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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Friday, August 22, 2003

Running to stand still Running to stand still (August 22, 2003)

Former Merry Prankster and current governor candidate Robert Cullenbine opposes the recall

by Bill D'Agostino

Palo Altan Robert Cullenbine, one of the 135 candidates on California's recall ballot, really, really, really doesn't want you to vote for him.

"The truth is, right here on this block, there are four individuals that are more qualified than I am to be governor, and one of them is a dog," Cullenbine, 65, quipped.

Despite being a leader, in the late '60s and early '70s, of the iconoclastic Midpeninsula Free University (which offered classes on everything from naked candle-making to organizing riots), Cullenbine has lived a quiet, mostly suburban life for the last 20 years.

But the recall -- which he described as "super-right-wing politics designed to interfere with the governing of the United States" -- prompted his return to the public spotlight, he told a reporter while sitting in his home office on Ramona Avenue this week.

"If you had asked me a year ago if I would ever do anything remotely political again, I would have simply said, 'no,'" he said.

Around his office are relics from his radical life (a Joan Baez songbook, for instance), but also symbols of his more recent and quieter adulthood, such as a blown-up photograph of his two smiling grandchildren.

A flock of finches gathered and scattered in Cullenbine's backyard meditation garden as he recalled his Midwest childhood, activist youth, and the small, supporting role he is now playing in the statewide campaign.

The recall, he said, is "not just a farce but a really dangerous way of trying to govern our state" with the only "legitimate" replacement candidate being Lt. Governor Cruz Bustamante. "The other 134 of us are interlopers."

A retired businessman, Cullenbine spent $3,500 of his own money to gain a stage to espouse his views, back when he heard few making that argument. Now, he admits that many are saying the same thing. In fact, the day Cullenbine spoke with a reporter, Gov. Gray Davis, the subject of the recall, described it as a "right-wing power grab."

Cullenbine grew up in a suburb of St. Louis, Mo. in a conservative family. His father was a conservative member of the war labor board who stumped for die-hard conservative Sen. Robert Taft.

Blond-haired, blue-eyed and the captain of the football team, Cullenbine wasn't anyone's choice to one day be a "Merry Prankster," one of Ken Kesey's (author of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest") gang of free-wheeling, free-thinking radicals whose antics were profiled in Tom Wolfe's "Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test."

A registered Republican in his early youth, Cullenbine even cried when John F. Kennedy defeated Richard Nixon in the 1960 presidential campaign, he recalled with a laugh this week.

A project for a political science course at Stanford -- where he graduated with a degree in economics -- changed his worldview forever.

The assignment was to interview people going to see a speech by Frederick Charles "Fred" Schwarz, the leader of the Christian anti-communist crusade. Cullenbine went to make sure his more liberal classmates wouldn't sandbag the good, right-thinking conservatives.

But what he heard from Schwarz and his followers shocked him: hateful, vile diatribes, such as claims that the Holocaust didn't happen and that gays should be put in concentration camps.

"That experience is what turned me from a conservative into a liberal," he said, adding later that "after that I began looking at things differently."

Over time, Cullenbine became more and more involved in the counter-culture, taking mind-altering drugs like LSD and protesting the Vietnam War.

"This was before there were hippies, by the way," he noted about his early-doings. "We wore khakis and penny loafers and button-down shirts."

A concert in El Camino Park introduced Cullenbine to the Midpeninsula Free University. One highlight of his days as leader of the university was a debate he helped organize between drug guru Timothy Leary and Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver.

From the beginning, he recalled, the university was split between the Pacifists like himself and the even-more radical Maoists, who wanted to organize for revolution.

Cullenbine was removed from his leadership position for making a deal with police officers ("who were supposed to be our enemies") who agreed to remove some heroin dealers from the university's coffeehouse, by not arresting the LSD users.

Following his departure, Maoists took over the university, which then disintegrated a few months later, he recalled.

With the long, strange trip and the Vietnam War finally over, Cullenbine entered the mainstream and became a restaurant manager and owner, building Ramonas II restaurant on California Avenue.

For the last 14 years, he has also volunteered for his daughter's nonprofit, the Family Giving Tree, which she started as a Palo Alto High School student to give presents to low income children.

Today, the drug-induced haze of the early 1970s "looks a lot less pretty" in the rearview mirror, and Cullenbine is a recovering alcoholic. Since becoming sober 19 years ago, "my life has become glorious," he said. "I've made amends to everybody I could think of that I've harmed."

Although believes drug use should "probably" be legalized, he discourages children from using narcotics.

"What happens is people lose their ambition, their attitude of really wanting to live life to the fullest. And they just get laid-back," he said. "And that's sad. It's a waste of the wonder people are and can be."

So far, "running" for governor hasn't been everything he hopes it could be, too. "It's almost overwhelming," he said, noting that he has been bombarded with media requests, advertisers and e-mails, including one from an angry e-mail from a woman.

Also disappointing is the fact that only 135 people decided to run. He hoped at least 1,000 people would jump in "so that we would jam the system so that it wouldn't work."

Still, "campaigning" has its perks. Like all the candidates, he has been invited (and has accepted) to travel to Los Angeles in September to be on the "Tonight Show with Jay Leno."

The big unmade decision -- "I'm running this past all my advisors" -- is whether or not to wear a clown head on the late-night show.

"Dad, they won't take you seriously," he recalled his daughter warning him.

"Should they?" he retorted.

E-mail Bill D'Agostino at [email protected]


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