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Wrapping Himself in the Flag, Davis Misses His Chance to Lead

January 10, 2002|George Skelton


Senate leader John Burton was slipped Gov. Gray Davis' State of the State speech the night before the governor delivered it. Burton got the raw TelePrompTer version, including stage directions. Little notations to "look there and bow ... point to them and applaud."

A wily Capitol veteran with unmatched sources, Burton may have been the first person outside the governor's inner circle to obtain a coveted copy of the text. Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg, for example, didn't see the speech until one hour before Davis delivered it Tuesday evening to a joint session of the Legislature.

At any rate, Burton read it and was not impressed. In fact, he didn't even show up for the governor's address until the very end. "Hit traffic and fog," he told reporters.

Burton said that almost straight-faced.

Whatever the reason, it's the only time I can recall that a legislative leader was a no-show for a State of the State.

The Senate president pro tem would have participated prominently in what traditionally is the grandest event of the year in the Capitol, one that draws all the elected state officials and the California Supreme Court.

"As a new grandfather," Burton said, "I wasn't going to risk my life to get to this speech."

Having read the governor's remarks, what did he think? "It was a speech." Then after a long pause: "That had no relevance to reality in the budget."

Davis swore off any tax hike to balance a budget that's projected to be in the hole at least $12 billion. "It made absolutely no sense to categorically rule out a tax increase," said Burton, an old-school liberal who has proposed raising income taxes by $2.5 billion on the wealthiest Californians.

Clearly, the governor has a political problem not only with Republicans, who are yapping at him constantly this election year. He is becoming increasingly estranged from the most powerful legislator of his own party.

Burton also was put off--as were many legislators privately--by the governor's repeated introductions of invited guests, most of them connected to the terrorist attacks or security. All the scripted bowing, pointing and applauding.

"Who started all that?" asked Burton.

Who knows, but royal introductions from the podium became commonplace after President Reagan introduced Lenny Skutnik at a State of the Union address 20 years ago.

Skutnik was a government gofer who became a hero when he instinctively leaped into the icy Potomac to rescue a floundering woman unable to hold onto a helicopter lifeline. She'd been aboard a commercial airliner that had plunged into the river during a blizzard, killing 78.

"We saw again the spirit of American heroism at its finest," Reagan extolled, as only the Great Communicator could.

Ultimately, such introductions became known as "pulling a Skutnik," says political consultant Dan Schnur, former spokesman for Gov. Pete Wilson. While drafting State of the State speeches, Schnur recalls, "We'd sit around and say, 'We need some Skutniks.'

"Gray Davis set a new world record for Skutniks."

I counted 10 separate introductions of groups or individuals. That doesn't include the governor's introduction of his wife and mother, or the state Supreme Court.

It does include three different introductions of six people who lost family members in the Sept. 11 attacks or during military action. And that's fine and proper.

But those gestures were cheapened by seven other introductions--of National Guard members, the chief of an urban rescue team, his own security advisor, six sheriffs, a highway patrolman, police chief.... Many are backing his reelection.

"A little schmaltzy," commented one Assembly Democrat.

Polls show that Davis is politically vulnerable on the issue of leadership, largely because of last year's energy mess. Voters question whether he has the ability or willingness to lead California on the issues they're most concerned about: the economy, electricity, education.

Add the state budget--program cuts and taxes--to this list, but not security. Voters feel that's President Bush's responsibility, not their governor's.

Given that, Davis missed a good opportunity--his only sure-fire extended free TV time of the year--to display leadership by talking more about how he plans to guide California through this recession.

Instead he tried to force-feed TV viewers a sugarcoated version of his record, while tackily wrapping himself in the flag. I suspect their eyes alternately glazed and rolled, as Burton's had.

It's time for the governor to focus on governing the state--and let the president worry about "homeland security."

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