Alan Cranston, Former U.S. Senator, Is Dead at 86

January 1, 2001


Former Senator Alan Cranston of California, who balanced the roles of crusader and behind-the-scenes deal- maker during a long political career until he was brought down by the savings and loan scandal of the late 1980's, died yesterday at the age of 86.

Mr. Cranston, a Democrat who served in the senate for 24 years and ran for president in 1984, died at his home in Los Altos Hills, Calif., not far from where he was born, said his son, Kim. Although Mr. Cranston had prostate cancer in the early 1990's, Kim Cranston said he had conquered the cancer and died of natural causes unrelated to it.

He had left the Senate in 1993 and since then founded and helped run a nonprofit group, the Global Security Institute, which seeks to abolish nuclear weapons.

During his four terms in the Senate, Mr. Cranston spent 14 years as the Democratic whip and was as tireless at rounding up votes as he was in pushing to end the Vietnam War and control nuclear arms.

But in the late 1980's, Senator Cranston, always a prodigious fund- raiser, raised $1 million from a constituent, Charles H. Keating Jr., at the same time Mr. Cranston was intervening with federal regulators to save Mr. Keating's Lincoln Federal Savings and Loan Association from collapse. In 1991, the Senate ethics committee formally rebuked Mr. Cranston's behavior as "improper and repugnant."

While Mr. Cranston cited his battle with prostate cancer as the reason he decided not to run for a fifth term in 1992, the savings and loan debacle had badly damaged his credibility and popularity.

Alan MacGregor Cranston was born on June 19, 1914, in Palo Alto, Calif., the son and grandson of successful real estate developers. He studied journalism at Stanford University and received his bachelor's degree in 1936. He was also on the nation's fastest quarter-mile sprint relay team in college and was a competitive runner for most of his life. At one point, he held the world record for the 100-yard dash among 55-year-olds.

After college, Mr. Cranston found work as a foreign correspondent, a job he said he felt drawn to because he wanted to warn the American people about the rise of fascism. He traveled Europe and North Africa, covering Mussolini and Hitler and Ethiopia for the International News Service, but found himself frustrated with his role as a journalist, he recalled in an interview last year.

"I became very concerned about American isolationism, the fact that there were many Americans wanting to have nothing to do with what was happening in the rest of the world," he said. "I didn't want to spend my life writing about such evil people and their terrible deeds; I'd rather be involved in the action."

When he returned to the United States, he saw a translation of Hitler's "Mein Kampf" for sale and, having read the original, recognized that it had been watered down to make it less worrisome to Americans, he said. So he quickly brought out an unauthorized, fuller translation and sold half a million copies of it for 10 cents apiece until the Third Reich sued him for copyright violation.

Around 1940, he married Geneva McMath. They had two sons, Robin, who was killed in a car accident in 1980, and Kim. Mr. Cranston's marriage to Geneva ended in divorce, as did a second marriage to the former Norma Weintraub. Mr. Cranston is also survived by an older sister, R. E. Cameron, and a granddaughter.

In the wake of World War II, Mr. Cranston became a strong advocate for world government. In 1945, he published a book, "The Killing of The Peace," about how the League of Nations had been defeated in the United States Senate.

In 1947, he took over his father's real estate firm in Palo Alto.

In the 1950's, he entered elective politics and was California's state controller from 1959 to 1967. In 1968, he won his first of four Senate terms, and served on the Banking, Housing, Urban Affairs and Foreign Relations Committees. As Democratic whip, he prided himself on his ability to count votes before they had been cast.

A profile of Mr. Cranston in The New York Times described him at the height of his powers: "He was lionized by liberals for calling for a nuclear freeze while satisfying military contractors as a champion of the B-1 bomber, and a hero to good government groups for pushing campaign reform while boasting of his reputation as the Congress's most hardball fund-raiser."

In 1983, Mr. Cranston launched a long-shot bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. A bald, craggy-looking, none-too-charismatic man, he tried to turn his plainness into a political asset.

"The Cranston presidency," he said in a campaign commercial, "will have two clear purposes - ending the arms race and full employment - because that's how you beat Ronald Reagan even if you're bald."

But his campaign never caught on with the voters, who apparently found Walter Mondale a more compelling candidate.

In 1986, at age 72, Mr. Cranston beat back a challenge from a member of his own state delegation, former Representative Ed Zschau, by only three percentage points, leading some observers to wonder if his political career was in its twilight.

Then came the savings and loan debacle and Mr. Cranston's unwanted starring role as the most prominent of the "Keating Five," five senators who had had extensive dealings with Mr. Keating.

In 1990, Mr. Cranston said his involvement with Mr. Keating was "politically stupid and unwise," but he insisted that he had done nothing improper in exchange for the political contributions.

Mr. Cranston seemed embittered by the experience. "My words and deeds show that I am a reformer on many fronts," he said in 1990. "Then this thing blows up, and it doesn't matter what I did."

After he was formally rebuked by the ethics panel in 1991, Mr. Cranston delivered a half-hour speech, largely in his own defense.

"You are in jeopardy if you ever do anything at any time to help a contributor," he warned his colleagues, "no matter how worthy the cause, no matter how proper the need for help and no matter how proper the help you render."

Last April, Mr. Cranston summed up his public life in an interview at the University of California at Berkeley, that referred glancingly to some of the lessons he had learned from the savings and loan scandal.

"I'm an abolitionist on two fronts," he said. " I believe we have to abolish nuclear weapons before they abolish us, and I think we have to eliminate the incredibly important and significant role of money in politics before we're going to have our democracy working as it should work.

"These two issues, in a sense, overwhelm all others. If we blow ourselves up on in a nuclear war, not other issue, no matter how important it may seem to be, is going to matter. And until we get money out of politics, money is going to affect every issue that comes along, often adversely to the interests of the public. So let's abolish both."


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