Documentary salutes Pete McCloskey | July 1, 2009 | Almanac | Almanac Online |


News - July 1, 2009

Documentary salutes Pete McCloskey

by Sean Howell

Filmmaker Rob Caughlan spent eight years trying to pack an account of the life and career of Pete McCloskey into his allotted 54 minutes, the length of the program that will run on KQED-TV (Channel 9) on Sunday, July 5, as part of the station's "Truly CA" series.

It's no easy task to condense any life story into that time frame, and Mr. McCloskey's is certainly no exception. A much-decorated veteran of the Korean War, Mr. McCloskey, now 81, helped draft bedrock environmental legislation in the early 1970s in the House of Representatives. He became a household name in 1972, when he challenged incumbent Richard Nixon for the Republican presidential nomination, opposing Mr. Nixon's stance on the war.

He has also enjoyed a celebrated legal career, notable especially for the environmental causes he took on. He practiced in Menlo Park prior to his political career, and worked out of an office above the Pioneer Hotel in Woodside after he retired from Congress. (A longtime Woodside resident, Mr. McCloskey still maintains a home in Portola Valley, at the Sequoias retirement community.)

His many accomplishments are detailed in Mr. Caughlan's progressive-minded documentary, "Pete McCloskey: Leading from the Front," set to air on KQED at 6 p.m. The film focuses on Mr. McCloskey's political career, following him from childhood in Southern California to semi-retirement on a farm in Rumsey, California, where he still takes on the occasional case (and wages the occasional political battle). The documentary, narrated by Paul Newman, presents Mr. McCloskey as an "original maverick" who repeatedly shook up the political system; a man who by his own admission is "perfectly agreeable to losing, if I can make my point, and make it hard."

The documentary marks the first foray into filmmaking for Mr. Caughlan, who for 30 years ran a "good deeds" advertising and public relations firm out of an office near the Menlo Park Caltrain station. He wanted to tell Mr. McCloskey's story to honor the man, and to propagate what he views as the movie's central message: that the country needs people who are willing to fight for a cause, regardless of whether it's popular at the time.

Predictably, editing the film proved to be a challenge. Many of Mr. Caughlan's favorite stories about Mr. McCloskey ended up on the proverbial cutting-room floor.

In the documentary, we learn of a heated argument in the back of a limousine between Mr. McCloskey and John Ehrlichman, a close adviser to then-President Nixon, over Nixon's invasion of Cambodia. What we don't learn is that the men had been good friends, up until Mr. McCloskey advocated impeaching Nixon on the floor of the House — and that the men resumed their friendship when Mr. McCloskey visited Mr. Ehrlichman in an Arizona prison after the fallout from the Watergate break-in.

Another story that didn't make the cut was Mr. McCloskey's role in a case brought by the nonprofit Surfrider Foundation, against a polluting pulp mill in Humboldt County. As Mr. Caughlan tells it, Mr. McCloskey — whom the Surfriders recruited to help with the case, at Mr. Caughlan's suggestion — waited patiently during the trial while a lawyer defending the pulp mill tried to explain to the judge Congress's intent in drafting the Clean Water Act.

When the pulp mill lawyer had finished, "Pete gets up and humbly says that he helped write the Clean Water Act, and that in fact that was not the intent behind it. … "

Recounting the story, Mr. Caughlan — a longtime surfer and environmental advocate — grins. He had an artist make courtroom drawings depicting the incident, but couldn't find space for it in the finished product. Mr. McCloskey's life has been marked by so many other milestones that "winning the largest clean-water action in American history didn't fit in," Mr. Caughlan says.

Met in 1967

Mr. Caughlan first met Mr. McCloskey when he walked a precinct for him, during Mr. McCloskey's 1967 bid for a local seat in the House against Woodside resident Shirley Temple Black.

"My mom thought I went over to the dark side" in joining a Republican's campaign, he says.

He and Mr. McCloskey kept in touch; he even stayed at McCloskey's Washington, D.C., home for a few weeks. At the time, Mr. Caughlan was house-hunting in D.C., having landed a job with as a special assistant to the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.

"I asked Pete, 'Do I need a key?' He said, 'Nah, the door's broken,'" Mr. Caughlan remembers.

"Leading a bayonet charge takes one kind of courage," he says (Mr. McCloskey led six of them during the Korean War). "Living in D.C. without a lock, well — that's a different kind of courage."

When Mr. Caughlan set out to make the documentary, he didn't expect it would take eight years. But he encountered a number of stumbling blocks, not the least of which was Mr. McCloskey himself. The film was nearly finished when a restless McCloskey came out of retirement to challenge Rep. Richard Pombo in 2006 for the House seat in Tracy, forcing Mr. Caughlan to revise the ending.

Mr. McCloskey had been roused to action by Mr. Pombo's plan to sell public land to private bidders. He lost in the primary, but succeeded in his ultimate goal when the Democratic candidate, Jerry McNerney, bounced Mr. Pombo in the general election. Mr. Caughlan put the documentary aside for six months to work as Mr. McCloskey's press secretary, then ended up spending another half-year working for Mr. McNerney.

Mr. Caughlin anticipates taking some heat for not giving enough attention to Mr. McCloskey's faults. But "I've got Nixon, (Spiro) Agnew, and (Pat) Robertson criticizing him," he says. "It's just that, coming from them, it sounds like a compliment."

"I just wanted to tell Pete's story," he says. "I don't care about the reviews."

In producing the film, Mr. Caughlan got help from some big names. Paul Newman, who worked on Mr. McCloskey's campaign for the Republican nomination for president in 1972, agreed to narrate. Woodside resident Joan Baez donated her song "Saigon Bride."

And Robert Redford convinced Warner Brothers to let Mr. Caughlan use a clip from "All the President's Men," in which Mr. Redford's character works in an empty office while on a nearby television set, a news anchor announces Mr. McCloskey's defeat in the 1972 presidential primary.

The film cost $200,000 to produce, according to Mr. Caughlin. It was funded by various foundations, and by Mr. McCloskey's friends, he says. He even reached into his own pockets: He has an outstanding credit card bill of $30,000 associated with production costs.

"If the worst thing I lost is $30,000 and eight years, it'd still be worth it," he says, flashing that big grin.


An hour-long documentary on former congressman Pete McCloskey, "Pete McCloskey: Leading from the Front," narrated by Paul Newman, will air on KQED-TV (Channel 9) at 6 p.m. Sunday, July 5.

CORRECTION: In a previous version of this story, we misspelled Jerry McNerney's last name.


Like this comment
Posted by John C. Chendo
a resident of another community
on Jul 3, 2009 at 4:48 am

Rob Caughlan was a founder and president of the Surfriders Association. He understands the connection between "the pursuit of happiness" and environmental politics, sports and justice. This documentary should be watched for the history it shows of America and our world, and for the courage it takes to live.