It was one of those buoyant exchanges of power in Washington. John White, the outgoing chairman of the Democratic National Committee, called for quiet, rededication, enjoyment and a toast. "Let's raise our glasses to our new chairman," he shouted from a podium at the Mayflower Hotel. The long room of dark suits and campaign buttons responded with a cheer and a few glasses from the cash bar.
In taking the reins of power of Washington's current outsiders, Charles Manatt asked for quiet (shushing into the microphone twice) and harmony, teased White, mentioned his wife, and said, in effect, on with the show.
This was the formal Washington debut of the new DNC chairman's natural and carefully-honed art of politics, built on his reputation as a sophisticated juggler of interests and as a low-key manager. A few years ago, former Rep. James Corman recalls, he was hosting a significant political dinner with some well-heeled California Democrats. Manatt, then chairman of the California Democrat Party, circulated, swapping political stories, getting commitments, devising strategies. Then he disappeared into Corman's study.
"I found him talking on the phone to his son about the Little League game, discussing batting averages, who got to play, all the statistics," remembered Corman. "He has tremendous flexibility and sense of responsibility. Most of all, he doesn't neglect things."
That reputation yesterday earned Manatt the chairmanship of the Democratic National Committee. "The time is right," said Manatt, sipping a soda in his campaign suite at the Sheraton Washington, toward the end of his own aggressive and expensive campaign to lead the fractured party. "Politics has been a lifetime avocational involvement. I love the policy discussions. I enjoy, to a point, most all of it. I don't enjoy the incessant discussions on issues that some groups fundamentally wouldn't ever decide, and some of the turf and ego battles."
A lawyer and banker, Manatt, 44, has been the head of the California party twice, terms that coincided with some Ronald Reagan's command of the state. Until yesterday, he was the chairman of the national party's finance council. How he helped erase the 12 years of party debt was described by Peter Kelly, his DNC finance successor at last night's reception. "He works on a high degree of personal contact. He's relaxed, jocular. In a speech he will make about 12 personal references to the people in the audience. It's Anaheim-humor, dry, very current event-oriented." Evan Dobelle, a past party treasurer, elaborated, "Chuck does it the most successful way, you don't call people all the time, you don't always call them about money. But you call, make them feel part of the team, talk about business, the family. When Chuck calls you don't know if it's about tennis, lunch or $5,000."
At the reception, the old guard such as Pamela Harriman, Harry McPherson, Jim Wright, Esther Coopersmith, Claiborne Pell and Frances Humphrey Howard lined up for congratulations, along with the younger party workers, and some surrogates of Walter Mondale and Ted Kennedy. "When Manatt was head of the California party, he put it back together, got rid of Ronald Reagan, and left money in the treasury. As Harry Truman said, if you want to know the future, read the past," observed Coopersmith.
Some longtime observers question the depth of his own political views, but everyone seems to agree that Manatt has paid his dues. In California, Manatt built a reputation for working with all factions of the party. "As far as the national constituency goes, that's California," he says.
"He is a moderate Democrat," observed Joseph Cerrell, a veteran California political consultant. "His mentors were moderate but he reached out to the California Democratic Council, which is like the Americans for Democratic Action. But he hasn't gone over to the other liberals, like the Campaign for Economic Democracy of Tom Hayden.
"He can walk those eggshells of conflict. He is a practitioner rather than a philosopher. But that helps his ability to get things done. He is more in the tradition of a Ray Bliss (a past head of the Republican National Committee), a real nuts-and-bolts person. I wouldn't say he's transparent but a technician, he will defer the philosophy to others."
In some ways he does have a personal platform. He roundly criticizes all his friends who drive foreign cars. His wife has a Buick and he has a leased Eldorado.
Public office isn't one of his goals, he said. One observer thinks that decision was made in the spring of 1969, when Jerry Brown and Manatt, among 158 others, ran for the board of trustees for the Los Angeles Community College. In the race for the seven seats, Brown came in first and Manatt, 25th.
He has watched some of his closest friends experience heart-breaking defeats. Last election night, he was working the precincts with James Corman. Asked how he felt about the Democratic candidate, Jimmy Carter, conceding before the West Coast polls closed, Manatt, his face a taut mask of neutrality, said, "I was with Jim. He lost by one vote and a half per precinct. That's my answer: Corman lost by one vote and a half per precinct. The election was called off an hour and a half early. It was a difficult time."
Manatt is ready to challenge Reagan. "As far as understanding the Reagan crowd, we have had them around California, forever. We know them well. We know their view of America is fundamentally different from that of most people," said Manatt.
Democrat Rep. Julian Dixon, who was in the California state legislature when Manatt was head of the party, remembers his aggressiveness against then-Governor Reagan's proposals. "Reagan had threatened to close down some of the mental hospitals. Chuck organized the opposition and [Democrat Rep.] John Burton sponsored a bill saying Reagan had to come before the legislature before any action. Burton's bill passed and Chuck was very effective in wiping out the opposition. Reagan abandoned the idea."
At least one member of the now-presidential Reagan team, Michael Deaver, gained some respect for Manatt in California. "He is not afraid to sit down and talk to Republicans. And, like Bob Strauss, he is not afraid to say he has Republican friends," said Deaver.
About five years ago Manatt started a series of informal meetings with Los Angeles Republicans and Democrats. "That goes a long way to making politics more professional," said Deaver. "One of my early experiences in the governor's office was one day when Manatt called. He was up in the speaker's office and said, 'Hey, I've got a guy who wants to be a judge.' I said, 'You should have called when Pat Brown was here.' And he said, 'But I hear you are a sensitive guy.' That's how he works."
His flexibility, explained his wife, Kathleen, comes from minute organization and planning."He plans ahead. He writes down the school calendars, the sports schedule on his meeting planner. I have even known him to have meetings at the Little League field."
"He knows where he wants to go," said Timothy Furlong, one of his law partners at Manatt, Phelps, Rothenberg & Tunney. "I was talking to a friend who said that when [Manatt] started the firm in Van Nuys, he said he planned to move it to Century City in so-and-so years, and then he wanted to be chair of the California party. And he did it all early."
Manatt's 16-year-old law firm now has 100 lawyers, who deal with commercial banking, oil and gas, real estate, litigation and entertainment -- reportedly with such star clients as Linda Ronstadt and Barbra Streisand. His bank, the First Los Angeles Bank, has grown from $3 million in capital in 1973 to a present $285 million.
His campaign for DNC chairman has been estimated to cost as much as $100,000. "That's because of the process, the way it was set up. It was decided among the congressional leadership, labor, Fritz (Mondale) and Ted (Kennedy) that we would have a four-month campaign. When everything is in, it will cost between $60,000 to $80,000. It could be $85 to $90 but my guess is under $80,000," said Manatt.
While few people argue about his management skills, a lot quibble about his sense of humor. At a quick glance, the tall, gaunt man in the dark-rimmed glasses almost looks like a cartoon Clark Kent. Some call him "Chuckles" because he uses humor sparingly. His wife disagreed, saying, "He is a big tease." Timothy Furlong also takes exception. "At a firm party last summer for the clerks, Chuck had on a new suit and was thrown into the pool. The next day he ordered a memo to all the clerks leading them to believe that they had been given notice. It wasn't true, but that's his quick wit," said Furlong.
And, on Inauguration Day, he showed his podium sense of humor in a luncheon address to the Century City Chamber of Commerce. "It's just as appropriate for me to be speaking to the Chamber of Commerce today as it is for Frank Sinatra to represent the Moral Majority," he said.
But his sense of humor might be lost in the quick, free-association style of his speech. To solve that problem, his firm sent along an "interpreter" this week. Said one law partner: "We didn't know if the Democratic Party was ready for his organizational skills or his Manatt-speak." CAPTION:
Picture, Charles Manatt, John White and Jim Wright; By Fred Sweets