Bill Whalen

California’s Hall of Fame needs better selections

Jerry Brown, then the attorney general, greets Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger at the 2010 California Hall of Fame induction ceremony, the last under Schwarzenegger.
Jerry Brown, then the attorney general, greets Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger at the 2010 California Hall of Fame induction ceremony, the last under Schwarzenegger. Sacramento Bee file

There’s an upcoming awards ceremony in Sacramento that might make Gov. Jerry Brown wish bill signing lasted beyond this weekend.

That would be honoring the latest inductees to the California Hall of Fame, set for Oct. 28 at the California Museum – at most, a five-minute walk from the governor’s office. This isn’t meant as a slight against the hall or the museum. Rather, it’s a reflection of the stark contrast between California’s last two chief executives.

Arnold Schwarzenegger and Maria Shriver ginned up the idea of a state Hall of Fame a decade ago. What the celeb couple spawned was an event straight out of the Governator’s playbook: bright lights, red carpets, tons of photo ops – none of which seemingly jibes with Brown’s style.

Unlike the camera-seeking Schwarzenegger, Brown lets the media into his world chiefly when it serves a larger, more somber purpose (balancing the state budget, lecturing the world on climate change). He is not California’s schmoozer-in-chief. One doubts that making small talk with a few chosen famous is the kind of evening this little-levity governor relishes.

As for the hall itself, two questions: Who deserves the honor? And do we really need it to make the point that California is exceptional?

Of this year’s eight inductees, the only choice I’d quibble with is the actor Robert Downey Jr. If it’s a living, breathing buzz-worthy actor the museum sought, what about Sean Penn? Unlike Downey, he’s California-born and he also boasts two Oscars to none for Downey. Besides, which fictional character is more quintessentially California: Ironman or high-school slacker Jeff Spicoli?

One could go into past hall classes and do similar nitpicking. Leland Stanford’s in, but that’s it for the fabled “Big Four.” Was Willie Mays a better choice than Joe DiMaggio? Venture capitalist John Doerr made the cut, though one could argue that three generations of Drapers – including Tim Draper of “Six Californias” fame – have played a greater role in shaping the venture capital world.

If Robert Mondavi gets a spot, what about the brothers Gallo? Vaccine pioneer Jonas Salk is enshrined, so why not Paul Berg, the Stanford Nobel chemist whose work in recombinant DNA helped launch the biotechnology industry? John Steinbeck deserves to be recognized, but should William Saroyan? And save for Chuck Yeager and Buzz Aldrin, America’s military is underrepresented. The hall would do well to remember Tokyo raider Jimmy Doolittle.

Let’s also think regionally: Southern California’s Beach Boys are in, so add the Bay Area’s Grateful Dead. At least there’s balance in the directors’ wing with James Cameron offsetting George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola.

The fact that Arnold’s “Terminator” and “True Lies” collaborator is in the hall, along with “father of bodybuilding” Joe Weider and fitness guru Jack LaLanne suggests bias. If Jacques Barzaghi (Brown’s onetime political alter ego) or Don Bachardy (painter of Brown’s official portrait) ends up in the hall, it’s time to revisit the selection process.

Then again, why bother with a California Hall of Fame? Alabama, Nebraska, New Jersey, Oklahoma and South Dakota may need their halls. Is glamorous and envied California’s self-esteem as challenged?

When he took office, Brown quickly nixed the annual women’s conference, which began in the mid-1980s with entrepreneurial women in mind but during the Arnold-Maria reign morphed into an Oprah-esque overkill of emotion-tugging and celebrity idolatry.

I’m not suggesting the same fate for the Hall of Fame. But if the state insists the annual pat on the back, one hopes that serious thought is given to how future classes will represent California’s present and past.

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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