Richard Reeves

The Late Show and the Late Great State of California

SAG HARBOR, N.Y. -- There are three families rattling around in our big house out here. My wife and I. A daughter with her husband and three little boys. A son with his wife and baby daughter. We turn in early, as you might expect after days of swimming, running to keep up with the kids and dinner with old friends.

Unbeknownst to one another, we all stayed up past our bedtimes on Wednesday, watching Arnold Schwarzenegger declare his candidacy for governor of California on Jay Leno's show. Are we pathetic or what?

So was he. It was not only the venue, but the memorized movie lines. "I'm mad as hell ..." Ronald Reagan was Thomas Jefferson compared to this guy. I don't have anything against Schwarzenegger ... Well, actually I do. We used to live a couple of blocks from him in Los Angeles, and there was always a danger of being clipped by one of his Humvees, which were about as wide as some of the roads around us.

California politics is always a topic of conversation in our house; three of our children live and vote in the state, and my wife, Cathy O'Neill, was once a candidate for statewide office. And this particular morning we interspersed newspaper reading with "Terminator" imitations. Some of them were pretty good.

In general, New York papers were playing the story as the end of California, if not Western civilization. We know those interpretations are quite wrong. This is actually the triumph of California, or more precisely, Los Angeles. It is the triumph of the entertainment mentality and business, of celebrity above all, of fiction over fact.

As a young reporter from New York who had never been west of the Mississippi, who had never seen a real palm tree, I first saw California on a campaign trip with Robert F. Kennedy. I fell in love with the place that day, and I am still in love with it. At the bottom of the stairs as Bobby came down was an actor, Robert Vaughn, known to me only as "The Man From U.N.C.L.E.," the name of his television series.

I learned a lot that day. Entertainers out there were the same as industrialists or bankers back East. Their efforts employed hundreds, thousands of people in what was then becoming, arguably, America's most important industry and export. Reagan himself liked to reminisce about a shot in one of his movies that showed nothing but a horse grazing in a field, surrounded (off-camera) by 110 technicians and other well-paid folk.

Whatever else he is, Arnold Schwarzenegger is a serious man. Unfortunately, California really does not have a serious political system anymore. Its politics and governance have been heavily impacted and then crippled by the growth of population, the rise of the entertainment business and the failure of well-intentioned democratization.

With a population now of more than 34 million spread over more than a 150,000 square miles, California has simply become too big for any significant kind of face-to-face statewide campaigning and contact. Part of Gov. Gray Davis' current political problem now is that over his three decades in state politics, the only people who have actually met him are the ones he's asked for campaign funds. The "people" of California have been digitized.

California politics is all name recognition, polling, television, direct mail and e-mail, and journalism -- and even more than in other states, California journalism, particularly broadcast news, is a sub-set well within the bowels of what is known locally as "the business," show business.

Finally, for a century, Californians have tried to open up politics with high-minded "progressive" devices like recall, referendum and term limits. The result has been a musical-chairs comedy with a cast of short-timers who leave office as soon as they understand it, and Proposition 13 and other tax-saving referenda have made it almost impossible for the state to function in hard times and are destroying the state's great past accomplishments in public education, transportation and environmental preservation.

This recall could be the final straw -- or the last laugh! -- with an elected governor no one really knows overthrown by a bizarre recall system and replaced by a name who knows nothing.

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