It's Easier to Get Forgiveness Than Permission

March 07, 1994|By GEORGE F. WILL

LOS ANGELES — Los Angeles. -- Richard Riordan knows what he wants -- oatmeal, for starters, and a steady stream of forgiveness.

The mayor is a fountain of aphorisms (''Implementation counts for 97.3 percent of success in government, 'vision' for the rest''), and this morning's is: ''It is easier to get forgiveness than permission.'' This city's mayor's office is weak relative to the city council and bureaucracy, but he can impart motion to the creaking machinery of government by sheer brassiness in bending rules and ignoring others.

Today after breakfast he is bound for the funeral of a policewoman killed in the line of duty two days after graduating from the police academy. One measure of the city's mood is that Californians have just gotten permission to own a self-defense device called ''pepper spray'' and demand has dwarfed supply.

Just another day in paradise. But at least the ground is holding still.

Mayor Riordan is not. He is an action-is-my-eloquence businessman who owns 40,000 books, one being ''Bureaucracy'' by UCLA's James Q. Wilson. It explains what the mayor is experiencing. Bureaucrats are more competent than he thought but bureaucracy is less so.

In the private sector, where Mr. Riordan, now 63, made pots of money, priorities are apt to be few and clear: Act quickly and at low cost. But government bureaucracies have tossed salads of priorities -- do not embarrass the boss, please the politicians, comply with rules regarding affirmative action, racial set-asides, the handicapped, the environment, etc. So Mr. Riordan's approach often is to forge ahead, forgoing permission and hoping for forgiveness, as when he slalomed around normal procedures in order to seize a fleeting opportunity to buy land for a new police academy.

And there was the saga of ending an unnecessary towaway zone on a street in the garment district. He said: Let's do it. The bureaucracy said: Read this. The 25-page memorandum detailed the various permissions and procedures and bids necessary to get the ''traffic mitigation study'' and other stuff. Perhaps, he was told, the towaway zone could be gone in three years.

It's gone. One of Mayor Riordan's deputies and his son went out one night and took down the signs. Mayor Riordan did not authorize that, but it was inspired by a tone of wholesome exasperation set at the top.

While getting to the top, Mr. Riordan got the picture. When campaigning last spring he filmed a commercial in front of City Hall, where the law required the presence of three city employees -- a fire marshal, someone having something to do with making sure the city's cultural heritage was not damaged, and ''I never did figure out who the third guy was.''

The guy at the top of the federal government sure knows who Mayor Riordan is. Bill Clinton campaigned for Mr. Riordan's opponent but, hey, no hard feelings. The mayor purrs contentedly about his relations with the Clinton administration.

On a piano in the house on Washington's S Street where Woodrow Wilson lived his last years, there stands sheet music to a song titled ''Be Good to California, Mr. Wilson (California Was Good to You).'' Wilson, like Mr. Clinton, was elected with a plurality of the vote in a three-way race, and he won re-election because California tipped to him by 3,420 votes.

Today California has 20 percent of the electoral vote total needed to win, and Southern California is the crucial battleground. That helps explain a lot, from the federal government's full-court-press response to the earthquake, to Mr. Clinton's intense intervention in negotiations that got Saudi Arabia to agree to purchase U.S. commercial aircraft worth $6 billion, a lot of which will trickle down to Southern California.

The president's hope for a second term depends in part on a Republican mayor's success in settling this region's jangled nerves. But the brushfires and earthquake that followed the riots may now be followed -- no kidding -- by killer bees coming from Arizona. So, are we having fun yet?

Mayor Riordan is, because he is doing well, and by doing so he is a living refutation of an argument against term limits, which have been imposed on this state's members of the U.S. Congress and Senate, the state legislature, the Los Angeles City Council. The argument is that ''seasoned professionals'' are not just preferable to ''amateurs,'' they are indispensable.

Mayor Riordan, a supporter of term limits, had a life before public life, and in it he acquired virtues (impatience; innovative approaches to evading rules) that scandalize people socialized by the culture of government. And he can equably contemplate returning to private life, so he is not risk-averse.

Which is to say, he is a politician by avocation. What will they think of next?

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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