Leo McCarthy, a former lieutentant governor of California and speaker of the state Assembly, died on Monday. If you read the obituaries (Chronicle; Bee; LA Times), you'll see that he was a nice guy, but none of them describe any particularly great accomplishments.

Before you jump on me for speaking ill of the recently departed, let me explain what I'm getting at. I thought of McCarthy as a major political figure when I was growing up. He was from my home town and was speaker the first time I visited the capitol, in 1978, then held statewide office for more than a decade, and took a couple of serious shots at the U.S. Senate. So it was surprising for me to read that his actual record of accomplishment was, in reality, fairly thin.

But then I thought about the circumstances of McCarthy's career. He served as speaker at a time when his caucus of Democrats were deeply divided. He ended up losing his leadership post due to an intraparty challenge. Not long after, he gave up his Assembly seat altogether, more or less forced out by a redistricting plan.

He had thought of running that year (1982) for the U.S. Senate, but gave way to Jerry Brown, running instead for lieutenant governor, a post he would hold for 12 years. He ran as his party's Senate nominee in 1988, but lost, then lost the primary election for the state's other Senate seat in 1992.

Obviously, McCarthy aspired to greater things, but he was stymied by the important political forces of luck and timing. McCarthy was unquestionably a decent man and consistently promoted the liberal causes that he believed in. But he was speaker at a difficult time, then obviously could hold little sway as lieutenant governor. That's never a high-powered job in California, but McCarthy didn't even have much advisory influence, since he served under Republican governors.

I wonder how many careers have been like McCarthy's in public life. There must be other figures who remained on the scene for a long time, but were doomed by circumstances to leave a light mark on the political landscape.