Bill Whalen

After San Bernardino, Brown should follow FDR’s example

British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, right, accompanied President Franklin D. Roosevelt to the Christmas tree lighting ceremony in 1941. Bill Whalen says Gov. Jerry Brown should hold a similar event.
British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, right, accompanied President Franklin D. Roosevelt to the Christmas tree lighting ceremony in 1941. Bill Whalen says Gov. Jerry Brown should hold a similar event.

A funny thing happened to Gov. Jerry Brown while he was in Paris pontificating on climate change. He made a political enemy back home: Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey.

Ducey demanded that Brown apologize (good luck with that) after our governor said in the aftermath of San Bernardino’s mass shooting that “wide open” gun laws in Arizona and Nevada constitute a “gigantic back door through which any terrorist can walk.”

We could dismiss this as just another spat between bordering governors with incompatible ideologies. Ducey is a conservative Republican, and Brown no longer has former Texas Gov. Rick Perry to kick around.

But there’s another way to look at this. As tragic as was the death toll in the Inland Empire, the loss escalates if lawmakers fail to elevate the current paralyzed debate over terrorism and mass shootings to a more uplifting, more productive plateau.

The nation’s dysfunctional capital exemplifies this problem. Blame it on a president who’s not a good first responder to terrorist acts, or his partisan foes who stubbornly cling to the Second Amendment. But the talk in Washington is mired in the miasma that is the gun control debate and the semantics of Barack Obama’s reluctance to say the phrase “radical Islam.”

Back here in California’s capital, the hope is Brown avoids the temptation to pile on top of this mosh pit and instead can take us to a better place where citizens feel safer and politicians seem part of the solution, not the problem.

How does Brown go about this?

He could begin by borrowing a page from another Democrat dealing with the aftermath of a national tragedy. In December 1941 following the Pearl Harbor attack, President Franklin D. Roosevelt faced a decision of what to do with that year’s White House tree-lighting ceremony.

To his credit, FDR was resolute and innovative. Understanding the public’s need for comfort and continuity, he went on with the show. But he broke with tradition by holding a Christmas Eve ceremony on the White House’s South Lawn despite wartime security concerns.

“Our strongest weapon against this war is the conviction of the dignity and brotherhood of man which Christmas Day signifies – more than any other day or any other symbol,” Roosevelt told an audience of 20,000. “Against enemies who preach the principles of hate and practice them, we set our faith in human love and in God’s care for us and all men everywhere.”

Last week, Brown canceled the Capitol tree-lighting ceremony, scheduled just hours after the San Bernardino massacre, out of respect to the victims. (The tree was still lit, but without the usual pomp.)

On Christmas Eve, Brown should do exactly as FDR 74 years ago: Gather a crowd around the six-story white fir sitting on the state Capitol grounds and repeat that message of dignity and resolve. As the governor of the state with America’s largest Muslim community, he should make it an interfaith celebration.

While honoring the victims and those fortunate to have survived, Brown also should include law enforcement – those uniformed Californians who will be putting their lives on the line if any future attacks occur on Golden State soil. In particular, Brown should invite that San Bernardino policeman who uttered these words during the attack: “Try to relax. I’ll take a bullet for you, that’s for damn sure.”

In Paris, Brown continued with a campaign to draw attention to an issue that sounds either distant or improbable to many of his constituents. That’s not the case with domestic terrorism. The threat is real – and far more palpable than greenhouses gases.

It would seem a natural fit for a governor obsessed with the rising seas: In these trouble times, find higher political ground.

Bill Whalen is a Hoover Institution research fellow and former speechwriter for Gov. Pete Wilson. Whalen can be contacted at