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Land of the Free-for-All

Flash and cash have fueled California elections for a century

August 10, 2003|James P. Pinkerton

A century ago, California launched a crusade against sober-minded politics. The drunken fruit of that crusade is what we see today: a delirious political orgy of movie stars, ex-TV stars, pornographers and ideologically polymorphous pundits -- and, oh yes, a few elected officials -- all running for governor.

One would never guess that those original anti-politics crusaders were as sober and serious as they come.

The key crusader was Hiram Johnson (1866-1945), who dominated California politics in the first half of the 20th century. Elected as a Progressive Republican governor in 1910, Johnson lived up to his billing: He instituted a host of high-minded reforms concerning everything from conservation to labor to railroads. But the signature issues of the day were procedural reforms. Progressives focused on "cleaning up" politics. They believed that "bosses" were the problem, so they fought for electoral mechanisms that would bypass clubhouse-controlled parties and deal-making in smoke-filled rooms. They wanted nonpartisan elections, the initiative process and, most poignantly, the recall process, which became law in California in 1911.

To be sure, the parties were corrupt, but wheeling-dealing politicking wasn't all bad; over the centuries it has given us such up-through-the-ranks leaders as Abraham Lincoln, Harry Truman and Bob Dole. Even more important, the two-party system, flaws and all, has proved to be a rock of stability, forcing interest groups to join together to resolve their differences internally, thus securing a stable, centrist tradition.

But the Progressives had a different vision. They hoped that their reforms would help elect experts like themselves, mostly Protestant Republicans. Their ideal government would be bolstered by a strong nonpartisan bureaucracy that would check the power of opposition politicians, who, not coincidentally, were mostly Catholic Democrats.

Instead of a credentialed technocratic utopia, what emerged instead -- fueled by television -- was a new kind of celebrity politics in which star-powered wannabes could bypass the parties and go straight to the voters.

In 1946, Earl Warren, a liberal Republican governor in the boss-beating, racket-busting tradition of Johnson, sought reelection. Trampling the weak partisan political establishment, he won both the Republican and Democratic gubernatorial nominations that year.

Vastly amplified by television, "outsiders" flourished in California. In 1964, Hollywood song-and-dance man George Murphy was elected to the U.S. Senate. Two years later, another movie star, Ronald Reagan, self-styled "citizen politician," won the governorship. Others have taken a similarly "non-political" path, including S.I. Hayakawa, the funny-hat-wearing president of San Francisco State College (now known as San Francisco State University), who was elected senator in 1976. And let's not forget Clint Eastwood, chosen mayor of Carmel in 1986. Who doubts that he could have gone higher if he had wanted to?

In such an ego-driven environment, the parties are defenseless against candidates using flash or cash to win office. Who can forget Michael Huffington, who carpet-bagged to California just in time to spend more than $5 million to win a House seat in 1992? Just two years later, his money bought him the Republican Senate nomination. That the newbie politician lost the general election is a reminder that the voters don't always swoon for a glitz blitz. Yet now, of course, his ex-wife, Arianna, is in the gubernatorial race, proving once again the unimportance of paying one's political dues.

Meanwhile, California, trend-setting state that it is, has set the tone for the rest of the nation. The same sorts of procedural reforms, plus Hollywood production values, have launched a host of famous/notorious political candidates, from Ross Perot to Fred Thompson to Jesse Ventura.

But in an odd way, gubernatorial hopeful Arnold Schwarzenegger, the seeming reductio ad absurdum of glam politics, is in fact an echo of California's reformist tradition. He says, channeling Hiram Johnson, that he wants to "clean house" in Sacramento. And the statehouse is about as far, politically, as Schwarzenegger can go. The Constitution prohibits the Austrian-born muscle star from seeking the presidency. By contrast, just about every other Golden State governor in the last half a century has harbored White House dreams.

So, strange as it may seem, Schwarzenegger may be the best inheritor of the Progressive legacy -- a serious candidate motivated by idealism, not ambition.

James P. Pinkerton is a fellow at the New America Foundation in Washington.

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