Sunday, August 01, 2010

California’s birth pains: Ronald, Jerry, Arnold and Jerry

After watching Arnold Schwarzenegger being interviewed over the weekend on the Tom Sullivan Show I’ve given up the long-held delusion that Arnold would ride the white horse to the White House. He could well do that, even in President Obama’s administration. But he will bring to that only a charismatic novelty. And the White House already has one: Obama.

As Arnold ends his term in November, a strange symmetry is occurring in California. When he first ran for Governor, Arnold even got support from the most deeply conservative of the religious right in the heartland because he was a Hollywood hottie and suggested Ronald Reagan, the California governor who was also a Hollywood star. Reagan was followed by Jerry Brown as Governor. What is odd this time around is that Arnold could well be followed by the same Jerry Brown who is running again.

Arnold is a great pitch man and poster boy for California, but is not now and never was Ronald Reagan. Reagan’s California, like John Wayne’s, was more Texas than California as we know California to be today. That is, Reagan’s was the sagebrush “Hey, Sisco” - “Hey,Pancho” California which spread west and north from the Hollywood desert before Janis Joplin, before the Summer of Love, before the vast and world-wide cultural awakening in the mid-Sixties to which even Woodstock was a lawyer’s impoverished imitation.

Reagan was Governor of California during this awakening, from 1967 to 1975. He was the traditionalist’s hedge against it. He soon brought the hedge to Washington, D.C. But in that time California as we know it today was born, possibly at the Fillmore with the cries and animal chords of “. . . four gentlemen and one great, great, broad,” as Janis and her band was introduced to the big world in the summer of 1967.

This was the California that Reagan rose in opposition to, but this is a door that would not be closed. It is the California that Jerry Brown inherited when he went to the California governorship in 1975. This was always Jerry Brown’s California and it is today.

Janis’s cry from the heart was a birth pain, but it is a birth that has not completely gone full term yet. It is a strange fate indeed that Brown follows Arnold – Arnold, the Reagan knock off – as he followed Reagan himself. California may be down now, but it is not out. Possibly it is about to finally be born.

In the masterful “Mad Men,” set in 1963, California is described as “new and shining” while New York is a “city in decline.” Those who worked on Mad Ave. as I did decades ago know how the story ends: The talent moves to California. This is the new America in the center of the new world rising between east and west, superseding the old paradigm of North vs. South. It is revealed in living arrangements. A former soap opera actress (Jon Hamm’s landlady) has a house in LA but keeps an apartment in New York. While celebrity President Bill Clinton owns a house in West Chester County in New York, but keeps an apartment in LA.

One is light, one is shadow, but the light has shifted: CA is now in the light, NY has fallen into shadow. America’s edge today facing the world rising is California and it is not Schwarzenegger’s California or Reagan’s California, but Jerry Brown’s.

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