Former L.A. Mayor Richard J. Riordan battled, but ultimately honored, the media

Plenty of Los Angeles mayors have fumed about their coverage in this newspaper. Richard J. Riordan may be the only one who retaliated with a satirical essay aimed at one of his tormentors: me.

The occasion was a fake Page One, a tradition among journalists and one created for my (relatively short-lived) departure from The Times in 2015. The former mayor wrote his piece in the faux Times as a rebuttal after I published a review panning his 2014 memoir.

Riordan’s short essay suggested that he had considered collaborating with me but wasn’t sure it was a great idea, because “Rainey is used to writing fiction.” He also poked fun at his own charitable giving (“A philanthropist is someone who lets his self-aggrandizement overcome his greed”) and suggested that the two of us settle our differences in a “duel at dawn.”

Riordan said he had been offered, and accepted, the antique pistol once used by Aaron Burr. He suggested that I would be armed with Alexander Hamilton’s weapon. If you know your history (or saw the musical), you know that the 19th century showdown did not turn out well for Mr. Hamilton.

The essay distilled our city’s 39th mayor — who died Wednesday at age 92 — and his sometimes challenging relationship with the media. Dick Riordan could be both combative and wry, unyielding and vulnerable. He tried and often succeeded at giving as good as he got. A happy warrior, he left the playing field with a smile on his face.

I covered Riordan’s 1993 campaign for mayor and his first years in office. After a lifetime in business, the mayor took office at 63, retirement age for many. He never entirely mastered the levers of government or showed that he understood the necessary boundary between the press and the people and institutions we cover.

I went to cover Riordan as he participated in an alley cleanup in South Los Angeles during his campaign for reelection in 1997. The event reignited a feud between Riordan and Councilwoman Rita Walters, who represented many of the neighborhoods south of the 10 Freeway.

The mayor and Walters exchanged rhetorical potshots. But what sticks with me from that day is how Riordan seemed most animated by the news that I was buying my first home. He began offering advice on how to shop for a mortgage, reeling off a string of figures and loan options. I tried to make it clear that I couldn’t take financial advice from someone I covered. Riordan, bemused, merely shrugged and turned his attention to others at the event.

Earlier in Riordan’s tenure, Times columnist Bill Boyarsky hitched a ride with him to an event. When a woman asked the mayor for his autograph, he reflexively handed his cup of coffee to the nearest person — who happened to be the veteran newsman.

“He goes through life with someone at his side holding his coffee or his coat,” Boyarsky wrote. “I happened to be sitting in the gofer’s seat. Nothing personal. It’s just the way the very rich and powerful are different.”

The columnist suggested that Riordan would need to develop a more common touch to make the most of his job. At City Hall a few days later for a press conference, Riordan arranged a gag in which (as I recall) he was left holding Council President John Ferraro’s cup of coffee.

After Riordan’s death this week, Boyarsky recalled their frequent jousting.

“We had a lot of fights. It was a guy thing,” Boyarsky wrote in an email. “Neither of us liked to back down.”

One exception came during a rough wildfire season, when Riordan credited the Los Angeles City Fire Department with saving many neighborhoods. Boyarsky wrote that the comment showed that Riordan didn’t understand “mutual aid,” as many other fire departments had helped L.A. crews during the crisis.

When his phone rang the next morning, the columnist expected another salvo from the mayor. Instead, Riordan conceded, “You were right.” Said Boyarsky: “I was surprised and pleased.”

Riordan and his team tried to draw many in the media close. The mayor played chess with Times reporter and editor Jim Newton. He started a book club with our Patt Morrison. Another reporter recalled that he got particular insights about Riordan’s efforts to reform public schools during a hike in the Santa Monica Mountains, when the mayor invited along his ally, billionaire Eli Broad.

Several of us played in basketball games with the mayor and future elected officials, including Eric Garcetti. Riordan was more prone to fouling than scoring points during those games, but his sensibility was that a little rugged competition might draw rivals closer.

Newton recalled this week that Riordan would routinely thrash him in chess. He remembered the mayor as someone who screamed at him more than perhaps any other official he covered during a long career at The Times. (Though he also remembered the multimillionaire businessman as someone who quickly moved on.)

Riordan had enough skepticism of journalism in general, and The Times in particular, that he planned to launch his own newspaper, the Examiner. He claimed that his news outlet would be more locally focused and more centrist than The Times, which the Republican businessman felt had become too liberal.

“What I’d like to do is get a paper that is L.A.-centered, unlike the Los Angeles Times, which has been drifting more and more away from what the city is about,” Riordan told the Christian Science Monitor. “Second, I’d like to have a paper that is pro honesty, which doesn’t let reporters espouse their [own] ideology unless they can prove what they are saying is right.”

The Examiner never got off the ground, at least in part because Riordan got busy with a new endeavor, after Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger appointed him in 2003 to be California’s secretary of Education.

Riordan’s disdain for the city’s leading news outlet didn’t mean he had no respect for some of its journalists.

Newton recalled taking a stroll with Riordan outside City Hall, as the mayor neared a final choice between two candidates to replace outgoing Police Chief Willie L. Williams. Discussing the finalists, Riordan suddenly asked the journalist, “Well, which one would you choose?”

Newton told Riordan that it wouldn’t be appropriate for him to give advice, as his job required him to be an independent arbiter, not a collaborator.

“I don’t think he was being manipulative,” Newton recalled. “I just think it was his honest instinct to wonder what I thought.”

Years after leaving office, Riordan kept up with several journalists and remained fascinated with his hometown newspaper.

In 2015, The Times reduced its editorial staff by about 100 via a buyout. When Riordan learned that the company did not intend to hold a farewell party, he promptly offered to host a shindig at his Brentwood home.

Riordan had battled the paper for years. He had suggested he could do a better job himself. But for one night in early 2016, dozens of us feasted on Mexican food and received a toast from the former mayor.

Riordan understood what our erstwhile owners did not: We had all skirmished in the arena, but there was no reason we couldn’t celebrate the important role of an independent media. And our friendly combat.

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