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West of Eden

How nostalgia for a mythical past drove the recall

Published October 12, 2003

Californians recalled their governor on Tuesday because he asked them to pay a couple of hundred dollars more a year to register their cars. The $4-billion in extra revenue from the tax is intended to pay for local emergency services and libraries.

They voted Gov. Gray Davis out because they say he concealed the true size of the state's budget deficit until after he had been elected to his second term last November.

They replaced him with a bodybuilder turned multimillionaire action hero because they said the actor was too rich to be bought off by special interests the way Davis had been.

Because Davis was so stiff and charmless, because his campaign to save his political life had been so oddly lifeless, because the opinions about him were so stunningly negative (two weeks before the election his approval rating was 27 percent, up from a low of 22 percent), and because in the end he was beaten so soundly, the justifications for his removal have taken on a kind of indisputableness.

They are anything but.

During nearly two weeks in California in August and October, I had interviewed dozens of people across the state, from the beach at Santa Monica to the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas. What I had heard had convinced me the recall would succeed and that Schwarzenegger would win.

But what I heard did not match what I saw.

This contradiction became fully clear to me last Sunday in Sacramento as I waited for the arrival of Arnold Schwarzenegger's barnstorming bus tour. Some 5,000 people were gathered on the south side of the Capitol building.

The afternoon was clear and warm. Vendors sold flavored ices and barbecue sandwiches. Massive speakers on the stage pumped out '70s disco tunes as families who'd spent the morning in church lolled about on the lawn. For an hour I wandered through the crowd. Car tax, deficit, bad business climate, drivers' licenses for undocumented immigrants. The same endless loop of complaint I'd heard on talk radio for a week.

Yet, not one of the people I spoke to was out of work. They didn't know anyone who had lost a job. (A few days earlier I had met an unemployed electrician, but he said he was only "on the book" because union officials were punishing him for backing Schwarzenegger.)

I thought back to the families I had met who were buying half-million-dollar homes sight unseen, and the smartly dressed women at the packed shopping malls, and the report two days earlier from the federal government that 57,000 U.S. jobs had been added in September, the first increase in eight months.

As Schwarzenegger bounded on stage to the strains of We're Not Gonna Take It, the '80s rock anthem from Twisted Sister that he had adopted as his theme song, I wondered why the people who were the angriest at Davis were the people who seemed to be suffering least.

"In 1968," Schwarzenegger shouted hoarsely into the microphone, referring to the year he arrived in the United States, "this was the state of great dreams. California has given me everything. It is the greatest state in the world. We can make it the great state it once was."

He had been speaking in this nostalgic, internally contradictory manner (California was great, California is great) throughout his campaign. Judging by the roars of approval from the thousands of mostly white supporters who turned out for his events, Schwarzenegger, the political novice, had touched the raw and beating heart of their collective anger. He had been awake from the outset to a feeling that Davis, the career politician, only acknowledged when confronted by the recall.

Peter H. King, the Los Angeles Times columnist, saw the same disconnect between the voters' fury and the "relatively minor oppressions" they said they had suffered.

"But it has always been that way here," he wrote. "From the start, anger has animated the state's politics and forged its politicians. Happy warriors never last long on the California scene. Brooding dividers, playing to the native hunch that Eden has been squandered, tend to fare much better.

"Even a fellow like Arnold Schwarzenegger, fabulously fit, rich as a railroad baron, living large on the Pacific Coast, felt compelled to strike the pose of the aggrieved insurgent, determined to grab back what had been "taken' from him by "Sacramento.' "

What is remarkable about Schwarzenegger's campaign of nostalgia is that the public preferred a mist-enshrouded recollection of an idealized state to a much less comforting but demonstrably true version of recent history.

The car tax that so enraged voters, the tax Schwarzenegger vowed to repeal, is now at about the level it was under Republican Gov. Pete Wilson. The several hundred thousand jobs that have been lost over the last couple of years are more than offset by a net gain of 900,000 jobs since 1998 when Davis was first elected.

"There's no logic or rationality to large parts of this," Bruce Cain, the director of the Institute for Governmental Studies at the University of California at Berkeley, said about a week before the vote.

But the public's stubborn refusal to take account of history was matched by an equally resolute naivete about what Schwarzenegger will almost certainly have to do to balance a projected $8-billion deficit ($12-billion if the car tax revenue is lost).

"I will not raise taxes," Schwarzenegger said at the Sacramento rally. "I will not raise taxes."

"We believe you," shouted a man next to me in the crowd.

Schwarzenegger quoted Ronald Reagan's description of America as a "shining city on the hill." He did not mention that Reagan, when he arrived in Sacramento in 1967 as the newly elected governor, balanced the state's deficit with a tax increase that was the largest ever approved in U.S. history.

I asked many of Schwarzenegger's supporters if they would feel betrayed if he reneges on his no-tax promise.

Mark Likowski, a Long Beach cactus salesman whose spiky bleached hair makes him look like a Rod Stewart impersonator, said "people will accept it if he says, "I didn't want to do this.' I truly believe he does not want to raise taxes."

It's a funny kind of free pass Schwarzenegger has been afforded by a public that made it abundantly clear that any kind of tax, no matter its cause or purpose, is too onerous to bear. Davis lied, but Schwarzenegger will be okay just because he tried.

At the end of the rally, Schwarzenegger, the populist candidate, ducked into the Capitol building and ensconced himself in the Senate's hearing rooms, which he had transformed into a VIP lounge. The corridor outside was roped off to the public as a select group of campaign workers and other supporters were allowed in with their families to pose for photos with him.

In the corridor, Sylvia Jenkins Lamon, 55, whose parents still farm a 300-acre tract of walnuts, peaches and prunes in Yuba City, talked to me about when she was a child and smog never obscured the mountains. "Davis hasn't done anything to help that," she said.

Lamon reached out to clasp Schwarzenegger's hand when he emerged into the hall.

"Oh, that is so cool," she said. "I shook Reagan's hand and it was the best thing that ever happened in my life. Now I've shaken (Schwarzenegger's) hand. I'll never forget this."

[Last modified October 12, 2003, 01:33:42]


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