Bill Whalen

Take heed, Gov.-Elect Newsom: simple speeches are best

Governor Edmund G. Brown Jr. and Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom, who will be sworn in as Californiaâ??s next Governor on January 7, 2019, speak to the media outside of the Governor’s office at the State Capital on Tuesday, November 13, 2018 in Sacramento.
Governor Edmund G. Brown Jr. and Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom, who will be sworn in as Californiaâ??s next Governor on January 7, 2019, speak to the media outside of the Governor’s office at the State Capital on Tuesday, November 13, 2018 in Sacramento. pkitagaki@sacbee.com

I’m a creature of routines, which means I begin my weekdays by opening Politico’s “California Playbook” – often to stumble across these words: “Where’s Jerry? Nothing official announced.”

This is not a knock against Gov. Brown and certainly not to suggest that he’s started his political retirement early.

Rather, it underscores the curious existence that is California’s chief executive.

There are times that try governors’ souls, two of which occurred right after Election Day – the horrific mass shooting in Thousand Oaks and the devastating wildfires in the north and south, which Brown is closely monitoring.

But there are other times in a governor’s life that are, shall we say, not all that cinematic: days without media events; meetings behind closed doors cutting legislative deals, pushing paperwork, asking for campaign dollars.

 

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It’s what Brown does exceptionally well.

We’ll see if Gavin Newsom is as diligent.

For all the disorders that have beset American politics in recent times, one that worries me is the “Sorkinization” of the electorate. Voters have been led to believe that politics play out like an Aaron Sorkin screenplay – as fast-paced and witty as “The West Wing” or “Charlie Wilson’s War,” as conviction-affirming as “The American President.”

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Bill Whalen

The truth: Governing California, on a daily basis, is far more pedestrian. Staff meetings can be prolonged and stultifying – a veritable policy potage. By the time a governor makes his sixth or seventh annual speech to the state’s counties and water associations, he can sound like a performer on tour (“hey, it’s great to be back here at the . . .”).

How does this relate to Newsom?

The governor-elect loves rhetoric. On the campaign stump, he sounded as though he swallowed an alliterative, turn-of-phrase thesaurus. His Election Night victory speech was no different: “The true genius isn’t the value we work for, it’s the values we fight for” . . . “We don’t demean, we don’t discriminate and we don’t demoralize” . . . “transforming the politically impossible into the practically inevitable”.

That might work at political rallies, but governing California requires clear and concise communication – what a governor wants, what he expects from the Legislature, what are non-starters.

Speaking of “the practically inevitable,” the governor-elect has plenty of tough decisions to make, one being where to live for the next four years.

That’s a tricky choice for Newsom given he’s the father to four children all under the age of 10 and, presumably, happy in their Marin routine. Does Newsom relocate the family to Sacramento? If so, would he send his kids to a public school (it’d be a nice change of pace from politicians who extol public education but pay for private tutelage).

Newsom also needs to round out his speechwriting shop. The governor-elect can always outsource the big stuff – the National Press Club, Harvard Kennedy School, the Democratic National Convention – to a hired gun. That’s what Arnold Schwarzenegger did when he took the job.

But for the everyday stuff, Newsom needs someone who understands that the annual Sacramento Host Breakfast isn’t the time for an Obamaesque “dare to hope” or a Reaganesque challenge to tear down a wall.

What the job requires is a writer who can keep things simple and concise. In that respect, the ideal chief speechwriter for Gov.-Elect Gavin Newsom just might be . . . Gov. Jerry Brown.

For the past eight years, Brown has been to speechifying what Domino’s has been to pizza: no fancy recipe, delivery in 30 minutes or less. Brown didn’t invest in high-end production. He kept his public appearances limited and his goals comprehensible.

As he prepares to leave office, reporters will grade Brown by the depth of his record, not the loftiness of his rhetoric.

Let’s hope Newsom turns out to be a plagiarist of his predecessor – in gubernatorial style, not words.  

Bill Whalen is a Hoover Institution research fellow and former speechwriter for Gov. Pete Wilson. Whalen can be reached at whalenoped@gmail.com.
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