Volume II, Issue III Autumn 2003

California voters get only smug condescension from political snobs

OCEANSIDE, California

Who's crying hardest over the recall of Gov. Gray Davis?

Surprisingly, it's not Davis or his employees, who'll be looking for work once Arnold Schwarzenegger takes over as governor.

It's the A-list of political reporters and pundits, sneering down their patrician noses at the grotesque spectacle of California voters removing a governor from office because they didn't approve of his performance.

Some of the braying about the recall:

  • An "extraordinary act of voter petulance," wrote Ron Fournier, an Associated Press political reporter.
  • A fit "of pique," proclaimed the New York Times in an editorial.
  • A "miserable" experience, proclaimed David Broder, the Washington Post's mummified political correspondent.
  • Columnist George Will derided California voters for removing an "obviously incompetent" governor after narrowly re-electing him the previous year. Will obviously doesn't think it significant that Davis' main opponent last year, blundering Bill Simon, an anti-gay, anti-abortion archconservative, was even more incompetent than Davis. Davis practically nominated Simon by spending $9 million in the GOP primary to savage Simon's main opponent, Richard Riordan. Schwarzenegger, a fiscal conservative who like Riordan is pro abortion-rights and gay rights, much more closely fits California's libertarian temperament.


The tone throughout all this editorial tut-tutting is one of irritation and condescension toward California voters. In reality, it's these political experts who are piqued, angry and petulant, with good reason: They haven't a clue what is happening, and they don't like looking foolish. Will, that weaned-on-a-pickle conservative, implied that California voters acted ignorantly. He described the recall a "riot of millionaires."

If Will were correct, California would now have 4.5 million millionaires – the number of voters who voted yes on the recall.

Will meant to refer to Darrell Issa, the San Diego-area congressman who gave the recall a financial boost when momentum seemed to be slowing. But had astringent Will bothered to actually poke his nose out of Plato's Republic, he might have seen that money had very little to do with this election. Voter disgust with Davis was far more important.

Despite his millions, Issa did not cut a distinguished figure as a candidate, suffering from reports of brushes with the law in his youth and a public that never warmed up to his candidacy. Issa pulled out with a weepy farewell reminiscent of Patricia Schroeder, the Colorado Democrat who cried in 1987 when announcing she would not run for president. Rather implausibly, Issa, an Arab-American, claimed he dropped out because his services were needed to bring peace in the Middle East.

In short, the recall quickly became larger than Issa. As the Sacramento Bee's political columnist Dan Weintraub points out, only 900,000 of the 1.6 million signatures gathered came from paid circulators. Volunteers gathered the rest.

The message was clear: voters were not mesmerized or deceived by some Machiavellian millionaire. Voters distinguished between the man and the message. They didn't much care for the man, but liked his idea.

Meanwhile, the coin-operated governor raised money prodigiously. As in the last election, Davis intended to bury his opponents financially, as well as by signing a blizzard of special-interest bills.

Davis, who once infamously compared Senator Dianne Feinstein to jailed hotelier Leona Helmsley, was warned by California Attorney General Bill Lockyer not to engage in his usual character assassination tactics.

Forced to face the people

Toward the end, Davis realized his usual tactics of spend, sign and demonize weren't working. Voters just didn't believe him. Desperate, Davis climbed down from his throne and did something completely out of character: he began holding town hall meetings with voters.

Anyone familiar with Davis knows how unusual this is. Our rent-a-governor typically spent most of his time squeezing money out of wealthy donors and political interest groups.

Weintraub compellingly described a September 8 meeting of Davis and about three dozen mostly African-American voters in South Central Los Angeles.

"I saw my first Gray Davis town hall tonight, and if nothing else, it was a testament to the power of the recall." (Read the account here: www.sacbee.com/static/weblogs/insider/archives/000545.html).

Weintraub's point, of course, is that the recall forced Davis to talk to average people and not just those with money. Davis had to listen as these mostly Democratic voters told him of their frustrations.

Too bad that Will and the other experts in democracy didn't value that reaffirmation of democracy.

West Coast blindness

Will, Broder, the Washington Post and the New York Times have some excuse for their incomprehension due to their East Coast and Washington-centric perch. People who make a living off of access to elites aren't going to be familiar with the average voter. And their writing reeks of the stereotypical East Coast cluelessness toward California.

But that excuse doesn't work for the Los Angeles Times. The biggest newspaper on the West Coast watched the biggest California political story since Reagan unfold – and badly botched the coverage.

Like the East Coast pundits, the Times hadn't a clue about what was going on, and ridiculed what it didn't understand. In Timesthink, the recall was a joke, a Republican plot, a circus.

The Times machine blasted the recall in official editorials, and its columnists also opposed it with the same sneering voice, mocking voters who would dare recall Gray Davis in favor of some SUV-loving actor. Evidently, the newspaper didn't think it necessary to find one columnist to represent the views of the majority of Californians who backed the recall.

Double standard

Then there's the Times' expose of Schwarzenegger's history of groping women, published five days before the election.

Schwarzenegger's campaign was furious at the charges, claiming the story deliberately ran close to the election to damage him. Conservative commentator Hugh Hewitt called the story, which used mostly anonymous sources, another example of bias by the "Tammany Times."

Of course, the Times denied any bias. Editor John Carroll said in an insult-filled commentary that the accusations were difficult to track down and the story ran as soon as possible. Carroll also said allegations that Davis has mistreated aides could not be verified.

Where's the news?

One thing above all is worth noting about the groping story: it's not news. Accounts of Schwarzenegger's crude behavior toward women have been around for more than a decade. It doesn't take a Pulitzer-prize winner to chase such a well-known story.

Two examples: the defunct Spy magazine published many of the groping accusations in the early 1990s. Premiere magazine did the same in March, 2001, also noting his political ambitions.

So as even Carroll admits, the Times didn't start from scratch when it investigated the groping allegations: The Times reporters began with a big head start based on the work of other journalists. The story itself revealed little that would surprise anyone who had read the Spy or Premiere articles. Moreover, the most sensational charges came from anonymous sources. We have no way of verifying their accuracy. We have to trust the Times to be fair.

Duck and dodge

One of the most interesting thing about Carroll's column is how he demonizes critics as ranting, ignorant and rude, while proclaiming his disdain for such abusive invective. He also declines to name the accusers or specifically answer their charges. But lumping in the nuts with mainstream critics doesn't get Carroll off the hook.

Jill Stewart, one of the highest profile critics, makes a strong case against the Times, including an account of the Davis abuse allegations.

Carroll's defense of the Times expose contains a startling admission: "Because Schwarzenegger had a chance of becoming our next governor, we decided on the day he entered the race to see whether this reputation was warranted."

Did it not occur to Carroll, editor of the largest newspaper in the world's entertainment capital, that the allegations about one of Hollywood's top actors were worth investigating even before he entered the race? Where were the Times' reporters during the last decade?

Much of the blame for this lack of curiousness can be attributed to Carroll's predecessors, famously unwilling to afflict the comfortable and powerful. But Carroll can't escape censure. He became Times editor in April of 2000; nearly a year before the Premiere story was published.

Had the Times ran a full-scale investigation of Schwarzenegger before he announced for governor, we'd all be better off. The facts would be out on the table, and there'd be less suspicion of partisan meddling by the Times. The same thing is true for the Davis abuse allegations, first aired when he was lieutenant governor and planning a run for governor.

The non-denial

Carroll's brief dismissal of the Davis abuse allegations is among the most eyebrow-raising parts of his apologia. In rather mysterious verbiage, Carroll writes that Times reporters twice investigated the allegations and found that "the discernible facts didn't support a story."

That's an odd way of putting things. What are these "discernible facts?" Carroll doesn't say. By what standard did the Times use to judge that the Davis allegations did not support a story, but the Schwarzenegger ones did? Carroll isn't telling.

Note also that the Sphinx of Spring Street doesn't come right out and say the Davis allegations were false or unsubstantiated.

After this non-denial denial, Carroll changes the subject to something he plainly enjoys more: discrediting the intellect and motives of those who dare question the Times' coverage. They're purveyors of "journalistic pornography" repeated on talk shows and the Internet.

Not so fast.

As Carroll knows, grotesque stories of Davis' alleged abusive behavior have circulated among political reporters for years. To quote the governor-elect: "Where's there's smoke, there's fire." But did the Times mount a serious investigation of Davis in the same manner as it did of Schwarzenegger? Carroll doesn't say.

Let's assume that the Times made a serious attempt to investigate the Davis allegations. There's another possibility why the Times' crack investigative team came up dry: the alleged victims didn't trust an anti-recall, pro-Davis newspaper to treat them fairly.

If Davis in fact had abused staff members, and had been induced to remain silent, they would presumably be reluctant to talk. Davis is notoriously vindictive and, as Dianne Feinstein knows, a devotee of the politics of personal destruction.

Aside from that, why would former Davis staff members tell their story to a newspaper long known as a Davis ally?

Davis isn't talking about the allegations. But if he did abuse staff members, they would presumably be more willing to talk about their ordeal once Davis is out of office.

But not, I'll bet, to the Tammany Times.

Tragedy of the Times

Carroll's descent into a caricatured party-line apologist for the Times' bias is painful to watch, particularly as Carroll had vowed to end such bias.

In late May, Carroll caused a sensation when he issued a now-famous memo, in language that would have made Rush Limbaugh proud, stating that he would rid the Times of its liberal bias.

Carroll's immediate ire was directed at a story on abortion in which a reporter referred to anti-abortion bills that require "so-called counseling" of those seeking abortions. Among other things, Carroll pointed out that the phrase "so-called" disparaged the aims of anti-abortionists. A more neutral formulation should have been used.

Unfortunately, now it appears Carroll has retreated back to denial of bias, preferring to slime his critics.

Hewitt points out Carroll's hypocrisy in his blog, starting with a quote from the New York Times:

"(Carroll) said in an interview that he was unlikely to appear on the cable news talk show circuit to defend his paper.

'I was raised in the South with a high premium put on manners," he said. 'I'm not about to go on a show in which people are shouted down.'

"Manners? Like the manners of anonymous sources and general attacks? Manners as in never giving your opponents even the smallest opportunity to respond to your attacks?

"Manners as in branding credentialed critics as 'pornographers,' while allowing your staff to attack the 'standards' and thus the reputation of ex-Times staffers like Jill Stewart as Michael Finnegan did on Laura Ingraham's program last week?"

In Carroll's through-the-looking glass world, manners are a one-way street.

Reaffirming democracy

All the annoyed commentary of the political establishment notwithstanding, the recall caught fire with the public in a nearly unprecedented way.

The results were stunning to anyone who believed the gloomy predictions that Davis could be replaced by someone getting as little as 20 percent of the votes or less.

Even though Schwarzenegger did not compete directly against Davis – who faced the recall in a separate up-or-down vote – he got more votes than did Davis.

What's more, 60 percent of registered voters cast ballots, 10 percentage points higher than in the 2002 election. Interest in the election was intense across the state. People listened, debated and voted.

For decades, political scientists and columnists have warned that democracy is in danger when an alienated and cynical public turns away from voting. The recall reversed that trend.

Instead of snarling and mocking, the media and political establishment would do better listening to what California voters said November 7.

They might actually learn something.

Bradley J. Fikes, technology editor of Turbula, is a longtime Southern California reporter.

Autumn 2003 Culture, Politics & Technology Section | Autumn 2003 Main Page
Current Culture, Politics & Technology Section | Current Home Page