California Forum

‘No one sees the magic, Bob, but the magician’: George Deukmejian, a not-so-Iron Duke

Gov. George Deukmejian talks with reporters at his office in the Capitol in 1987 in Sacramento. The two-term California governor, whose anti-spending credo earned him the nickname “The Iron Duke,” died Tuesday, May 8, 2018, of natural causes, a former chief of staff said. He was 89. (AP Photo/Walt Zeboski, File)
Gov. George Deukmejian talks with reporters at his office in the Capitol in 1987 in Sacramento. The two-term California governor, whose anti-spending credo earned him the nickname “The Iron Duke,” died Tuesday, May 8, 2018, of natural causes, a former chief of staff said. He was 89. (AP Photo/Walt Zeboski, File)

Quietly watching the 1,000 or so inmates milling around, he stood in the corner of the Super Max prison yard – the governor of California.

He was, of course, well protected, and the inmates were kept at a distance. “They’re all LWOPs, Governor,” I said, or life without parole.

George Deukmejian shook his head, looked at the ground in Tehachapi, and said something softly. I had to lean in – he was mostly talking to himself. “So many wasted lives,” he was saying. “So many wasted lives.”

Deukmejian was the 35th governor, 1982-1990. He was a thoughtful, principled and determined man who could strike a compromise. He had a surprisingly puckish sense of humor, never forgot his Armenian heritage and could be…um…stubborn.

I was privileged to be his press secretary for the last 18 months of his second term, after serving him in the Department of Corrections and Caltrans, and as a campaign aide. He was a modest man who did not like entourages – there were few senior staff around him.

He had at the time one of the most recognizable faces in politics. Terrorists and others knew him. We saw the death threats.

Yet this was a governor who would send his protective detail members home to their families on the weekends, living mostly unprotected in Carmichael. He knew they had families.

Painting him as the “Iron Duke” is far too simplistic. Consider these observations from up close:

  • When it appeared there would be an execution, Mother Theresa called. By pre-arrangement, I answered, confirmed the conversation that was about to happen and handed the phone over to the governor. He said hello and listened. He motioned for me to leave the private office. About 10 minutes later, he opened the door. There was a Bible open on his desk. He said no more.
  • He actually used a curse word once. A state senator looked him the eye, shook his hand and then a few hours later went back on the deal they’d struck, voting the way the senator promised he would not. When you double-cross a governor, the governor does not forgive; when you double-cross an Armenian, your act is never forgotten. Deukmejian, when I told him of the vote, pursed his lips and used the word “hell” in reference to the senator. Which is where all of the senator’s bills went for the rest of the session, vetoed.
  • Even the White House could not manage an Armenian. Russia, at the time, was standing by as unrest shook Deukmejian’s ancestral homeland. Mikhail Gorbachev, then head of the Soviet Union, was visiting the Russian Consulate in San Francisco, and the governor of California scheduled a visit to say hello. He also went to hand Gorbachev a personal note, asking him to intervene in Armenia. The White House asked him to not do that. He later handed the note toward Gorbachev, but a military attaché stepped forward and took the envelope.
  • A few days ago, Gov. Jerry Brown recognized fallen law enforcement officers at the annual memorial observance, across from the Capitol. In his own last year as governor, Deukmejian dedicated that memorial. There were several families of slain officers in the front row of the audience. He walked over and began to speak to the parents and children. The Iron Duke made it to the third family and could no longer speak. He was overcome and tears ran down his cheeks. I took his arm and we walked to the car.

About that sense of humor, one last tale. We were flying in a small plane to a speaking appearance in Fresno. He took out his index cards of text, and frowned. He turned the cards over and methodically rewrote the entire speech with his pen. George Deukmejian was, after all, a master politician who knew his audiences.

The crowd ate it up. It was a late evening. As we approached the car, he waved me to the back seat with him – he usually preferred his solitude, but he was clearly upbeat that night. I congratulated him on rewriting and delivering a stem-winder.

He got that impish grin few got to see and said, “No one sees the magic, Bob, but the magician.”

Robert J. Gore is a former press secretary to Gov. George Deukmejian, and a current senior adviser at The Gualco Group, a lobbying and consulting firm in Sacramento. Reach him at Bob_Gore@gualcogroup.com.

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