Living a Life of Purpose
In this week’s blog, former staffer for Leo T. McCarthy, Jason Warburg, recalls his favorite memories with the Lt. Governor and the small moments that reflected his values and love for his work. Read Jason’s piece on Leo as an inspirational leader and learn more about our Center’s namesake.
“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”
— E.L. Hartley
In the midst of the heat and mud and general insanity of the 2020 presidential election, one particular moment from the past replayed in my mind over and over.
Thirty years ago, I was a junior staffer for California Lieutenant Governor Leo McCarthy. The former Speaker of the Assembly was a throwback even back then, an old-school idealist with old-world manners who relished weighty policy discussions almost as much as he did chatting up short order cooks, doormen, cops, and nurses, a family man who went home to San Francisco every night that he possibly could. His belief in the worth and importance of public service was a fundamental part of his character, and he lived his values daily.
In 1990, he won re-election for the second time as Lt. Governor, opposed by Republican State Senator Marian Bergeson. The two were miles apart on many issues and came from vastly different backgrounds; he was an Irish Catholic who did odd jobs in his family’s San Francisco bar growing up, while she was a prim Mormon schoolteacher from the conservative bastion of Orange County, as well as the first woman to serve in both houses of the California Legislature. The common thread between them was that, like Leo, Marian Bergeson was both partisan and principled.
Which brings us to the specific memory I keep returning to. With Election Day weeks in the past, shortly before his January 1991 inauguration Leo spoke with Senator Bergeson and invited her to attend the ceremony. She accepted. Standing on the dais in the California State Senate chamber following his swearing-in, surrounded by an overwhelmingly Democratic audience of family, friends, staff, and colleagues, Leo made it a point in his inaugural remarks to recognize Senator Bergeson, inviting her to stand and then proceeding to lead the crowd—his crowd—in applauding her for her service to the people of California.
A politician, leading his own staff and partisans in a standing ovation for his opponent. In our current toxic political environment, it sounds like fiction, or at the very least like Hartley’s “foreign country.” But it happened; I was there in that crowd on the Senate floor, standing and applauding.
Moments like that were how Leo inspired the people around him—not by exhorting or lecturing, but simply by living his values of respect, honor, compassion, and above all, a sense of purpose. Different people run for office for different reasons; for Leo it was never about power or personal advancement—as the name of his center at the University of San Francisco suggests, it was always about public service, and advancing the common good.
Those values extended to the way he treated his staff. I think it’s fair to say that most of us saw Leo McCarthy as a mentor. In my case, I can report that the five and a half years I spent working for Leo in my late 20s and early 30s, watching him put his values into action, had a profound effect on me. From writing press releases, speeches, and reports for Leo while staffing his positions as a UC Regent and CSU Trustee, I went on to a series of communications positions in the higher education arena. Other than a single brief detour into the for-profit world, I’ve only ever worked for mission-driven non-profits. Nothing else ever felt right or fulfilling.
One more thing about Leo: people who only knew him as a public figure standing in front of a microphone mostly missed out on his sneaky sense of humor. I’ve never laughed as much in the workplace as during my time working for Leo, who was a full and enthusiastic participant in a round-robin sequence of practical jokes among the staff that went on for years, even past the end of his time in office. And our time together as a staff didn’t end when he retired; every year or so after that, Leo would host a “McCarthy Family Reunion” with an open invitation to all former staff.
Leo’s belief in living a life of purpose, and in doing the work with as much joy as possible, were contagious. I don’t know what he would think about the state of electoral politics in 2021, but I’m confident he would be proud of the work that the McCarthy Center for Public Service and the Common Good is continuing to do in his name.
Jason Warburg served in multiple staff roles for Lt. Governor Leo McCarthy between July 1989 and January 1995. Since then he has held several senior communications positions, most recently as executive director of communications for the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. He is also the author of two novels and a non-fiction collection of writing about music. This essay was adapted from a post on Jason’s blog at www.jasonwarburg.com.