Retired Congressman Steve Horn died on Feb. 17. He was 79.
The accolades poured in after he died, as was appropriate. He was a conservative Republican, yet I know some liberals who praised his service to his constituents. That is noteworthy–anyone can please their base. A politician who pleases constituents who voted against him has accomplished something.
Horn retired after serving the public from 1993 to 2003. I am not aware of any scandals that took place during his time in congress. Not every congressmen could say that.
I met him only once, back when I was a journalism student at Cal State Long Beach and he was president of CSULB. I suspect his best days were ahead of him. We crossed paths, however fleetingly, during a controversial period in his life.
He was a controversial figure at the university. Of course he was criticized by the faculty association–that came with the job. He had his share of critics among the students. There were two newspapers on campus, the Journalism Department’s Daily Forty-Niner (my paper) and the Associated Student government’s Union Newspaper (the campus tabloid).
The Union called him President for Life Horn. The Forty-Niner called him President Horn or simply “Horn” on second reference. Snide remarks have no place in straight reporting.
We crossed paths shortly before his administration came to an end. There was a deficit, a payroll met with money borrowed from the state and a charge that he moved money from one account to another. Horn insisted he did nothing wrong. He argued with the press about the size of the deficit. The press quoted figures from state auditors and he quoted the figure that was borrowed to meet payroll.
I only remember one thing he said during our interview: “You ask good questions.”
I honestly believe it was a sincere compliment–but at the time I was a young reporter and I wondered if I wasn’t being conned. A drawback to this job is that you are so often targeted for manipulation that you come to suspect compliments and criticisms alike—and so cheat yourself out of opportunities to learn and grow.
I never saw him again.
I learned, over time, to appreciate the leadership he gave as CSULB president. Horn often took the position that he wasn’t trying to win a popularity contest. When he made a decision, you knew that Steve Horn was the man who made that decision. He usually took responsibility for his actions.
Later CSULB presidents made a point of being very public figures, but I remember interviewing university officials who said they had attended policy discussions—but couldn’t remember anyone being for or against the policies. Yet the policies were made and some of them were as unpopular as decisions made by Horn. Good luck, though, in cutting through the fog. Tracing a decision to its source became much harder after Steve Horn stepped down.
Even after he resigned, there was some question about when he would actually leave. When he finally did step down–to teach political science before making a run for congress–the Forty-Niner put out an honest-to-goodness “Extra!” Four or five of us pulled a 24 hour shift to put out a four-page paper chronicling his administration and (brief) fall.
I put together a chronology in my capacity as the newspaper librarian. I don’t remember what I wrote. I only remember that I was sick as a dog for the next two weeks. I paid little attention to his career after that. Young journalism students are hyper-focused on their own careers.
The thing I remember most about him, though, is that he didn’t whine about his fall. He just kept on going. He made it to congress and he apparently served quite well. An object lesson from a former teacher and a good one to take to heart.
For whatever it is worth, he’ll always be President Horn to me.