Introducing Tony West today at the Rotary Club of San Jose’s weekly meeting, Larry Stone reeled off a list of his old friend’s accomplishments: graduate of Harvard, where he was editor of the Harvard Political Review; law degree from Stanford, where he was editor of the Stanford Law Review; former special assistant to Attorney General Janet Reno; former member of the San Jose Planning Commission; and “two-time unsuccessful candidate for local public office.”
When Stone, the longtime County Tax Assessor, mentioned that last item, a couple of groans were heard among the friendly crowd of Rotarians. “Well, Tony,” Stone quipped, “it all worked out for the best.”
West, who was selected by Pres. Barack Obama as the Assistant U.S. Attorney General for the Civil Division, took the podium with a big smile on his face. He spoke fondly of his affection for his hometown, where, he said, he “learned the value of community and the value of diversity.”
“This is where I first learned the value of public service, and felt the tug of a career that in some small way, to quote Bobby Kennedy, might ‘tame the savage nature of man and make gentle the life of this world.’”
West then delivered a riveting narrative of the past four months of that career, where, as head of the Department of Justice’s biggest division, he has been a point man for the Obama administration’s crusade of change.
In describing his three top priorities as head of the Civil Division, West made reference to important ways the federal government has undergone a dramatic shift. He said his number-one task is to use his position to defend the national security—always, he pointed out, within the framework of the rule of law. “The choice between security and justice,” he said, “is a false one.”
He then described his efforts to protect consumers and taxpayers from fraud. In particular, he said, he is focusing his efforts on the mortgage industry and health care (where he recently won $1 billion in settlements).
Finally, while hardly mentioning the scandals that cast a shadow on the Justice Department under Pres. George Bush, West described his efforts to “restore the independence and credibility” that have historically been a hallmark of the agency. That, he said, means returning the agency to a policy of strict non-partisanship, and adhering closely to the Constitution—even in troubled times.
The two local defeats that Stone mentioned in his intro speech apparently have not left West bitter toward his hometown, but perhaps they deepened his commitment to things like non-partisanship and independence.
West lost to Cindy Chavez in a 1998 race for the District 3 City Council seat when the Labor/Democratic party machine refused to back him. That same alliance fought West in a 2000 race against Manny Diaz for a seat in the California Assembly, in which West was hit by to a racially tinged, last-minute political hit. Returning to the scene of those defeats today, he seemed unfazed, and voiced an Obama-like fixation on the present and the future.
“I can tell you,” he said, “that there could be no more exciting time to be involved in government—no more demanding time, and no more challenging time—than right now.”