Michael Moodian

Screen Shot 2019-01-09 at 3.08.49 PM

As a rule, I’m not a huge fan of meeting people whose intelligence dwarfs mine.

I mean, it’s awkward and uncomfortable, right? We all enjoy thinking we’re smart, so to have that belief punctured by another human, well, it sorta sucks. It’s deflating, it’s disturbing, it’s … it’s …


Every so often, however, you come across a person whose intellect—while far superior to your own—is far more inspiring than it is crushing. You talk to such a person, observe the speed at which his/her brain absorbs ideas and concepts, and just think, “Damn, that’s absolutely astonishing.”

Enter: Mike Moodian.

I first met Mike about four years ago, shortly after we relocated from New York to Southern California. The wife landed a job teaching at Brandman University, and she spoke glowingly of this co-worker with, well, a glow. So she invited Mike and his awesome wife Margaret over for dinner or lunch or something, and—whooosh! Mike’s brain was off. It was c-r-a-z-y stuff: Jeff, on page 47 of your Lakers book you … and See, the thing about penal law in Utah is …

On and on, a breathtaking, dizzying, ego-free discussion of this and that and that and this and up and down and high and low. Truly, Mike Moodian is the smartest person I’ve ever met. Which is cool, because he also happens to be one of the absolute best. When he’s not working as an associate professor of social science at Brandman University or teaching classes at Chapman or co-directing the Orange County Annual Survey or collaborating with Michael Dukakis or serving on California’s Commission on Judicial Performance Commission or hanging with his son, Mikey, or caring for a chinchilla named Marshall or watching his beloved Rams at the Los Angeles Coliseum, Mike is … doing 100,000 other things. You can follow him on Twitter here, Instagram here and visit his website here.

Mike Moodian, welcome to the Quaz …

JEFF PEARLMAN: OK, Mike—this is a weird first question, but that’s OK. We’ve known one another for about four years now, and your mind moves at 7,000 miles per hour. Which fascinates me. In particular, you’ll say something like, “Hey, Jeff, on page 47 of Gunslinger you wrote about …” And later on I’ll say to Catherine, “How the fuck did he know that?” So I ask, with total respect and admiration—How does your head work in this regard? Do you just have a preposterous memory? Do certain things stick?

MIKE MOODIAN: Jeff, my wife always says the same thing. Here’s how I can best answer your question: My mind tends to travel very quickly, often remembering different things by association. For example, I am a fanatical L.A. Rams fan who has season tickets to home games at Memorial Coliseum. Team representatives keep calling me trying to persuade me to buy seat licenses for the new stadium in Inglewood. My wife’s aunt Mary Beth was human resources director for the City of Inglewood for a short time. Mary Beth used to live in Portland, which happens to be home of one of my favorite bookstores, Powell’s Books. When I last visited Powell’s, they had an entire section composed of work written by Noam Chomsky, the famous MIT linguist and activist. Chomsky gave the keynote address at a globalization conference I spoke at five years ago at UC Santa Barbara. The City of Santa Barbara has a small aquarium that my toddler loves. The aquarium houses some cool starfish, so does the Ocean Institute in Dana Point, which my family and I like to go to each October around Halloween for a kids event they put together. This process goes on and on. My mind ventures through these various associations. As I result, I can sometimes be socially awkward when I talk to people because I bring up random things. It’s just how my brain works. My wife can talk about a trip to Buenos Aires we took once, and I can start discussing Golden Spoon frozen yogurt moments later. This goes on and on. My mind works by rapidly connecting things.

Screen Shot 2019-01-09 at 3.08.57 PM
Giving the morning keynote at the California Alliance of Paralegal Associations Education Conference, 2018.

J.P.: In 2015, Jerry Brown appointed you to the State of California Commission on Judicial Performance. Your task is to investigate judicial misconduct/incapacity complaints and for disciplining judges. We’re coming off of a hotly contested, painfully partisan Supreme Court nomination, and I wonder how you view this nation’s relationship with judges. I was raised believing they could be impartial, decent, caring, respectable, empathetic. Was I just a naïve punk?

M.M.: Serving on our state’s Commission on Judicial Performance Commission is the greatest honor of my career. California, in 1960, became the first state to establish this type of judicial watchdog agency. Now all 50 states and the District of Columbia have similar commissions that vary in their authority. My work as a commission member keeps me busy, and I never take lightly our role to protect the public, enforce rigorous standards of judicial conduct, and maintain public confidence in the integrity and independence of the judicial system. Because of the sensitive and confidential nature of the work we do, it would be best if I pass on commenting on the judiciary.

J.P.: You’re a professor of social sciences at Chapman University and Brandman University. There’s always a lot of complaining about millennials and their lack of compassion, their lack of attention spans, their materialism. What, as a professor, are you seeing?

M.M.: The students are great, Jeff. You get those who are just skating by, but the dedicated ones make this job worth it. When we reach the end of the term and they present their work—projects they worked so hard on—and you see how far they have come, you develop a lot of hope for our country’s future. I cannot complain about millennials because my generation was certainly no better.

J.P.: You’ve been on a ton of panels. You’ve sat in on endless meetings You’re involved in politics, in social issues, in education. And I wonder: Are people listening, generally? When you’re all gathered in a circle of chairs, and people are speaking their piece, are most just waiting to talk? Or are they absorbing?

M.M.: It’s a mixed bag. You and I encounter so many different people from different walks of life. I pride myself on having an ability to try to see someone else’s perspective, even if I disagree with their viewpoint. I do get concerned that many of us are siloed, the distrust of established news media, the garbage spread on social media, and the embracing of these conspiracy/deep state theories.

J.P.: When I released my USFL book, I was sorta worried the topic wouldn’t lend itself to huge sales. You are the author of a book, Images of America: Rancho Santa Margarita. I’m guessing you knew this wasn’t landing on the Times list. So, what’s the motivation of writing a book with what, from afar at least, seems like a limited readership and audience?

M.M.: That’s a great question. I tend to be extremely curious about everything. Before we had a kid, my wife and I used to hike various trails in OC. One time we hiked an area in O’Neil Regional Park and came across a marker that stated that the Portolà Expedition members had camped at the site while establishing the first overland trail through Alta California in 1769. It was so cool to me that during a time in the 18th century in which the country we know as the United States was being formed on the East Coast, there was significant activity by indigenous groups and Spanish explorers on the West Coast. I also started to research the fascinating untold stories about the land surrounding Mission San Juan Capistrano. Then I spent a summer writing about the ranchos of North San Diego and South Orange counties. I guess I always saw the project of my way of contributing to the area I grew up in by documenting its history dating back to the 1700s. In the years after the book’s release, I gave lectures on Orange County’s ranch history to community groups. I know this sounds corny, but one of my favorite experiences was speaking to third graders about the history of the area. The project is not related to my academic work on leadership and cross-cultural competence. It’s just my contribution to my community, and working on it was rewarding.

Interviewed by Vikki Vargas
Interviewed by Vikki Vargas

J.P.: You’re good friends with Michael Dukakis—who even officiated your wedding. Um, how did this happen?

M.M.: We first crossed paths years ago when I was doing research for a project, and we became close during the years. We coauthored op-eds on the Massachusetts Expanded Learning Time Initiative, and he wrote the foreword to my first book. He is one of the most decent human beings I know, he is probably the wisest person I know, and he subscribes to an ethical framework that all policy leaders should emulate. I love Michael and Kitty Dukakis like family members.

J.P.: You served in the military, which fascinates me because I’d never guess it. You’re a liberal intellectual who’s wed to Hawaiian shirts. So why did you enlist? What did the experience do for you? Do you think it caused you to see military personnel in different ways?

M.M.: It’s certainly something that I’m proud of, but I guess it’s something I don’t talk about much because it seems like a lifetime ago, and my time in the service was relatively uneventful. Your allusion about military service and liberalism perhaps being antithetical makes me think about how ironic it is that the political right in this country seems to own patriotism. To me, there is nothing more patriotic than standing up for those who are voiceless, treating compassionately and humanely children of color who are trying to seek refuge in this country, and disavowing unequivocally the Ku Klux Klan, Nazis, and the Kremlin. The Republican Party today resembles a hate group more than it does the party of honorable people such as Jack Kemp and Bob Dole.

Screen Shot 2019-01-09 at 3.09.05 PM
Debating former California Republican Party Chair Shawn Steel on PBS-SoCal, 2018.

J.P.: You’re very involved in Orange County politics. My former congressman, Dana Rohrabacher, is insane. Not exaggerating—insane. How do you explain his lengthy career?

M.M.: His staying power was the result of the fact that he resembled his district. He is that traditional, old-school Orange County Republican who came from the Reagan administration. Also, as you have written many times, Rohrabacher came across as this loveable congressman who surfs, plays guitar, and is fiscally conservative. That goes far in Huntington Beach and the other OC coastal communities. However, as we saw in the most recent election, Orange County is changing and is starting to look more like the rest of the country.

J.P.: You’ve been teaching a long time. What’s the difference between impactful teaching and meh teaching? When do you know you’ve reached students? When do you know you haven’t?

M.M.: There are many who are much better at this profession than I, but the approach that has worked for me is to try to be relatable and to try not to take myself too seriously. Earning a college degree is hard work, and when you get to know many of these students, you realize that some have overcome enormous challenges to get here. I admire anyone who is trying to better themselves and their communities by obtaining an education. For me, my approach has always been to foster an environment that focuses more on collaboration versus an autocratic/dictatorial approach. But again, there are many different impactful teaching methods.

J.P.: You’re a uniquely optimistic person. How have you maintained that during Trump? During climate change indifference? During the Kardashian reign? Because I struggle.

M.M.: Jeff, before Margaret and I adopted our beautiful boy, he was our foster child for 13 months. This precious boy survived hell before he joined us. A community of gifted, kindhearted people—social workers, doctors, nurses, therapists, teachers, friends, family, and our attorney—came together to help our son. The national headlines are depressing, but one can only be an optimist after living life in our shoes.

Screen Shot 2019-01-09 at 3.11.59 PM


• Rank in order (favorite to least): Paul Stanley, Meek Mill, Sandow Birk, The 17thDoor, Darrell Issa, the elementary school spelling bee, Wilson Betemit, the smell of blacktop, Bernard King: Wow, I cannot stress enough how much I admire Sandow Birk’s work. I consider him, Elyse Pignolet, and Victor Hugo Zayas to be the three best Southern California-based visual artists today. I walked past the SFJazz Center in San Francisco’s Hayes Valley neighborhood once and talked the security guard into letting me in for a few minutes so I could see Birk’s mural inside. His work is incredible. As an aside, Zayas took guns from the LAPD’s Gun Buyback Program—weapons used for violence and killing—and transformed them into these beautiful sculptures. I never saw anything like them. So going back to your question, Birk is number one. I have not heard Bernard King’s name in a long time. He was one of my favorite non-Lakers in the 1980s, and he was so good. King is number two. The elementary school spelling bee is third. We also had a geography bee when I was young that I believe National Geographic sponsored. I don’t know if schools still hold these, but I thought it was great. The 17th Door is fourth. Wilson Betemit is fifth. The Orioles’ uniform design is one of my favorites. I am not familiar with much of Meek Mill’s work. He is sixth. The smell of blacktop is seventh. Issa was my congressman until recently. My buddy Mike Levin just took over that seat and will do a hell of a job in congress. Issa is eighth. Explaining my disdain for Kiss would require a separate interview. Stanley is ninth.

• One question you would ask Mike Gminski were he here right now: When I was a boy in the 1980s, I had a poster on my wall of the United States with NBA logos placed throughout the map on the geographic areas their respective teams represented. Next to each logo was an illustration of a star player from that team. So when looking at the L.A. area on the map, there was a Lakers logo next to Kareem shooting the sky hook. I believe Michael Cage was next to the Clippers logo. Alex English was on the Colorado area of the map next to the Nuggets logo. Dominique was over Georgia with the Hawks logo. Anyway, I would stare at this poster almost every day. I loved the logos and team colors. The players were larger than life. No one played defense, and anyone who was halfway decent averaged 25 points per game. The 1980s were the best, most colorful era in professional basketball. Remember the NBA VHS series? I was hooked on it. I look at 1980s NBA with the same fondness that you look upon the USFL with. Filmmaker David Lynch once wrote that he thought the sunlight in L.A. shines differently than the light in Philadelphia, and I always thought that NBA uniform colors were vivid and brighter in the 1980s. The league lost some of that zest in the nineties. So if I interviewed Mike Gminski, I would ask, “What was the experience like?” If there is anything we have learned from your books, Jeff, it’s that the most fascinating stories do not come from the Troy Aikmans and Magic Johnsons of the world; they come from those who were not necessarily the major superstars. Gminski was a pretty good player on a bad to mediocre Nets team during a larger-than-life era in basketball. What was that like? What were the locker room dynamics like? What happened behind the scenes? You’re on a team with 11 other men, and you’re all highly competitive people. The Nets were sometimes good enough to make the playoffs, but were never able to achieve the greatness of the Lakers, Celtics, Sixers, or Pistons. How does Gminski reflect upon that? One point that strikes me about professional sports is that athletes eat, sleep, and breathe winning with one team. Then they get traded, or they get waived, or they take a better offer with another team. What is that experience like? I would imagine it’s akin to a painful divorce.

• In exactly 15 words, make an argument for White Lion’s inclusion in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame: I love rock music, including most genres of metal, but I never really got into that 1980s MTV glam metal scene. Give me Ozzy or Deep Purple any day of the week, but I will pass on the Ratts and Warrants of the world. That said, Zakk Wylde, Ozzy’s legendary and longest-serving guitarist, started a band in the mid-1990s called Pride & Glory. One can best describe that band as Lynyrd Skynyrd meets Black Sabbath. If the Allman Brothers decided to be a hard rock band, they would be Pride & Glory. The band released one album, a self-titled LP, and I never met anyone who owned it other than me. Man, that album is so good. To me, it is an overlooked gem of the 1990s. Even today, I will listen to tracks such as “Lovin’ Woman” and “Harvester of Pain” as I fold laundry. Back in the nineties, I remember thinking how crazy it was that Zakk started Pride & Glory with two guys from White Lion, a band Pride & Glory sounded nothing like. One of them was bassist James LoMenzo, who has also performed with Zakk on his various other projects. Separately, it’s worth noting that most of these glam metal or hair metal bands were, in fact, very good musicians. Their vocalists were pretty bad, but their members were often the world’s best electric guitarists and drummers. LoMenzo is a superb bass player. Therefore, if I were to make a 15-word case for White Lion’s induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, I would say, “White Lion’s members branched off to form Pride & Glory, and James LoMenzo is talented.”

• How did you meet your wife?: Margaret and I worked in the same building in Santa Ana, CA, in 2004. She was working one of her first jobs after earning her bachelor’s degree from Chapman. I was working a job I hated as I earned my master’s degree from Cal State Fullerton. I would see her now and again in a break room both companies shared, and I started to figure out that she would arrive at work each day between 8:13 a.m. and 8:22 a.m. She would enter the front door, proceed to her desk, set her purse down, and head over to the break room to pour herself a cup of coffee each day. I made sure I was coincidentally in the break room at the same time each morning to toast a bagel I brought from home. We would chat each morning, and after a few months, I mustered the courage to ask her out. On our first date, we saw the Angels defeat the Indians 6-2, played Skee-Ball at Dave & Buster’s, and walked around Huntington Beach. I was so nervous. For our second date, we had dinner at P.F. Chang’s in Santa Monica, walked around 3rd Street Promenade, and had drinks at a West Hollywood bar I will miss forever called Red Rock. I rarely drink today, but I looked up Red Rock recently and was disappointed to learn it closed. The rest is history. You and I married up.

• Three memories from your senior prom: I was one of those awkward kids who did not go to proms and other dances.

• Who are the five most famous people you’ve encountered?: Alphabetically by last name, I guess I would say Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Buzz Aldrin, George Foreman, John McCain, and Barack Obama.

• On a scale of 1 to 100, how burdened are you by the inevitability of death?: Every night, just before I go to bed, I quietly enter my three-year-old son’s room, turn the light on, and gaze at my boy for a minute or two as he sleeps. During this time, I often think about how exciting it is that his entire life is ahead of him. I think about how thrilled I am to accompany him through his childhood years, the ballgames we will go to, the fun times we will have, the 2028 L.A. Olympics, and how I will be there for him when he stumbles along the way. Then I consider the fact that as he grows older, I will also grow older, and I find myself reflecting upon my own mortality more than I ever have. I sometimes worry about how awful it would be if something happened to me and I left my wife and boy behind. I start to think about how I need to take better care of myself, eat less carbs, drink less caffeine, and practice breathing techniques to relieve stress. When you are 20, you can look ahead 15 years, and you will still be young. When you are in your forties, it’s different. So, in short, the burden of the inevitability of death is not something that really bothered me in years past, but it’s something that crosses my mind more often today. On a scale of 1 to 100, I would say 55.

• Donald Trump promised he would solve the California drought. In your professional estimation, how’s that going?: It’s going about as well as his efforts to broker Middle East peace.

• The Democratic nominee for president in 2020 will be …: Back in 2006 and 2007, I had a strong feeling that Barack Obama would be the 2008 nominee once the rest of the country got to know him. In 2016, it was always Hillary’s race to lose. I truly see no clear-cut favorite for 2020. I suppose it will either be Kamala Harris, Joe Biden, John Kerry, Elizabeth Warren, or Beto O’Rourke. Maybe Tom Steyer, Mark Cuban, or Michael Bloomberg with join the race and provide formidable challenges. It would not surprise me if we see as many as 30 candidates encompassing all sides, from socialists to pragmatic centrists. For the sake of answering your question, I will say Kamala Harris. On a side note, the Democratic establishment should not do what the Republican establishment did leading up the 2016 election by having a debate featuring long-shot candidates early in the afternoon, followed by a debate the establishment considers front-runners during primetime. Prof. Larry Sabato proposed a better idea a few years back: Allow anyone polling at 1% or higher—along with any current or former governors or senators—to debate. If the pool is composed of 20 or so candidates, hold back-to-back primetime debates with participants in each determined by a lottery. If these candidates are going to start debating by mid-2019, the public has the right to see all candidates side by side, not just those with higher poll numbers as a result of name identification. Organizers can start cutting the number of participants after these initial debates.

• What’s the word you way overuse?: It’s funny that you ask that because I tend to pay special attention to word use. I guess “cognizant” is a word that I overuse lately. I notice that you tend to use “myriad” and “digress” quite often. I read a lot of what you and Catherine write and see that she is also using “myriad.” I recently finished Ronan Farrow’s excellent War on Peace: The End of Diplomacy and the Decline of American Influence and notice that Farrow likes to use “purse,” as in “Diplomat A pursed his lips during the interaction.” I believe Farrow will be this generation’s Bob Woodward. What a talent. Former Sunday Times Editor Harold Evans wrote a book that everyone who aspires to be a better writer should read titled Do I Make Myself Clear? Why Writing Well Matters.