My Hell of a Home Town (Spectator, 10 Aug 1996)

MY HELL OF A HOME TOWN

Margot Sheehan feels she can tell the truth about the city where the Republicans are convening. She comes from there

THE REPUBLICAN National Convention will descend on San Diego, California, next week. A political convention starring Bob Dole will make for some very slow news days, I expect. So the press corps will need local colour by the bucketful. This means the full Chamber of Commerce treatment: sunny beaches and clear blue waterways; a balmy 68F all year round (so much pleasanter than Atlanta of the Olympic heatstrokes); surfing, sailing, Sea World; and of course the world-famous San Diego Zoo.

San Diegan civic leaders are a complacent bunch, deeply proud that the rest of the world, or at least a good part of Los Angeles, wishes it could live in San Diego. In case you miss the point, the official nickname is ‘America’s Finest City’. With a little more attitude and wit it might have called itself ‘Apathy Capital of the West’.

Dago (as the second world war marines referred to it, unaffectionately) is the dead end of America, where your dreams go up the spout and nothing much else ever hap- pens. ‘Dead end’ here is more than just figurative. San Diego — it’s my home town [author’s note: not really; this was Frank Johnson’s interpolation]— is the terminus of the major freeways east-west as well as north-south — and is hemmed in all around, mountains and deserts to one side, the Pacific Ocean to the other and a squalid stretch of Mexican borderland down below. Lively Los Angeles, a two-hour drive to the north, is kept at bay by Camp Pendleton, a huge empty rancho appropriated by the US Marine Corps since 1942.

Living in a cul-de-sac has its advantages — wonderful second-hand book- and antique shops, for example — because people move here, then dump their belongings when they leave or die. The location is heaven for reclusive `celebs’, particularly the sort of second-tier American have-beens who end up on the Independent’s obit page. No stalkers, fan clubs or paparazzi in San Diego. That stuff takes too much effort.

But for the working population, it’s a nasty town with an all-pervasive atmosphere of uncertainty. If you lose your job in Dago, you will probably have to move house to get another one. The cost of buy- ing a home is among the highest in the nation and pay among the lowest. This economic imbalance is what you get when you have vast numbers of wealthy retirees and low-wage aliens living in the same region. Local boosters take the smug attitude that the setting makes it all worth- while. Better to work a low-wage service job in heaven than to reign in hell.

Unemployed accountant: ‘$30,000 a year? I could make three times that in LA!’

Prospective employer: ‘Yuck. Who wants to live in LA?’

San Diego businesses have a peculiar custom. They will frequently hire a manag- er from across the country, pay his house- moving expenses and then fire him after a month or so, leaving him the choice of struggling on in the earthly paradise or paying his own way back. I have asked sev- eral executives why this sort of thing goes on. ‘Oh, we have al-will employment here in California,’ comes the mystifying reply.

Sometimes the termination is more extreme. In one instance, an employer involved in something other than normal business not only left the employee with- out removal funds, it sent a hit squad to murder him, his wife and his three chil- dren, and made it all look like a murder- suicide. The employee in this instance was one Ian Spiro, a Jewish boy from Golders Green, who grew up to become go- between in the 1980s Middle East hostage negotiations. At various times Spiro worked for MI6, Mossad and the CIA. In early 1991, his controllers encouraged him to move from Europe to southern Califor- nia, where the US defence and high-tech industries are thick with disused spies. Eighteen months later, Spiro’s wife and children were found dead, shot in their home at point-blank range. Spiro’s corpse turned up in the desert a few days later, poisoned with cyanide. The Spiros’ rela- tives say that the intelligence agencies cut him off from financial support and then eliminated him because he knew too much. The official FBI story, duly repeated and endorsed in the San Diego press, is that Ian Spiro’s money problems drove him bonkers.

San Diegans sneer at Los Angeles, 120 miles to the north, much as proper Bostoni- ans used to regard New York City as uncouth and arriviste. In response, Ange- lenos mock San Diego for being a backwater and a company town. Fair enough: half the jobs are either in the armed forces or with defence contractors. The city boasts the headquarters of only two well-known publicly traded companies. One is WD-40, the industrial lubricant. The other is Foodmaker, which runs a fast-food chain called Jack In The Box, best known for E Coli laced ham- burgers, which killed half a dozen children in 1994. (Foodmaker promised it would henceforth cook its burgers more thoroughly. The real problem seemed to be too much cow rectum in the beef.) San Diego’s key politicos usually have a Jack In The Box connection. The current mayor, Susan Golding, and her predecessor, Maureen O’Connor, were both wives of convenience to the burger chain’s elderly owners. Mayor Golding, now host to the Republican Convention, was married 12 years ago to Dick Silberman, wheeler-dealer and chief fundraiser for the state Democratic Party. A few years later, Silberman was sent to prison for laundering mobsters’ cocaine money.

This made for some serious public relations problems when Susan Golding ran for mayor in 1992. Besides the jailbird hus- band, there was the cocaine motif, remind- ing people of old stories about her fondness for the stuff. But Susan came through like a trouper. She divorced Dick and played the martyr. Her campaign put out flyers emblazoned with a dictionary definition of courage, next to a photo of dewy-eyed Susan Golding, her double chins held high. She narrowly won the election, thanks in part to the backing of Helen Copley, publisher of San Diego’s last remaining daily newspaper, the Union-Tribune. Sympathy may have been at work here. Dick Silberman had romanced old Mrs Copley for a while in the early 1980s, before he dumped her for Susan.

Helen Copley’s own story is a delightful, picaresque one. She arrived in San Diego from the Midwest during the second world war and worked in a war factory. By the mid-1950s she was secretary to Jim, sickly adopted son of ‘Col.’ Ira Copley, a utilities and press magnate. Jim married Helen and eventually passed on, leaving the whole works to this ex-secretary and David, her son from a previous liaison. David is now in his 40s, a flamboyant, convivial lad of 30 stone who cherishes the memory of Car- men Miranda and lives in a decorated beach-house called Casa de Bananas.

Neither Helen nor David has shown any particular interest in journalism, and they leave day-to-day operations to the PR men who traditionally run the Copley papers. For years, their managing executive was Richard Nixon’s old press flack, Herb Klein. The San Diego Union-Tribune, the Copley flagship, is filled mostly with wire-service copy, bland syndicated columns and chat about the local rotarians: a small-town paper for a small town. Yet, astonishingly, San Diego is the sixth largest city in America.