“People kept inflicting it on me,” Rob Morse complains about his decade-long struggle as the three-dot heir apparent to the San Francisco Chronicle’s Herb Caen.
Caen, who died in 1997 at age 80, was a newspaper fixture of such vastness that his death merited a statement from President Clinton noting that “surely no one knew better the vibrancy and eccentricities of The City, his city San Francisco, than did Herb Caen.”
Time and again over the decades, the San Francisco Examiner threw an Art Rosenbaum or a Jeff Jarvis into the fray to do battle with the Caen-powered Chronicle, and inevitably would be found wanting and then gone.
Then there is Rob Morse.
“I wanted to be me, not one of a dozen Herb imitators,” says Morse, undoubtedly Marin County’s best and most articulate writer. But he's given up the craft. Unwilling to put one keystroke after another, Morse still scans the Bay Area scene from his Terra Linda garden, protesting that he does not feel the need to inflict himself on readers.
“Just what the world needs,” he laughs with that upper-crusty, Boston Back Bay snigger, “another 65-year-old memoirist.” The fact is, however, there's much more to Rob Morse than that. One of his editors once called him “the best San Francisco writer living in Marin.”
While bartending in Orlando, Fla., Morse caught the eye of newspaper medic/cleric David Burgin, who set Morse up with an Orlando Sentinel column called, in the Disney-inspired parlance, “Column World.” Burgin was so impressed with Morse’s ability to expose those underlying layers beyond the reach of conventional journalism that he brought him along when he moved to the Bay Area to take over the ill-fated Peninsula Times-Tribune and then to the equally destined for death Hearst San Francisco Examiner.
At the Examiner, Morse fought to keep his Herb Caen-inspired three-dot items to a minimum, graciously conceding the fact that if you were a flack and had struck out with Caen at the Chronicle, calling Morse was your next logical move. Morse began by covering what Caen could or would not, like the burgeoning gay, punk and foodie scenes. The problem, and a source of frustration for Morse was that “if a good item ran on Sunday, people thought it was Herb’s.”
A high point for Morse came in 1987, when Caen threw in his lot with the mayoral campaign of Jack Molinari, the downtown establishment candidate. Morse naturally gravitated to the outsider, Art Agnos. Given a tip that one of San Francisco’s few remaining fishing piers was on the verge of being developed into a hotel/convention center, Morse contacted all of the mayoral candidates and received a pledge from each that allowed him to report that “the next mayor wants to keep fishing in San Francisco.”
It was with his single item stories that Morse most brilliantly excelled. Send him on an assignment and he would be sure to find you stories that no one else had the imagination to follow. For the 2000 National Democratic Convention, for example, Morse took the reader out to the rural Buddhist Temple that had had been the site of a fund-raising scandal that had tripped up nominee Al Gore. Covering the O.J. Simpson trial in Los Angeles, Morse found his way to another courtroom, where three Latino youth were on trial for their lives, for killing a police officer, providing, he recalls, “a stunning view of the real LA.” Morse even registered as a Republican, both to vote for John McCain, and in Morseian fashion, to see if it might improve his golf game. It did not.
Morse also moved the intellectual locus of the region northward. He and his wife, Debby, a free-lane artist and gardener, initially lived in one of San Francisco’s fog belts. A true sun-worshiping Californian, Debbie got sick of the fact, according to Morse, “that the fog always came out at noon.” The other reason for the move was political, according to Morse, after George Bush’s 2000 election as president. Debbie told her husband that they needed to get out of the country and find some other more liberal place to live. He pointed out that there were probably more liberals living in Marin County than, say, in all of Canada.
The couple intitially believed that no one could afford to live in Mill Valley on a reporter’s salary, but they two found a 900-square-foot fixer-upper that allowed them to “live on the side of the mountain.” Morse grew to love Marin, which was no small thing given his depressive tendencies.
Equating his own career to the demise of the newspaper, Morse took a buyout in early 2000, shortly after the Hearst Corp. bought the Chronicle and sold the Examiner to the Fang family.
After the 2007 death of his nephew in Afghanisan, Morse began to volunteer at a local VA Hospital, helping patients reintegrate into daily life. Today, you are likely to find him watching the series Breaking Bad or conversing with one or more of what he calls his “coffee house friends” like comedian Michael Pritchard at the Northgate Mall.
Morse remains, however, one of the great, authentic Bay Area voices, and a damn shame that he is working on becoming a self-acknowledged “nowhere man,” deciding if it really is simply time to “run out the clock.”
Perhaps his reticence has to do with the fact that Morse took to heart editor Sharon Rosenhause’s dictum that “you’re a columnist, you don’t have any friends.” Or perhaps it was the last phone call from Gavin Newsom, who wondered where Morse’s column was, and, when apprised of Morse’s retirement, politely but firmly hung up the phone.
Anyway, here is the plea: Rob Morse, please come back. We need you. Bad.