I first heard about Stanley Sheinbaum in 1991, while Los Angeles was tearing its hair out over four LAPD cops who beat Rodney King. As President of the Los Angeles Police Commission, Sheinbaum was in the news nearly every day—looking more like a Hebrew scholar than an urban politico—calling for the intensely controversial LAPD Chief Daryl Gates to get the hell out of office. Sheinbaum eventually got his wish, but only after LA exploded in riots in the spring of 1992.
Billed by the California Film Institute as “the most powerful man you’ve never heard of,” Sheinbaum is an authentic Renaissance Man. Now in his mid-80s, Sheinbaum has at times played diplomat, economist, fundraiser, peacemaker, activist, civil libertarian, educator, spy and dupe. He’s the subject of the new documentary Citizen Stan which is running in this year’s Maui Film Festival. The film is partially produced by his good friend Robert Scheer, a columnist for The Los Angeles Times and The Nation.
In 2004, the Jewish Journal’s Marc Ballon called Sheinbaum the “quintessential limousine liberal.” His wealthy wife Betty is the daughter of the late Hollywood mogul Jack Warner. Sheinbaum himself made a killing in the early 1970s, when President Richard Nixon took the nation off the gold standard.
Today the Sheinbaums live in a large Brentwood home that he and his wife use as a salon for left-liberal causes and fundraisers. The walls of his office are covered with photos of him posing with Barbra Streisand, Fidel Castro and Jordan’s late King Hussein.
He was a Fulbright scholar to Paris. He’s the current Chairman Emeritus of the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Southern California. As a University of California Regent in the 1980s, he sought to end the university system’s ties to South Africa.
Sheinbaum may be thoroughly liberal, but he’s no radical. His loyalties lie firmly with the establishment. He made this perfectly clear in 2000, when he backed Al Gore and not Ralph Nader for president.
“[W]e cannot take the chance that [George W.] Bush might win,” he said in the Nov. 3, 2000 LA Weekly. “Nader has about the best grasp of what’s awry in this country, but he does not have the power to implement any of the policy suggestions he has.”
Sheinbaum got his start during World War II. Living in New York, he imprinted maps onto silk for American combat pilots—the maps could be folded and unfolded silently, should the fliers have to bail out over enemy territory.
After studying economics, Sheinbaum taught at Michigan State in the 1950s. In 1957, he was coordinating the school’s $25 million Vietnam Project, which was ostensibly an economic development program. In fact, it was a front for CIA officers who were arresting, interrogating and torturing alleged Viet Cong agents.
The revelation shocked Sheinbaum, who resigned from the program in 1959. Contacted by Scheer in 1966 about the program for the magazine Ramparts, Sheinbaum spoke out against the CIA’s using academics like him as a cover for brutal counter-insurgency operations.
Sheinbaum was now an outspoken anti-war figure—so much so that the CIA began illegal and blatantly political espionage of him, Scheer and Ramparts.
His adventures continued overseas. In 1967, Sheinbaum smuggled documents out of Greece after a military coup, saving the life of the progressive Andres Papandreou, who later became Prime Minister.
Six years later, Sheinbaum was acting as chief fundraiser for the legal defense of Daniel Ellsberg, the RAND Company analyst who leaked thousands of pages of secret studies of the Vietnam War to The New York Times.
Sheinbaum tried to convert his activism into a political career, but had no success. In 1966 and 1968, he campaigned unsuccessfully for the U.S. congressional seat representing Santa Barbara.
Ironically, he had more luck in the international arena. In late 1980s, Sheinbaum led a delegation of prominent American Jews to meet with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. Working with Reagan Administration National Security Adviser Colin Powell, Sheinbaum and his team helped convinced Arafat to renounce terrorism and recognize Israel’s right to exist. When Bill Clinton became president, he made Sheinbaum a special envoy to Syria. His job was to set up a meeting between Clinton and President Hafiz al-Assad.
Such Middle Eastern diplomacy and ties to Arafat have brought controversy to Sheinbaum—someone once dumped a skinned pig in his driveway—but he remains largely unknown. Except for his time as an LA police commissioner, Sheinbaum has never attracted much mainstream attention.
Clearly, this film is long overdue.
Sunday, 2 p.m. at the McCoy Theater, Maui Arts and Cultural Center. 62 min. MTW