The death of an idealist
This article appeared in The Sacramento Bee on Oct. 1, 1988, as well as in the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner on Nov. 13, 1988.
As dusk neared, the sun sent crazy orange streamers skipping across the surf. Two skateboarders snaked by on the pavement, a Frisbee toss away. A seagull hung in midair, caught in the sea breeze.
A perfect day for a funeral service.
On the Venice beach, 100 people — most in their 30s, some sporting sunglasses —had gathered, settling into the blankets and folding chairs that made a half-circle on the warm sand.
Charles Scott Linderman, 33, was dead, and his family and friends, including former Gov. Jerry Brown and Assemblyman Tom Hayden, were here trying to sort it out.
The autopsy was inconclusive. No one knew what killed Linderman, who was found dead in a hotel room, although foul play was ruled out. And so at the twilight service 10 nights ago, the talk was not of the meaning of his death but of the purpose of his life.
As joggers passed by, friends and relatives, one by one, stood up and exchanged memories of Linderman. Many had worked with him at Campaign California, a grass-roots organization involved in environmental, health and consumer issues.
Hayden, who heads the Santa Monica-based group, rose from the blanket, wiped away tears and cleared his throat. “Chuck was something of a dynamo. He brought a spark, a drive, to everything he did. And he was stubborn — I saw a little of myself in Chuck, and I’m not sure I always liked what I saw.”
Hayden ticked off the accomplishments that Linderman had a hand in: He spent much of spring 1988 working for the citizens’ initiative to close the Rancho Seco nuclear reactor, and may have been pivotal in the measure’s eventual passage this year. (As one of the nation’s top experts on the Fairness Doctrine, Linderman browbeat Sacramento’s TV and radio stations into providing $130,000 in free air time to the anti-Seco forces.)
He also played a key role in getting Proposition 65, the toxics/clean water initiative, onto the ballot in 1986, and in getting equal time for health groups in favor of Proposition 99, the 1988 tobacco-tax initiative. And as deputy field director for Jerry Brown’s campaign for state Democratic Party chairman, “Chuck played a central role in returning Jerry Brown to a position at the forefront of California politics,” Hayden said.
Linderman’s plunge into political activism did not look so auspicious at the outset. Jeff Hill, who first hired Linderman, stood and told the crowd of the day in December 1985 that Chuck spotted a small ad in The Sacramento Bee, recruiting canvassers for Campaign for Economic Democracy, the forerunner of Campaign California.
“I’ll never forget the first time he went out canvassing,” Hill said. “Chuck came back after a few hours in the soaking rain, hands outstretched, holding four dollars and change” — here he gestured theatrically — “and, like an earnest Oliver Twist, said, ‘Please, can I have the job?’ ”
Within a year, Linderman had become the group’s best canvasser in Northern California.
Hill returned to his seat, and my mind flashed to a story Chuck told me of the time he was canvassing in Lodi, collecting donations on behalf of Prop. 99. He knocked on one door, gave the owner his pitch and waited as the crusty fellow ducked back inside. The man returned with a shotgun.
“What group did you say you was from?” the man said, cocking the gun.
“That’s that Jane Fonda-Tom Hayden outfit, ain’t it? You got five seconds to get off my property or I’ll blow your liberal hide to kingdom come. One! . . . ”
He didn’t need to count to two.
I DIDN’T REALLY know what to make of Chuck in the two years since we’d become friends. He was an idealist in an age of jaded realists.
But he was no starry-eyed dreamer. He lived on the same indifferent streets as the rest of us. He keenly understood — even reveled in — the machinations of the political process.
But if it was the process that fascinated him, it was the cause that moved him. He set his cynicism aside to embrace ideas like participatory democracy, economic justice, civil and human rights — not as political slogans, but as precepts to live by.
Somehow, he grasped onto the belief that people, as individuals, can make a difference.
Blase Bonpane, director of Office of the Americas, who presided over the service, said this: “Chuck was not a do-nothing moral perfectionist. Chuck found a purpose in life. He had the strength of his convictions.”
The sun had set by the time Jerry Brown stepped forward. “When we live, we have to do something,” Brown said.
“A former history professor of mine described history as just one damn thing after another. Maybe life’s the same way: just one damn thing after another. What are we, after we add it all up?” He paused, as if expecting an answer.
“When you’re in the moment, that’s what life is all about. Chuck lived in the moment.”
A chill had set in by the service’s end. We filed past the stand that held a brass box and water bowl, wetting our fingers and dabbing at the ashes of Chuck’s remains. Then we walked down the foamy beach and let the droplets fall from our hands into the sea.