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HEARTS OF THE CITY | Essay / Robert A. Jones

Coming of Age

November 06, 1996|Robert A. Jones

So it's the Morning After, and we have elected a president. Usually, just about this time, an old sense of detachment settles over California. The action has all shifted back east where people wear overcoats, the snow falls, and all the big decisions will get made. Out here, blinking in the sunshine, we resume our outpost status.

Always it has been such. But a little less so this year, yes? Somehow, we got our pound of flesh in this presidential season. We had a good year. California seemed to matter in this election more than most and for reasons good and bad. Here's my list of those reasons and the presidential lessons we can glean from them:

No. 1: California has become the motherland of wedge issues and, as such, it now attracts presidential candidates wanting or needing to play to peoples' hatreds. Our sorry record with wedge issues began almost 20 years ago when Howard Jarvis built the tax revolt around Prop. 13 and made government a dirty thing.

It was followed by term limits, which was followed by the immigrant-squashing Prop. 187, which was followed this year by the uprising against affirmative action.

Bob Dole sniffed the hatred in the air and camped out in California until he began to look like The Man Who Came to Dinner. He simply wouldn't go home. He endorsed Prop. 209, the affirmative action killer, saying he wanted to "wipe the shame of race-based discrimination from our land."

Then he bashed some immigrant heads, saying he was going to "secure our border," and blaming illegals for the state's crime problem and its crowded schools.

Before he left, the Dole wedging had pumped an extra $4 million into the state's economy, the amount he shifted from other states. But, alas, it appears to have bought him few votes and the reason is most interesting: California itself seems to be tiring of hate-based issues.

As this is written, Prop. 209's fate remains unsettled. Pass or fail, though, it generated little of the emotional heat provided by Prop. 187 just two years ago. Perhaps the difference lies in an upturned economy. Or perhaps the wedge issues and their cynicism have simply worn thin here. Over the next couple of years, we will see if the lukewarm Prop. 209 debate was the beginning of the end for California wedging.

No. 2: Size counts, but it counts more when you're a state divided. While California bathed in its lavish attention from both presidential campaigns, New York pols whined pathetically that their state was getting ignored. Both states are huge and both were regarded as slam dunks for President Clinton.

What was the difference? In part, it lies with California's congressional delegation, evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats. A small swing could throw the political balance toward one party or the other and both presidential campaigns wanted that advantage badly enough to hang around until we wished they would go home.

No. 3: Hollywood may have saved Clinton's bacon in ways we never guessed.

Remember the lambasting that Dole gave to Hollywood in 1995? Movie and record producers, he said, were "debasing America."

"The mainstreaming of deviancy must come to an end." Dole said. "Those who cultivate moral confusion for profit should understand this: We will name their names and shame them as they deserve to be shamed."

Dole figured that Hollywood was foursquare in the Clinton camp anyway, so what did he have to lose? Here's what: from November 1995 to this very day, Hollywood put on the silver screen two wildly successful movies showing Clinton-like presidents confronting their inner demons and emerging as lovable winners.

The two movies are "The American President" and, of course, "Independence Day." The first had a domestic gross of $60 million, the second $300 million and counting.

In "The American President" the Clinton proxy is played by Michael Douglas, a first-term president with a Chelsea-like daughter. A charming widower, Douglas/Clinton banters with his aides, knows his presidential history but waffles on the big issues.

"You left out the kick-ass section," the George Stephanopoulos character says to the president, referring to a gun control speech. Clinton/Douglas assures him that he will go into kick-ass mode "after the election."

When the inevitable crisis occurs, Clinton/Douglas must search for his moral core. He finds it, natch, and glides off to a second term with his to-die-for girlfriend, Annette Benning.

What's not to like? Nada. Just as handsome is the boomer president in "Independence Day" who also banters with his aides, just happens to have a daughter and finds himself in first-term trouble because of waffling. He finds his core in the nick of time to fight the evil aliens and save mankind.

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