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Rumors of Our Death . . .

May 14, 1997|PETER H. KING

Amazing the miracles a whiff of prosperity can produce. Just the other day Gov. Pete Wilson actually referred to welfare recipients as "our fellow Californians." This benign phrasing represents quite a departure for Wilson. Not long ago, those unfortunate enough to land on the dole could expect to be tongue-lashed by the governor for sloth, thievery and wanton promiscuity.

Now they are "our fellow Californians," and he wants to throw a few hundred million taxpayer dollars their way. Well, good for Wilson. He should not be condemned for this mood swing: Like most political positions, it no doubt reflects a concurrent shift in popular attitudes. Some would characterize such flip-flopping as leadership by focus group. In a more charitable mode, it might also be called representative democracy.

And why not be charitable? At long last, Californians, happy days are here again. Sacramento is overflowing with moola. The crime rate has plummeted. Business is booming, creating about 40,000 new jobs a month. The "exodus" of companies and talent turned out to be a fraud. No canyons are ablaze. The poppies are in bloom.

In such a season, acts of kindness need not be feared. Why not offer welfare recipients a hand? For that matter, why not step away from the infamous notion that "they" keep coming across the border to steal government services. Perhaps this new, kinder governor will concede that in fact Mexicans slip across the border for work, low-paying, back-breaking work. When Wilson cops to that truth, all will know that California's economic recovery is complete.


Polls indicate Californians are feeling better about the state, and themselves, and it is no wonder. Wounds that do not kill, as the saying goes, only make you stronger. It is important to note, however, that most Californians did not, metaphorically speaking, see combat duty in the downturn. Most, by far, did not lose their jobs and move to Seattle, most did not see their houses consumed by fire, quake or flood. Throughout, California maintained its dominance in agriculture, high-tech, entertainment. The less than half-empty glass was more than half-full all along.

And yet, so many people seemed to lose faith. They were egged on by "leaders" like Wilson, who saw tactical advantage in blaming the effects of a recession on worker safety laws and environmental regulations, on fruit pickers and Pentagon bean counters. California doesn't work anymore, was their ceaseless mantra. California is a lousy product. Naturally, the more people heard such carping, the more their spirits tumbled.

At last, blessedly, the five-year funk of despair, blame and self-pity has lifted. The line to take credit is a long one, beginning with Wilson. I would prefer to pin the medals on people who saw through the gloom to the future: the retired Army officer who jump-started the conversion of Fort Ord into a college campus; Stephen Levy, the Palo Alto economist who took some potshots for daring to report that, despite the down cycle, the state's economic base was solid and poised for boom, and the thousands of unknown soldiers like my friend Bill Saul who, downsized out of corporate Los Angeles, quietly reinvented himself as a schoolteacher.


As for the governor, there unfortunately is no way to measure how much his poor-mouthing of California, at a time when the state was struggling, contributed to the general misery. I would submit it was significant. Strangely enough, bucking up spirits never seemed part of Wilson's agenda; he said he didn't intend to become a "cheerleader." If he had served on FDR's watch, the line would have read, "The only thing we have to fear are . . . the Japanese! And the Germans! And don't forget the Italians!"

One wonders about missed opportunities. The lull in construction, for example, might have been an ideal moment to pursue a framework for growth management; instead, Wilson grumbled, "Wish I had some growth to manage." Similarly, a little kindness might have meant more to "our fellow Californians" when jobs were scarce and the welfare rolls expanding, not now as the economy catches fire.

But enough. Whoever deserves the credit, the essential point remains: California is back. During the bleakest passage, when every paper in the land was conjuring up snide obituaries for "the California dream," I stumbled upon a Lyle Lovett ballad that seemed a perfect California anthem for the times. Called "The Old Porch," it ends with these lines:

This old porch is just a long time, waiting and forgetting, and remembering the coming back, and not crying about the leaving. And remembering the falling down, and the laughter of the curse of luck from all those sons-of-bitches who said we'd never get back up.

Well, we got back up.

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