Marcos Bretón

Opinion: The greatest Sacramentan you’ve never heard of

John E. Moss served 13 terms in the House of Representatives from 1953 until he retired in 1978. He died 17 years ago this month.
John E. Moss served 13 terms in the House of Representatives from 1953 until he retired in 1978. He died 17 years ago this month. U.S. Congress

His name is on the federal building downtown, but John Moss doesn’t come close to getting his due here in his hometown – not by a long shot.

All week I’ve been asking smart people in Sacramento: “Who was John Moss?”

The question too often inspires blank stares or silence in telephone conversations. Some would say “Oh yeah” and recall the John Moss Federal Building at 650 Capitol Mall.

But what of the man? What did he do to get a building named after him?

John Emerson Moss is an unheralded giant in the capital of California. He was a self-made man whose formal education ended after only one academic year at Sacramento City College. Yet Moss would represent Sacramento in Congress for 25 years – a career marked by one of the most noteworthy legislative records of the second half of the 20th century.

Moss was the author and champion of the federal Freedom of Information Act, which gave any American the right to access federal records once routinely sealed by the most powerful forces in the American government.

Because of Moss, there is the Consumer Product Safety Commission. He played a major role in enacting the Toy Safety Act, the Poison Package Control Act, the Federal Privacy Act. He was chief sponsor of the Clean Air Act. Moss was one of the first voices in government to come out against the Vietnam War, a position that put him squarely at odds with President Lyndon Johnson – one of the most politically powerful and vindictive men to occupy the Oval Office.

A Democrat like Johnson, Moss’ opposition to Vietnam and his dogged pursuit of FOIA cost him what many politicians crave most – power. Moss never ascended to the highest ranks of leadership in the House of Representatives. He was never awarded the chairmanship of a congressional committee in all his years in Congress from 1953 to 1978 – some of the most tumultuous in the history of the United States.

Yet the graduate of Sacramento High School operated as if he had the power that was denied him – a valuable example that could be followed by another Sacramento High School alum of some repute: Mayor Kevin Johnson.

In his day, Moss stood tall while refusing to back down.

“Too many people want to be popular around here,” Moss once said when assessing how Congress worked. “I don’t really give a damn. If it’s the right vote, it will become popular.”

The years have shown that Moss was on the right side of history on some of the most important issues facing America in the 1960s and 1970s.

Who was the first congressman to suggest impeaching President Richard Nixon? Who fought hard for the Civil Rights Act? Who took on the oil and gas interests long before that industry grew unpopular? Who co-authored the first automobile lemon law? Who took on unfair trading practices on Wall Street decades before Wall Street abuses hastened a crash in the American economy in 2008?

John Moss did.

“He was out there fighting for all the things that affect regular people,” said Rep. Doris Matsui, who succeeded her late husband, Robert Matsui – who succeeded Moss.

“He laid the groundwork for a lot of things we take for granted today.”

It’s very true that Sacramento takes Moss for granted today. Aside from the federal building, there is nothing to commemorate his brief time at Sacramento City College – though he is one of the school’s most distinguished alumni. What there is speaks to the essence of Moss. The Sacramento Junior College yearbook of 1932-33 has a brief record of Moss performing as an understudy in a campus play. Other students played the lead parts. Moss toiled in the background.

Moss was a true “citizen politician” who didn’t have a family name or wealth or powerful patrons. He worked in sales as a young man. He sold real estate. He served in the Navy. He got involved in Democratic Party politics and worked his way up – first as an assemblyman and then in Congress.

His fight for the federal Freedom of Information Act may be his crowning achievement. Moss worked for more than a decade to force the government to be more transparent. He got nowhere in the 1950s, when a Republican – Dwight Eisenhower – was in the White House. Even when his own party took the Oval Office, Moss kept pushing, convening hearings. Before FOIA, the federal government routinely shielded its documents from the public.

“They withheld anything they didn’t want the public to see,” said George Kennedy, professor emeritus of the Missouri School of Journalism. Privately, President Johnson was against the idea of opening federal records to the public and he fought Moss behind closed doors. Moss prevailed when Johnson bowed to pressure from newspaper editors and a growing mistrust of government. He signed FOIA into law the week of July 4, 1966.

It was a momentous event that aids millions of Americans each year. According to the National Security Archive, the U.S. government answers 4 million FOIA requests a year – most from veterans and senior citizens “seeking information about their benefits and service records.” Generations of journalists also owe Moss a debt of thanks.

But there is no film of Moss standing behind Johnson as he signed FOIA into law because a grudging Johnson refused to have a public signing ceremony to mark the event.

It was typical of Moss’ life and career – he fought the good fight for a principle and without proper accolades.

His hometown needs to remedy the oversight.

It’s past time that the city of Sacramento properly commemorated one of its most consequential native sons as Moss’ 100th birthday approaches on April 13. Moss went to Sacramento public schools. When he was in town, he lived quietly with his wife and two daughters in a little house at 3070 Land Park Drive.

He was more than just a name on a building. John Moss was a hero of our community, and he should be remembered that way.

Call The Bee’s Marcos Breton, (916) 321-1096.