Dick Meister: Clint wasn't always this politically inept

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By Dick Meister

Dick Meister is a San Francisco columnist and serious ice cream aficionado who has covered politics for more than a half-century as a reporter, editor, author and commentator. Contact him through his website, www.dickmeister.com

You might reasonably think Clint Eastwood lacks political savvy, given his bizarre presentation at the Republican National Convention.  But he was once plenty savvy, as he showed clearly during his two-year stint as mayor of tourist favorite Carmel, California.

Prior to his election, folks in Carmel and elsewhere tended to think of Clint as just a rugged, handsome movie actor playing at politics. But, boy, were they wrong. Listen to what Carmel resident Jean Lajigian said after Eastwood took office in 1986:

"When I voted for Clint Eastwood, I knew that democracy worked, that we could change things. Since he's been mayor, there's been just an upbeat feeling in the community."

Mrs. Lajigian and her husband Michael were merchants in heavily-touristed Carmel and, as such, had been at odds with local politicians. The politicians did not share the great fondness for tourists expressed by the Lajigians and other merchants. At best, the political leaders believed, tourists were to be endured. They were not to be encouraged, despite the many dollars they spent in the coastal village, aka Carmel-by-the-Sea.

Carmel has marvelous beaches, spectacular ocean views, a loveable colony of sea lions and much more of special interest that draws a large and seemingly endless stream of visitors. Although not fond of tourists, Carmel authorities did allow merchants to set traps for the tourists – but discreet traps.

The use of neon or any other garish means to identify businesses, advertise goods for sale or otherwise attract customers was outlawed. Small wooden signs with elegant lettering were preferred. Nothing was permitted that could cheapen the tasteful display of goods, including cashmere, Shetland and plaid from England, the home country of many residents' forebears, and the other often imported and invariably expensive merchandise that filled Carmel's shops – or "shoppes."

You know those resort towns where stores display notices asking that shoppers carry "no food or drink, please"? In Carmel, the request covered the whole town. Under an ordinance adopted by the City Council a year before Eastwood took office, for example, the sale of take-out food of any kind was forbidden – not even fish and chips to go.

"Litter was a concern – the idea of having people walk around on the streets with pieces of pizza or plastic containers with sundaes and milkshakes . . . the trash tends to end up on the ground," explained Ken White, chairman of Carmel's Planning Commission.

Ice cream cones were a particular worry. You know, the way ice cream tends to melt in the sunlight and drip on sidewalks, the way people carelessly toss aside the remains of cones after eating up the ice cream, or drop entire cones on the street, ice cream and all.

The city council took care of that by simply banning the sale of ice cream cones within city limits.

Black market cones might be had occasionally if you knew the right ice cream vendor, but generally there were none to be had anywhere in downtown Carmel. That deeply troubled lots of Carmel citizens.

Ah, but then came Clint to end the suffering, just as he had promised he would during his pro-merchant, pro-tourist and assuredly pro-ice cream campaign for office.

One of the first acts of the newly-elected mayor and the pro-Eastwood majority on the newly-elected city council was to adopt an ordinance that allows the sale of cones. The first permit allowing the sales went to Jean and Michael Lajigian and their store, where they soon were selling Italian gelato cones, along with their chocolate truffles and other treats.  The day they got the permit, declared Michael, was "one of the happiest days of my life, a dream come true."

You may certainly have considered Clint Eastwood's convention bit politically lame, but at least, once-upon-a-time, he did show evidence of effective political skills. He brought ice cream back to Carmel!

Dick Meister is a San Francisco columnist and serious ice cream aficionado who has covered politics for more than a half-century as a reporter, editor, author and commentator. Contact him through his website, www.dickmeister.com