Politics 2003Week of July 21


Wednesday, Oct.13, 1982: “Mommy! It’s Barnaby Jones!” exclaimed the excited youngster at National Airport, as he spotted the familiar-looking gangly man with a head of white hair walking toward the exit. A lot of heads turned that evening when they saw Buddy Ebsen, better known to two generations of television viewers as “Georgi” (sidekick of Davey Crockett), “Jed Clampett” of the Beverly Hillbillies, and, most recently, as TV detective Jones. But when Ebsen arrived in the nation’s capital accompanied by Republican U.S. House nominee and fellow Californian Johnnie Crean, he was doing a chore outside his showbusiness persona but one he had long performed-helping a fellow conservative who was under political fire. Crean had won a crowded and fractious primary for an open congressional district and, a number of the runners-up-angry at what they considered a mean-spirited race by a young upstart-had not only refused to endorse him but were organizing a write-in campaign on behalf of another GOP hopeful.

Ebsen, who had campaigned hard for recreational vehicle manufacturer Crean before the primary, had now arrived in Washington to assuage the worries about his friend held by political action committees and potential donors. Arriving at a reception of PAC leaders at the Capitol Hill Club in Washington, Ebsen promptly worked the crowd and hailed the GOP nominee. In an address meshing humor and a strong conservative message, Ebsen recalled his many years on the campaign trail for fellow Republicans and likened Crean to other friends for whom he had stumped-“like Ike and Dick, and Ronnie Reagan.” Ebsen then left the reception and caught the red-eye flight back to the West Coast. (Ebsen’s efforts were in vain; Ron Packard, who was the second-place finisher to Crean in the primary, was elected as a write-in candidate and served until 2000.)

When Ebsen died on July 6 at age 95, he was praised in the national media as a star of television and motion pictures, as well as a dancer, best-selling author, painter, and sailor. But there was another side to this versatile man that most of the press overlooked-his activity as an unabashed conservative Republican. Indeed, when friends Reagan and Charlton Heston were still registered Democrats, Ebsen was already on the “rubber chicken circuit” for the GOP. When friend and fellow hoofer George Murphy ran successfully for the U.S. Senate from California in 1964, Ebsen campaigned vigorously for him. Two years later, when Reagan ran for governor, Ebsen would often warm up audiences at rallies before introducing the candidate; in response to insinuations from Democratic Gov. (1958-66) Edmund G. (Pat) Brown that the Republican hopeful was unqualified for office because he was an actor, Ebsen would bring down the house by declaring: “Better an actor as governor than a clown!”

In 1984, when Beverly Hillbillies co-star Nancy Kulp was the Democratic nominee against then-Rep. (1984-2001) Bud Shuster (R.-Pa.), Ebsen sought out the incumbent and offered his support. He then cut a hard-hitting radio spot for Shuster that spawned much local and national publicity.

Orange County (Calif.) Republican Chairman Tom Fuentes, a longtime political ally and personal friend of Ebsen, recalled how he first met the entertainer at a Republican luncheon at the Newporter Inn in Newport Beach, Calif., in the early 1970s. “I was in my early twenties and, while I forget exactly how it happened, I found myself at the head table with Buddy and John Wayne,” Fuentes told me, “Buddy didn’t know me, but I found him to be gracious and a very encouraging mentor. I later found that he treated everyone that way.” The chairman pointed out that the former TV and movie star would always make himself available as a campaigner and also noted that Ebsen never failed to show up at the annual July 4 birthday bash for John Crean Sr. father of the former congressional candidate and the largest single donor to the Orange County Republican Party. “When Buddy didn’t show up this year, I knew something was amiss,” said Fuentes. Two days later, Ebsen was gone.


In two widely separated U.S. House districts, speculation was rampant in the last two weeks that the incumbent members of Congress were about to quit to take lucrative public sector jobs. So believable were the stories that would-be replacements had commenced calling for support in probable special elections. But in both cases, the speculation and maneuvering were for nothing. Republican Representatives Chip Pickering (Miss.) and Mary Bono (Calif.) are apparently staying put.

Less than three weeks ago, Pickering (lifetime American Conservative Union rating: 96%) floored fellow Republicans in the Magnolia State by publicly stating he was considering resigning from the 3rd District seat he had been re-elected to only seven months before. The reason, four-termer Pickering explained, was that he was being considered for a $1-million-a-year-plus-generous expenses lobbying job with the telecommunications industry. With five young sons and a big mortgage, the congressman was clearly attracted by the prospect of a job that paid nearly ten times the annual congressional salary.

“Why didn’t he figure all that all out last year, before we raised $2.5 million for him to be re-elected?” fumed one prominent Jackson (Miss.) Republican, adding that they had helped Pickering hold the reapportioned district over Democratic Rep. Ronnie Shows (1998-2002). (Early this month Shows told reporters that he would definitely run in a special election if Pickering resigned.) Echoed the Natchez (Miss.) Democrat: “When Pickering was elected to office, he signed a contract with the people of Mississippi to serve them for two more years. We hope to see the remaining one and a half.”

After 10 days of speculation over what Pickering might do, the congressman announced that, after prayer and conferences with his family, he was taking himself out of consideration for the lobbying job and would stay in office.

In California, rumors had Bono (lifetime ACU rating: 77%) leaving Congress to take another vacant, well-paying job: head of the Recording Industry Association of America that she seemed a natural for-if for no other reason than that she is the widow of the late Rep. (1994-98) and singer-composer Sonny Bono (R.-Calif.).

Beginning with a mention of her in Billboard Magazine as a possibility to fill the job, speculation mounted in the press that Mary (who remarried last year) would leave Congress to take what is considered the most glamorous entertainment trade association position after Jack Valenti’s job as Motion Picture Association chief.

But none of those doing the speculating had bothered to contact the Palm Springs area congresswoman herself. As Bono press secretary Frank Cullen told me last week: “She has not had any discussion about the job, has never had the opportunity to comment about the speculation herself, has not been interviewed, and has not pursued it in any way.” And, Cullen added, “she is fully committed to running for re-election next year.”