Warren Christopher: A powerful and quiet player in LA

Former US Secretary of State Warren Christopher, member of the National War Powers Commission delivers remarks during a press conference on July 8, 2008 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.
Former US Secretary of State Warren Christopher, member of the National War Powers Commission delivers remarks during a press conference on July 8, 2008 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.
Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty Images

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When former United States Secretary of State Warren Christopher died last week, most people focused on his foreign policy accomplishments: He secured freedom for the American hostages in Iran in 1980, and helped broker the Bosnian peace deal for the Clinton administration. But Christopher also played a quiet yet crucial role in Los Angeles.

Christopher is best known in LA for his work on the commission that bears his name.

Two decades ago, when LAPD officers beat motorist Rodney King, Mayor Tom Bradley needed somebody to lead an examination of a troubled police department that defied civilian control. The mayor turned to Christopher.

“He had more credibility, he was held in more esteem than any other single individual in Los Angeles for the bulk of my adult lifetime," County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said.Y aroslavksy was a City Councilman at the time.

But LAPD Chief Daryl Gates had chosen his own panel to investigate his department - one that consisted of his allies.

Christopher deftly merged Bradley’s panel with a rival one and surprised many observers by guiding the group to a unanimous call for sweeping reform - and the chief’s resignation.

Attorney John Spiegel, the chief counsel on what became known as the Christopher Commission, said the chairman won the fellow panelists over with the evidence and his demeanor.

“Many people who were that talented, that gifted and ambitious in the sense of wanting to be in the middle of things, have some rough edges to them," Spiegel said. "But Chris was just remarkable the way he was such a thoughtful, considerate, nice person to everybody.”

Christopher’s roots ran deep in LA. He moved to the city with his mother and four siblings in 1939 after his father died. He attended Hollywood High, the University of Redlands and USC, and returned after Stanford Law School to join the influential law firm of O’Melveny and Myers. Eventually he became its chairman.

In 1965, Gov. Pat Brown – the current governor’s father – appointed him to a panel that examined the causes of the Watts riots.

In the early 1990s, John Mack headed the Urban League’s LA chapter. He was a vocal police critic when Christopher examined the Rodney King beating.

“First of all, the thing that became so obvious, he had no personal agenda," Mack said. "He was a very humble man."

Some have said that Christopher-the-diplomat was a master tactician, but a man with no world view.

Mack, who worked with Christopher on several initiatives and became president of the Police Commission, regards him differently in LA.

“He was a progressive, visionary leader, make no mistake about it. He was clearly on the progressive side," Mack said.

Christopher simply went about his work quietly and cooperatively, Mack said. "He was a bridge builder, not a bomb thrower.”

The low-key Christopher mostly worked behind the scenes. Yaroslavsky recalls a meeting on reforming county government with the Civic Alliance, a group of leaders of which Christopher was a member.

“Christopher never said a word," Yaroslavsky said. "At the end of the meeting, he offered a couple of brief sentences and summed it up better than anybody, and kind of gave us our marching orders going forward."

"It was an amazing performance.”

Christopher offered advice to an array of LA political and business leaders, when he wasn’t globetrotting for the US government, O'Melveny law partner Joe Calabrese said.

“Chris just had great judgment and that was accumulated over many years," he said. "He also had an ability to be better prepared than just about anybody in the room on just about any topic.”

Calabrese, who called Christopher a “phenomenal listener," also remembers a caution from the very discreet counselor.

Christopher told Calabrese that whenever you are speaking in public, you should be careful with your words.

"And public to him was whenever he was not the only person in the room," he said.

When he did show up in public, Christopher impressed others with his sartorial flair: He fancied pocket squares crisply folded in the jackets of his tailored English suits.

“He changed the way I dressed," O'Melveny's Managing Partner Carla Christofferson said.

Beyond her threads, she said, Christopher taught her about the importance of civic engagement.

“He was always talking to me about how to get more involved," she said. "His phrase was, ‘Ya know I know my path isn’t the only path, but what are you going to do?'”

Christofferson did get involved: with Warren Christopher's help. She joined the Library Foundation Board; she owns the LA Sparks Women's Basketball team.

Christofferson said her civic work and that of others he mentored carries on his ethos that people with talent and wealth are obliged to share them.