But people, as concerned as they were about the end of the state as a functioning fiscal entity, were even more concerned about the end of something else: the story of California. The fairy tale. The Dream. And this idea, that the whole preposterous opera was coming to a close, was indescribably horrible and beautiful at the same time. “The California narrative has come to a kind of halt,” says Kevin Starr, a history professor at USC who has written a seven-volume history of the state. All those thousands of stories, told by Steinbecks and Didions and newspaper barons and politicians, and millions of others, written in the sand and dirt and orange groves by dust bowlers and migrants and former shtetl dwellers out to make a million dollars where no one cared about their religion, were really one story, the only thing that everyone had a piece of. And now everyone I met out there seemed to think this story was coming to an end, unless someone could save it. Maybe the state would get saved, too.
Of course, the Dream was part of the problem. The mythologies of gold rushes and personal reinvention and endless pleasure under the palm trees have been a powerful magnet and engine of California’s growth—but they’ve also created a kind of Ponzi scheme, allowing California to believe that it could continually expand its social net for 50 years while simultaneously cutting its own taxes. But if the California Dream is the problem, nobody would admit it. Out there, they talk like it’s a civil right. If you eliminate the Dream, what’s left? Illinois with some nice beaches.
No self-respecting Californian would want to live in such a place. And they don’t! Ominously, more people are now leaving the state than coming in, a reverse gold rush. Is that why this election is so bizarre? An antique barnstormer like Jerry Brown—Governor Moonbeam—going for the glory one last time, running against a power-suited billionaire businesswoman in pearls—from out East, no less—to replace a down-on-his-luck action hero? And the power-suited high-tech tycoon wasn’t even the only power-suited high-tech tycoon promising a better day. The whole state was a little dizzy. And all the more so these days because in California, you can get pot pretty much anywhere.
A warehouse in San Diego, a tinted-window company in an office park lined with palm trees. Parking lots full of cars gleaming in the 95-degree heat.
Meg Whitman, the Republican candidate for governor, former chief executive of eBay, author of The Power of Many: Values for Success in Business and in Life, is about to appear on a stage. Big industrial fans are being set up to cool a group of factory workers in identical sky-blue T-shirts, a carefully selected ethnic panorama sitting on a riser, over which a big glossy sign declares, JOBS ARE ON THE WAY!
Suddenly, Whitman’s theme song blasts over the PA, signaling her imminent arrival. It’s a piano-rock number with power chords that telegraph inspiration and triumph. It’s also jarringly close to the old Foreigner hit “Cold As Ice.” So as Whitman walks onstage in a black pantsuit, beaming and waving, dimpled and winsome as a valedictorian, the opening lyrics seem to ring out:
She’s as cold as ice
She’s willing to sacrifice our love
“Well, I am delighted to be here,” she starts, reading from two pieces of paper she has carefully placed on a podium. She is tall and almost teetering in heels, but her delivery is poised, crisp, and studied. A native of Long Island, top ten in her high-school class, a Princeton grad with an M.B.A. from Harvard, Whitman has been in California on and off since 1981 but still hasn’t lost her blue-blood elocution. “You are a symphony in bluuuue. It’s remarka-bulll …”
It’s acknowledged among her own staff that Whitman has had trouble connecting with crowds. After a major gaffe last fall, when she stumbled trying to explain why she may not have voted until her mid-forties, she limited her press exposure, letting her multi-million-dollar campaign production serve as prosthetic charisma. Last month, she broke the all-time record for personal money spent on a campaign, $119 million (now she’s up to $140 million), but she is currently as much as seven points down in the polls, partly the result of allegations that she knowingly employed an illegal alien as a housekeeper and then fired her when she began her campaign for governor.
The plushness of the campaign is everywhere in evidence. A dozen advance men with Secret Service–style earbuds curling from their blazers buzz around the perimeter. There are chipper volunteers handing out copies of a 46-page magazine that looks like a special edition of BusinessWeek dedicated exclusively to Meg Whitman. Inside are photos of her looking willowy and warm, listening intently to suburban moms and Latino fruit-pickers alike. It is chock-full of bullet points and graphs, like a benevolent quarterly report. “Of the 38 million people living in California,” reads one item, “144,000 are paying almost 50 percent of the state’s personal income tax.”