Jim Bernstein doesn’t really belong in San Diego politics. Though he may be one of the most influential people in the working level of local government, he just doesn't come out of the right mold. Jewish parents, New York, Harvard, Cornell Medical School, General Surgeon at University Hospital in San Diego. Assistant to Dr. Jonas Salk. But now, as County Board of Supervisors Chairman Jack Walsh's “executive assistant," he's the guy who calls up any one of a lot of County administrators and gives the conversation a crucial tone with the words “This is Jim Bernstein calling.”
Bernstein says he met Walsh when Walsh was running for mayor back in 1971. “This guy across the street was throwing a cocktail party for Walsh, and I went over." But Bernstein didn’t really get to know Walsh until Bernstein got an alluring job offer from back East last year, February 1973, and he called Walsh up to ask what he should do. Why did he call Walsh? Who would call his county supervisor for career counseling? “That just shows your ignorance. Lots of people call office-holders for personal advice.” Well, at least Bernstein has good Jewish directness. Maybe that’s what attracted Walsh to him. The advice Walsh gave Bernstein was to come to work for him for a year as his assistant.
“It’s funny. I never was that political before. But working with Jack on the Board of Supervisors has politicized me.” Bernstein says he was hired as “his own man” and that “he and Jack” work as equals. He claims that he doesn't know of any other political co-workers who are as close. “We share the same goals. We disagree on very few things. We're both equally critical of bureaucracy... Jack is more patient than I am but that's because he’s been in office a lot longer. I need him; he needs me.”
The work-day rites begin every morning with Bernstein driving down from his La Jolla home on Whitefield Place to Jack Walsh's Point Loma home on Chatsworth and picking Walsh up for an eyeopening game of racquetball at the Kona Kai Club at 6:45 a.m. Bernstein goes through Walsh's mail and pulls out “the important things” for him to see. Bernstein goes though the legislative agenda and writes comments in the margin like “our proposal — important!” or draws an arrow next to it which means to turn back to supplemental information at the back of the agenda. “I have to do this, just so he can get through the bureaucratic bullshit.”
It's this power, or as Bernstein puts it, “the access.” that makes politics important. He agrees that government can't do a lot of things, that bureaucracy is sometimes just too unmanageable. And thus he throws any kind of consistent liberal or quasi-socialist philosophy to the wind: “That’s your hang-up!” He points to John Weil, a man who has been patiently waiting in the corner of the office for an appointment with Walsh. He's here because we're putting together a minority investment corporation. There we've got to use private enterprise. The important thing is to get things done." The power, or access, excites Bernstein to the point where he's flipping through pages, programs, and proposals, and showing me how much can “get done.”
Power also worries Bernstein, however. Understandably so. Walsh, even though he is Board Chairman, has been on the losing side of a predominant 3-2 split on the Board of Supervisors since January of last year when the new slate of Supervisors took office. Bernstein speaks of the opposition as exerting “negative power.” “Negative power is the most common around here. You just sit back and oppose things like Supervisor Conde does and it's easy. There’s no risk in opposing things, finding fault with things.” Bernstein's and Walsh's solution is “to keep proposing things” and “to be as open as possible.”
Was it the glow of power that pulled Bernstein away from his medical career into ’County government? He insists not. He says that he knows that people like his parents are shocked by what he’s done. They've accused him of being unstable (“what happened to our son the surgeon?"), but Bernstein attacks the whole idea of “straight-line careers" like medicine. He thinks the radical change in direction is good for him. He wanted to do more than he could do in medicine, he says. Even though he is an atheist, he claims he is strongly altruistic. His experiences during the summers of his med school years two summers in Peru, one summer in India — and his internship at Bellvue Hospital in New York treating patients from the Bowery probably influenced him most. “Especially India — the values placed on the non-material.Though I was raised very goal-oriented. I've seen a lot of people who have everything they want and aren't happy.” An example of Bernstein's big-heartedness was the money he chipped in last year to pay for plane tickets bringing refugees from Allende's Chile to San Diego.
Ironically, Bernstein admits to living beyond his $17,700-a-year salary as executive assistant and says he doesn't know what he'll do. He pulls out a letter offering him a $50,000 salary in medicine, and confides that the offer is very tempting. given his predicament. But he doesn't think his high tastes are that ironic. “You know, in India, in the East, they place a high value on beauty, on the aesthetic. To have beautiful things you have to have money.”
A few weeks earlier. Supervisor Walsh had held a party at his home for “working members” of the press and someone there summed up the gathering's significance by saying that Jack Walsh was probably the only one in San Diego politics who would draw a crowd like the one he did. There was Narda Trout from the L.A. Times, Herb Lockwood from the Daily Transcript, people from the Reader. the Edition, the Chula Vista Star News, and assorted television, radio, and Union Tribune representatives. “Can you imagine Lou Conde bringing these people here,” I was told. How do you massage the press like this? “We’re very open,” Bernstein says for the umpteenth time. “We talk with the Union Tribune reporters every day. They feel free to come and rap with us. The people from the U-T who are assigned here are young and liberal. They have major hostilities toward the editorial desk there. We tell them as honestly and completely as we can w hat we’re doing, they write it up. and if it gets mangled somewhere, it’s usually at the editorial desk.” And then Bernstein really gets going. “The Copley Press is an outrage. It's the anasthesia of the people. How do you explain it? Well, if you've read the Pentagon Papers or Halberstam's book, you know that General Krulak falsified all those reports from Vietnam. What can you expect when he runs the organization?”
On the whole, there doesn't seem to be that much acrimony in Bernstein's attitude about his job. He's caustic, sure. But that seems to be more a part of his personality. And it fits in pretty well with the general excitement he seems to feel about the job. Now maybe the excitement tells you something about his egotism — medicine was too small a concern for Jim Bernstein, he's got more to offer the world than dexterity with needle and forceps. It might also tell you that he sees the job as just a first step in a short climb to greater power (he seemed especially proud of some of the things he had written on energy conversation for the New Coalition that were incorporated into a bill before the U.S. Senate). But the excitement could also tell you that Bernstein's selflessness is genuine, that he is sincere when he says “We want excellence it’s so rare in a system like this.”