Frustrating? Recall the infamous letter Schwarzenegger sent to the State Assembly, along with a veto of a development project, in which the first letter of each line together spelled FUCK YOU.
(Among Schwarzenegger’s victories in office were structural fixes meant to defuse political polarization, like redistricting reform and open primaries. Considering his legacy, he compares himself to Jerry Brown’s father. “They look back, man, this guy, we didn’t know it, this guy created some great action,” says Schwarzenegger, “but back then we didn’t realize it.”)
When a law is finally passed in Sacramento, lawsuits are next. “Judges make a lot of the decisions,” says Schwarzenegger. “When you talk about the slalom course, there were some gates thrown in while you’re going down the course. You say, ‘Wait a minute, where did that gate come from?’ ”
Then there are the multitudinous ballot initiatives, which have swung the state around by its own tail for years. They’re blamed for some of the laws that permanently warped California, like Prop 13, the 1978 vote to cap property taxes, which made income tax the main source of state revenue, thus tying California’s fortunes to the booms and busts of the economy. There are also propositions to reverse laws already passed, like Prop 23, a ballot to temporarily suspend the crown jewel of Schwarzenegger’s legacy, climate-change legislation. Whitman has waffled on Prop 23.
Schwarzenegger has been excommunicated from the Republican Party in California since 2005, when he lost on a series of fiscally conservative initiatives following an expensive battle with the unions, which burned $120 million trying to defeat him. At the time, his staff was made up of all the people running Meg Whitman’s campaign.
“Having not been in politics, I really didn’t know all the players available,” says Schwarzenegger. “So you had a little bit of the leftover Pete Wilson people and some new ones, but I really never felt until two years later that now I have my team.”
Maria Shriver, Schwarzenegger’s Democrat wife, blamed her husband’s staff for mismanagement and, after pushing them out, became her husband’s unofficial headhunter. The late Tim Russert recommended she hire Steve Schmidt, a senior official in the Bush White House, to help her husband win reelection in 2006. To court recalcitrant Democrats, Schwarzenegger hired a gay Democrat from the Bay Area named Susan Kennedy as his chief of staff. She pushed through the climate bill, which, along with Schwarzenegger’s pledge not to raise taxes, helped him get reelected in 2006.
Then the economy cratered and Schwarzenegger reneged on the pledge and raised taxes. His popularity plummeted.
Schwarzenegger is virtually alone these days. Gray Davis, the highly unpopular governor ousted in the circuslike recall of 2003, has been an adviser to him. In the end, Schwarzenegger compares the economy to a bad movie he’s blamed for having starred in. “If you come out with a movie and you’re the star, you get all the credit in the world and you’re the one that has created this success,” he explains. “And if the movie goes in the toilet, then you get dumped on that you’re not hot anymore, you’re history, even if the acting was good, the directing was bad, the script was bad, but your acting was brilliant. That’s just the way it works.”
Are the glory years of California over? I pose this question to Steve Merksamer, the Sacramento lawyer who’s a former chief of staff to two-term governor George “Iron Duke” Deukmejian. Merksamer has a long memory. He was around when Reagan fired two staffers in 1967 after a report surfaced of a gay sex orgy in a Lake Tahoe cabin.
“If you had asked me this question two years ago, I would have said the pessimism is overdone,” he says in his office overlooking the lawn in front of the statehouse. “It’s the same old California, maybe with some more complex problems. But you ask me the question today, I would say, I don’t know. It’s the first time in 40 years that I would say I don’t know. I can’t look you in the eye and say it’s the same California I grew up in, and that’s an optimistic, can-do California.”
“Merksamer!” grunts Schwarzenegger when I tell him what Merksamer said. “Just look at him.”
Schwarzenegger then goes into an impression of Merksamer, grimacing, mocking his bushy white hair. His aides fall into hysterics.
“It doesn’t surprise me at all that a verklempt guy like that says something like that,” he says. “I mean, Merksamer. You can see in the face that there is no optimism, there is no joy, there is no juice there.
“This is not me,” he says. “But, you know … he’s a good lawyer.”
“Out of constraints comes creativity,” Jerry Brown tells me, trying to explain how California goes forward. He’s still doing it, still dreaming. Money, or lack of it, can’t kill the dream. California’s not old. Look at Brown, he’s 72 and still going. If Brown can rise again, so can California. That’s his pitch, when it comes down to it. It’s never too late. “He’s 72, and he can be president,” Brown himself marveled while watching John McCain win a primary against Mitt Romney in 2008. “If he can be president at that age, so can I.”
In Brown, the Dream will never die—he is the Dream, in all its loopy optimism and brilliant delusions. Maybe nothing will get fixed. But no one ever got shot into space, either. Maybe it doesn’t matter.
Brown leans back, looks down, touches the table that he’s been pounding all morning.
“This used to be a railroad tie,” he says. “Now it’s a table.”
It’s a Zen moment. The sound of one hand clapping. Brown’s eyes narrow. You can see the gears in his head turning. A new idea. A New California?
“I think I got this in Pennsylvania.”