can understand why Hillary Clinton put Capps’s name on her Excel spreadsheet of a hit list afterward, ranking betrayals on a scale of 1 to 7. In that context, it’s easy to understand how Bill Clinton — who’d worked so hard for the Capps family — might have regarded Lois as an 8.
But that was then. This is now. And “now” is beyond belief. This week, Republican front-runner Donald Trump is threatening to “spill the beans” on the wife of his rival Ted Cruz, assuming — not unreasonably — Cruz authorized the hit piece just sent to Mormon households showing a photo of Trump’s former-super-model wife — wearing nothing but jewelry and handcuffs — taken 15 years ago. Even the mafia leaves spouses alone. And it will only get worse. Hillary, Bernie: Welcome to Santa Barbara. Drink our wine. Pick our pockets. And give my love to Onan