Politics & Government

New book profiles longtime California lawmaker Moss

WASHINGTON — The late Sacramento congressman John Moss led a right-to-know revolution whose contours he never could have imagined.

Now, this one-time appliance salesman and unlikely author of the Freedom of Information Act is the subject of a new biography. Penned by a former staffer, published by a university press, the book mirrors the life of an admirable if sometimes stodgy lawmaker.

"I think Moss accomplished so much in his life," author Michael R. Lemov said, "and yet he's almost forgotten now."

Titled "People's Warrior," Lemov's book sketches Moss's early travails that included a mother who died when he was 12, an alcoholic father who abandoned the family and a prematurely ended Sacramento Junior College education.

The book conveys, as well, the formality of a public figure who, even now, the 76-year-old Lemov still periodically refers to as Mr. Moss.

"I never called him John," Lemov said. "Maybe 'Mr. Chairman,' once in a while."

But mostly, policy and legislative politics dominate the 237-page book set for a July 1 release. Two signal accomplishments stand out.

In 1966, after more than a decade of laying the groundwork, Moss muscled the Freedom of Information Act across the finish line. It's made a difference. Last year, Moss's legislation was used in 597,415 separate FOIA requests filed with federal agencies.

Moss's federal freedom-of-information law and the numerous state laws it inspired are now taken for granted. But back when Moss was first getting started, Lemov's book underscores the omnipresence of government secrecy and the resistance the reformer faced.

The Department of the Navy held tight to its telephone directory. The Postmaster General would not divulge salaries of public employees. FBI files, such as those now available on the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Anna Nicole Smith and John Moss himself, were kept locked up, essentially, forever.

The executive branch liked to keep the lid on, whichever party was in power.

"I thought Moss was one of our boys," Lemov quotes President Lyndon Johnson as saying in the mid-1960s. "But the Justice Department tells me this goddamn bill will screw the Johnson administration."

Johnson ultimately bit his tongue and signed the bill, without bothering to invite Moss to the signing ceremony.

In 1972, Moss followed up his FOIA success by passing over industry opposition the Consumer Product Safety Act. In the three decades since the law established the Consumer Product Safety Commission, the rate of reported deaths and injuries associated with consumer products has fallen by a third.

"He took on every big interest," Lemov said. "Moss was lined up against half of the industries in the country; he had tremendous odds against him."

Lemov knows this Capitol Hill territory. The Colgate University and Harvard Law School graduate formerly served as chief counsel to Moss, with whom he helped write the ground-breaking consumer protection law.

Perhaps as a result, Lemov spends even more time on the consumer protection fights than on the Freedom of Information Act campaign that began when Moss secured chairmanship of a special subcommittee in 1955. Parochial Sacramento Valley politics and the re-elections that kept Moss representing the 3rd Congressional District until his 1978 retirement get little attention.

"John was really the father of oversight," said Rep. Doris Matsui, who now holds Moss's old House seat. "He was not the type of person who did a lot of schmoozing ... (but) he was sort of ahead of the game, in thinking about (government oversight) before others did."

Lemov practiced law after leaving Capitol Hill. In 1994, he started a series of interviews with Moss and promised his former boss he would write a biography. By about 1997, Lemov was pretty much researching full time, delving into the archives at California State University, Sacramento.

"It really became an overwhelming passion with me," Lemov said. "It was all-consuming."

Half of the time, Lemov confessed, he thought his manuscript might never see the light of day. The University of California Press turned him down. So did others. One expert advised Lemov that books about dead congressmen don't sell very well. Finally, he landed a contract with Fairleigh Dickinson University Press.

"It's been a labor of love," Lemov said.