As I sat down to write today I glanced over the litany of trials and tribulations facing the Golden State and thought back on a scene from the 1984 hit comedy Ghostbusters, in which the ghoul-fighting boys in gray are meeting with the mayor of New York to discuss the paranormal threats tearing the city apart:
Dr. Peter Venkman: This city is headed for a disaster of biblical proportions.
Mayor: What do you mean, “biblical”?
Dr Ray Stantz: What he means is Old Testament, Mr. Mayor, real wrath of God type stuff.
Dr. Peter Venkman: Exactly.
Dr Ray Stantz: Fire and brimstone coming down from the skies! Rivers and seas boiling!
Dr. Egon Spengler: Forty years of darkness! Earthquakes, volcanoes…
Winston Zeddemore: The dead rising from the grave!
Dr. Peter Venkman: Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together… mass hysteria!
California, like NYC in the film, has ominous clouds looming on the horizon, granted of a much less supernatural origin, but some state officials seem one Stay Puft Marshmallow Man away from a full-scale panic, with the cohabitation of dogs and cats being replaced with the legal marriage of Jim’s and John’s. Disaster of epic, if not biblical, proportion is possible.
California faces a monstrous budget crisis, the kind for which publicly traded companies might seek government bailouts. Governor Schwarzenegger’s attempt to coax tax payers into shouldering a greater part of the burden was a political embarrassment and led reporters to ask the man known as The Governator whether California was governable at all. His nongermane reply to that very question makes one wonder whether the politician who still struggles to pronounce ‘California‘ had any business running it. Further fueling such speculation in some corners are his suggestion that California consider a flat tax, a move the increasingly ubiquitous Jerry Brown has supported in the past, as well as his willingness to allow the state government to come to a “grinding halt” versus taking what he sees as an ill-advised loan. His recent proposal to borrow $1.9 billion from city and county governments also caused quite a stir. These are rather unpredictable suggestions coming from a politician deemed clumsily predictable. Are these measures of desperation or is he suddenly more the pol willing to embrace the unconventional in his final year as opposed to the neophyte who began his term by rolling back the car tax – a move he now considers undoing. Arnold is free-wheeling a bit these days, throwing out all kinds of ideas he might have once felt an anathema to his political ideology and demonstrating a willingness to consider anything that might help. The reason is – he has nothing to lose. He has no re-election in his future and, though he may be lame-duck, he sounds determined not to go down without a quack.
And this made me think – what if our next governor felt as liberated as our current but had a full term to accomplish an ambitious agenda? What if we drafted a one-term politician with no further ambitions or eyes on a future presidency? This is all hypothetical conjecture, mind you, but what if we could find a candidate willing to suffer the slings and arrows of, at times, an outraged constituency but who was dedicated to making the changes that will lead our state back to fiscal responsibility? Real change is the kind of change we could all believe in but it might require real courage and selflessness.
I fear we often settle for political solutions, or even discourse, more akin to a fad diet than a change of lifestyle. Americans can be very short-sighted and unwilling to sacrifice but it is not as if we are incapable of it. We merely have grown accustomed to the Atkin’s diet style of solutions. Our next voice needs to be one unafraid to ask the people of California to make sacrifices. In turn, that politician might have to accept sacrificing his or her own political future. That would be public service.
I am not saying that a one-hit wonder must be elected but when one considers the current $24 billion deficit and the kinds of things that might have to be done: closing state parks, unpaid furloughs for state employees, drastic cuts in education – it is likely the person driving those measures would become very, very unpopular. Think about the reaction when President Carter suggested people put on a sweater rather than raising their thermostat.
In 1977, Jimmy Carter called it the “moral equivalent of war.” In the sort of speech a politician rarely delivers, he told a not-particularly-grateful nation that his energy program was going to hurt, but “a policy which does not ask for changes or sacrifices would not be an effective policy.” The core of his initiative was conservation. Carter had earlier asked us to lower our thermostats and wear sweaters.
People were outraged at being asked to make sacrifices and the sanguine Ronald Reagan toppled Carter’s pragmatism with a well placed ‘there you go again‘ and very few of us wore sweaters. Now imagine Californians not only being asked to make sacrifices but having sacrifices thrust upon them. Imagine going to vote and looking over all the enticing ballot measures offering to raise teachers’ pay, put more police on the streets, build more crosswalks near Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade and then having to vote for corresponding measures that will finance them. Imagine having additional taxes coming your way in all manner of clever devices. Think of your favorite trail or sandy beach falling victim to the accountant’s red pen or your local DMV shutting down or perhaps a toll on your favorite stretch of freeway. Think of all the cats and dogs living together and the mass hysteria and then think of the poster child for the insufferable ills brought upon the poor people of California, our next governor.
Now consider the intestinal fortitude of the leader who will speak frankly to the people from the very beginning of the campaign season. There is such a figure in Eugene Ionesco’s Exit the King. In Ionesco’s play, King Berenger is dying after 400 years. In those 400 years he has been alternately glorious and vain, and even vainly glorious and gloriously vain. Berenger is at the end of his life and is surrounded by a sycophantic group of supporters who unwittingly encumber the dying man with the unnecessary vestiges of a life he must leave behind. Though she seems antagonistic to the king through much of the play, the king’s first wife, Queen Marguerite, is the only person in his inner-circle who is truly honest with him. His death is inescapable and all the bemoaning will not circumvent it. In the end, in his end, she is the lone voice of reason who guides him to where he must go. She is ultimately the hero for helping him unburden himself with this world and exit into the next.
I am not suggesting that we are witnessing the death rattle of the Golden State; I merely suggest we need someone to speak bluntly and truthfully with us and that might require a politician free from the traditional political ego. When we look at the current field I am not certain we yet have a candidate who is willing to take these kinds of political risks.
If we were to find a one-term wonder there would also have to be a system of transparency that could be used as leverage for pressing an agenda. What sane elected official would want to support a governor with ideas that might, in the short-term, seem nothing more than a bitter pill to voters? How could a one-term official gather the support and cooperation of the state legislature who might find political benefit in opposing unpopular ideas? It would again have to come down to honest dialog. We need a leader to provide us with good ideas, tell us why they will work, explain what it will take to get them accomplished and then rally our support. If elected, the new governor would use that as a mandate from the people and then directly take on anyone in opposition. The key here is also to make very transparent which elected officials support these ideas and which are opposed and allow these politicians to explain themselves. Make them all answer to whether they have California’s best interests in mind or their own political ones.
That would be leadership. That would be service.
It’s an idea to consider at least, both as voters and for any potential candidates.
Now, who we gonna call?