Back Home, Lawrence Was Known as Political Bigwig Who Got What He Wanted
By Guy Gugliotta Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 12, 1997;
Russians were awarding medals to U.S. merchant mariners who served in the
North Atlantic during World War II, and M. Larry Lawrence, never shy about
promoting his own cause, wanted one. Unfortunately, he told his two friends
wistfully at breakfast one day in November 1992, he was having trouble
getting the Merchant Marine to provide proof of his service.
Rep. Lionel Van Deerlin (D-Calif.) and his former aide, Rudy Murillo, now remember that conversation with considerable anguish: "If he were fabricating his past," Van Deerlin asked, "why would he have called attention to this?"
Yesterday, Lawrence's body was disinterred from Arlington National Cemetery, the first step in bringing it back here, his home town, for reburial. While that may have ended the controversy over whether the late Democratic fund-raiser and ambassador had the right to be buried in Arlington, it leaves unresolved the question of why Lawrence might have lied about his wartime experience.
For those who knew Lawrence, this has been a week of soul-searching and denial. Faced with overwhelming evidence that his account of serving in the U.S. Merchant Marine and surviving the sinking of his ship -- stories that many of them heard had heard firsthand -- was untrue, many friends and acquaintances searched their minds for clues. One White House official who came to know Lawrence during the Senate confirmation hearing that preceded his appointment as ambassador to Switzerland, dismissed him as a charlatan who had told a lie so often he "internalized it to the point where he believed it.
"It's about a guy who was a billionaire and an ambassador who made up his life and got away with it until the end," the official said. "He was a charming rogue."
Not so, say the friends who knew him here. Yes, he could be charming, they said. He could also be mean-spirited, touchy and arrogant. But he was no rogue. "He had the courage of his convictions," said George Mitrovich, president of the City Club of San Diego and a longtime Democratic political operative. "He would tell you what he thought, and would take public positions." Lawrence was always "in your face," almost by definition, Mitrovich said. He was a rich Jewish liberal in a conservative Navy town -- "odd man out simply by virtue of being here." He didn't have to "reinvent himself," Mitrovich added. He was already an original.
And although "he could embellish," Murillo said. "I don't think he was lying," or ever deliberately tried to deceive people. "With Larry, I'd always try to dust things off and get to the core."
In announcing Monday that she planned to bring her late husband's body home from Arlington, Lawrence's widow Shelia said the controversy over his military service "precludes his resting there in peace." But friends don't see an end to the controversy. Friends doubt "these things have a life of their own," Mitrovich said. "Those of us who see it as bizarre are pained by the fact that this is not the way anyone should be remembered."
And for Murillo, the affair is already "pretty crushing," even though he believes there is information still to be unearthed. "In one way, I don't want to know the answer," he said.
Murillo, now a special assistant to the San Diego district director of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, was serving as Van Deerlin's House chief of staff in 1977 when Lawrence telephoned him from San Diego and first requested that he track down his "service record."
At that time, Lawrence had already made millions as a real estate developer and was one of the Democratic Party's prime movers in California. He was also known nationally as the owner of the elegant Hotel del Coronado, an almost mandatory stopover for Democrats searching for campaign cash.
He knew everyone in town, said Van Deerlin, a pallbearer at Laurence's funeral and a friend for 40 years, and "he could get on the phone and shake down $100,000 at a pop. I told [former Democratic presidential nominee Michael S.] Dukakis at a fund-raiser at the hotel, `you get prime rib from Larry, while I got chipped beef on toast.' "
Lawrence didn't flaunt his wealth, Van Deerlin said. If a fund-raiser fell short of the promised sum, he would make up the difference himself. He once underwrote an entire banquet for former President Jimmy Carter, with all the proceeds going to Habitat for Humanity.
But if Lawrence was generous with his money, and humble about having it, he was anything but shy about using it to enhance his profile. "He wasn't interested in anything unless he could be the leading light," Van Deerlin said.
When San Diego's Jewish community was soliciting contributions to build a cultural center, Lawrence took advantage of what current center executive director Mike Cohen called "dedication opportunities" and wrote a check for $1 million on the spot. The building, completed in 1982, is called the Lawrence Family Jewish Community Center.
And when then-Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey decided to stay at the Hotel del Coronado instead of a competitor's hotel, Lawrence openly gloated about it at a meeting of prominent San Diegans -- including the competitor.
"When I got up to speak, about all I could say was, `Larry really knows how to take a bad situation and make it worse,' " Van Deerlin said. "He had absolutely no tact."
And he knew what he wanted. To get Lawrence's support, politicians had to support his agenda, recalled San Diego Rep. Bob Filner (D-Calif.). Oppose him, "and you'd always wonder what he was going to use against you."
Back him, and you came to know the immense clout he amassed. In 1993, Lawrence invited Filner to a birthday party for his wife at a Georgetown restaurant with "a few friends from the White House," including Bill Clinton.
Filner said, "I don't think we have the full story yet" about Lawrence's war record, but others came to disbelieve it long ago. Speaking before the House Veterans Affairs Committee this month, longtime employee Norma Nicolls described Lawrence as an inveterate braggart who couldn't have avoided talking about the Merchant Marine if he had really served.
For Murillo in 1977, however, Lawrence's phone call was simply a constituent request to be forwarded to the Speaker's office. Eventually he received a manila envelope addressed to Lawrence and loosely secured with a piece of string. "I didn't look inside," Murillo said, but he figured that "Larry assumed I knew what was in his service records."
And that was the last Murillo heard about the records for 15 years. He cannot explain today why Lawrence would call attention to them if he knew they were not there.
It was on Veteran's Day in 1992, a few days after Clinton was elected president, when Lawrence again broached the subject of the Merchant Marine during a quiet breakfast with Van Deerlin and Murillo in the Hotel del Coronado's Crown Room.
Lawrence had heard that the Russian government was giving decorations to merchant sailors who had run the gantlet of Nazi U-boats in the North Atlantic to deliver supplies to the beleaguered Soviets at Murmansk.
"He said he was on a ship that was hit, and all he remembered was waking up in a hospital in Chicago," Murillo recalled. "Then he said he went to a hospital in Arizona."
He was interested in getting one of the awards, Van Deerlin recalled, but couldn't induce the government to produce his records. Murillo, hoping to dissuade Lawrence from asking his former boss to intercede, suddenly had a flash of inspiration.
At this moment, he told Lawrence, there were some Russian admirals in town talking to the San Diego Economic Development Corp. Why didn't he speak to them?
And he did, confirmed former development corporation president Dan Pegg. Lawrence met with the delegation one afternoon, and that night, at a reception at Pegg's house, a delegate called the Russian Embassy in Washington. "There was some discussion about Larry's service," Pegg said, "and that Larry should be included in an event they were planning at the embassy."
And he was. Mitrovich, who attended the ceremony a short time later, remembers that Lawrence was "deeply touched."