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The old Arnold's returned, and now we can move again

January 01, 2006|Kevin Starr | Kevin Starr, University Professor at USC, is the author, most recently, of "California: A History."

Early last month, the official portrait of former Gov. Gray Davis was unveiled in the Capitol Rotunda in Sacramento. On Thursday, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger will deliver the annual State of the State address to the Legislature. The two events have plenty in common.

The portrait unveiling was a festival of reconciliation that underscored something beyond politicians' marvelous ability to bury the hatchet. At the ceremony, Davis, summarily recalled from office in 2003, was praised by Schwarzenegger, the man who had displaced him. And the governor, so recently demonized in the ill-fated special election he called, basked in the bipartisan approval of the Democratic and Republican officeholders in attendance. Schwarzenegger and Davis were struggling to meet at the center of the political spectrum, where each of them feels most comfortable.

That brings us to Thursday's address, on which I played a minor role as historical consultant. Schwarzenegger will outline a bold program of infrastructure construction and renovation, to be principally financed by a $25-billion to $27-billion bond issue.

His ambition has a proud precedent in California.

Although it was believed at the time that World War II could drag on to 1947, even 1948, Republican Gov. Earl Warren, in 1944, established a commission to envision California's infrastructure needs once peace came. Across the administrations of three governors -- Warren, Republican Goodwin Knight and Democrat Pat Brown -- the 1944 vision was sustained and enhanced in an astonishing array of public works and education, recreational and preservationist projects. Consider:

* A statewide freeway system was built.

* The University of California was expanded, the California State University system created and hundreds of community colleges and K-12 schools constructed -- all under the auspices of the Master Plan of Higher Education of 1960.

* The State Water Project, which ranks with the greatest construction projects in history, came into being.

* The state parks system grew through the acquisition of numerous properties.

During this era, California possessed a coherent vision and narrative of itself as a 20th century mega-state. It knew what California should be, wanted to be, and actualized these desires in billions of dollars of projects. In a real sense, we have been living off this legacy for more than half a century.

For some time, we Californians have struggled to find a similar vision and narrative for our era. Our politics seem bewildered and petty because we have failed to discover how California should prepare for the 21st century as the California of the mid-1940s began preparing for the six decades to come.

November's special election underscored politics as a dead end. Two sides spent millions of dollars on television ads to demonize each other. The only purpose was to further split a body politic already dangerously divided. As a result, there was no political capacity for creative public action on the statewide level.

Schwarzenegger was humbled when all four of his initiatives were defeated, but the public employee unions put themselves in hock. He made his point on some issues, but at the cost of repudiating the center, where he is most comfortable, and suppressing his fundamentally likable personality behind what the unions depicted as Pharaonic indifference. However worthy the initiatives, they would have been handled through give-and-take between governor and Legislature were there a mature political culture in Sacramento.

By admitting failure at the polls, traveling to China on a trade mission to remind California of his popularity abroad and getting behind a 21st century infrastructure program, Schwarzenegger has de-demonized himself. The Terminator of union-sponsored television ads has become, once again, Kindergarten Cop, or at least the likable Arnold of recent memory. And the state of California is thereby on the verge of recovering its political capacity for significant action.

We esteem the politics and politicians of a half-century ago as emblematic of a golden age of consensus in California. But in so doing, we forget the turmoil and difficulty, the contentions and trade-offs -- the sheer political drama behind each and every infrastructure project as it went from visionary statement to legislative action to realization.

If we do not want our levees to collapse in an earthquake and create a New Orleans-like flood; if we wish to free the state from the gridlock that daily increases on our freeways, highways and roads; if we wish to set in place the social, education and communications infrastructure of a 21st century society and hence keep our economy competitive -- then we should take great heart in last month's symbolic embrace of Davis and Schwarzenegger at that healing and sustaining center from which the California of the next half-century can be launched.

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