Political Lights Go Out

Editorial Page: 7B


Tom McEnery is a former San Jose mayor.


IN THE early morning hours of August 1914, the British foreign secretary, Sir Edward Grey, stood on the balcony at Whitehall contemplating the cataclysmic outbreak of World War I. Observing the lamps being extinguished, one by one, below on the streets, he said fatalistically: “The lights are going out all over Europe, and they will not be relit in our lifetime.”

An observer of today’s California political firmament might utter the same refrain. It has been the ugliest and least instructive election campaign since the Know Nothing Party led vicious assaults in the late 19th century. Significant blame must rest on the shoulders of Gov. Pete Wilson, who has proved he will invoke any battle cry to be re-elected. Whether the topic is interrogating immigrant schoolchildren, where he’s morally wrong, or jailing three-time rapists, where he’s definitely right, the campaign level is deplorable. His opponent, Kathleen Brown, has failed to define any coherent vision of the state. Brickbats should also be hurled at the hypocritical and woolly-headed Senate hopeful, Michael Huffington, if that wax banana merited any attention at all. But it is not really these and other desperate, sound-bite candidates who merit our most intense scorn. There are others who bear responsibility. I am speaking, of course, of the arrogant assemblage of Democrats who have controlled the state Legislature for years, and who, by their antagonism to the reform of the criminal justice system, to campaign finance reforms, and to commonsense immigration and multicultural policies, have unleashed the twin dragons of apathy and anger. This, far more than the structured anti- government nihilism of the Republicans, has made California a near ungovernable state.

There was a time when sun-kissed, progressive California was the envy of the world, with superb institutions of higher learning, splendid highway systems, and neatly sculptured homes in endless tracts stretching to the horizon. Leaders like Hiram Johnson, Earl Warren and Pat Brown were the exemplars of this enlightened era.

Now all of that is gone.

It is the time of 30-second attacks and South-Central and sadism. The evening news proclaims our schools are a joke, our neighborhoods under siege, and our highways either at a dead stop or seething with anger and resentment. It is not just hyperbole: Much is accurate; much was avoidable. The answers screamed out from the advent of the Proposition 13 revolt, to the collapse of the multicultural experiment. Yet the Democrats sat sphinx-like. The party of change and creativity remained dormant and immutable — frozen to its special interest money and perks of office.

It is a sad story.

Many attempts to put truly bad and violent people in jail were rebuffed; political reforms, like a reasonable 12-year term limit and campaign financing changes, were strangled in their infancy by Speaker Willie Brown and his minions. The system was broke, but a lot of the Democrats were still on a
free and cavalier bus ride. Most Republican legislators were intellectually impotent. It is little wonder that so many disdain the two-party system and describe themselves as Independents. Who would want to be affiliated with such lemming-like confusion? The needed adjustments did not happen; they were not even debated.

In an area of great confusion, there were voices who counseled a moderate view of inclusion of all cultures in the multicultural debate. But a central theme of the “oneness” of America and the beauty and strength of assimilation were shouted down. The phrase, E Pluribus Unum, “out of many one,” was swallowed in a wave of political correctness. If you continued to question too great a reliance on native language and too little on teaching English, because it failed to incorporate children into the American culture, you were called nativist, xenophobe, or worse.

English was looked at askance; history was politicized; silence was golden. As historian Shelby Foote once said: “Are you willing to dilute the pure stream of history in order to investigate all the creeks that run into it?” The answer was “yes.” It was an error that made the stream brackish.

The lights are indeed going out in California. In places, however, there are flickering embers. Once the dreadful election season closes, with its lies, distortions and Pollyannish thinking, there could be another chance. It might well be an occasion to recall the worthy glories of our past, a time when the term “California dream” was not an oxymoron.

There could be a time when the people of our state could form the communities of responsibility that John Gardner writes of so glowingly, people who share the central hopes of one another: an education, a good job, and a safe home.

And then, they must take responsibility to reach for those goals. Those things are so remote now that it would take the moral equivalent of a Marshall Plan to have any chance of success.

The people of this beleaguered state must stop looking for the leader on a white horse and look to themselves. They must stop tolerating and responding to the callous negativism of campaigns. They must turn on the political charlatans, the modern-day Elmer Gantrys who hold sway over both political parties. Therein lies the only way out for our nation-state.

Let us pray that our communities of responsibility start their work quickly.


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