Two former governors sat before a crowd of civic leaders last week, a serene 51 floors above the lunch-hour cacophony of Flower Street in downtown Los Angeles. Pete Wilson and Gray Davis were doing what politicians do, debating the fine points of policy.
Hundreds of miles north, in Sacramento, the man who both preceded and followed the duo as governor was hip-deep in the drought. The following day, Jerry Brown would defend his plan to cut water use by 25%, declaring it "attainable."
The men in the chairs at the Town Hall Los Angeles gathering had the luxury of critiquing Brown, and both suggested he was doing what he had to do and doing it well, though from that point they veered apart: Democrat Davis to the need for water recycling; Republican Wilson to the need for more storage. But in the gentle treatment they gave Brown, they also seemed to be a little relieved that they weren't stuck with the latest California crisis.
The story of California is one of calamity begetting calamity, of destructive droughts giving way to destructive flooding, of economic collapse followed by earthquake collapse, of the manufacturing base imploding and then housing prices imploding.
It is uncomfortable change, most of the time, as though 39 million people were strapped to a roller coaster. The earthquake faults heave, the mudslides rumble, discontent and demographic movement and sheer massive growth breed political division, protests, rioting. It can be hard to find a foothold amid so much uncertainty, which may be why the state seems to careen more than putter ahead placidly.
It's not by happenstance that in terms of lasting legacies to the state, governors still measure themselves against a man who left office half a century ago: Brown's father. Pat Brown was governor when the possibilities seemed as open as the freeways he built, when untold numbers were drawn into the middle and upper class by the university system he helped create, when no one even questioned that the water would flow limitlessly from the tap, courtesy of his state water project.
Parts of his tenure were no picnic, but what has followed can seem like one long slog against adversity.
There was Wilson, who came into office in 1991 as much of a bubbly optimist as a scrappy Marine can be and was quickly sundered by a $14-billion budget deficit. Budgets were slashed, taxes went up, everyone got mad. He was at the tiller when the state's defense industry came crashing down, and he won a second term in no small part because of his handling of the 1994 Northridge earthquake. He used to joke that he'd signed emergency declarations for every county in the state — many more than once. Except it wasn't a joke.
Then came Davis, who started in 1999 like governors always do — optimistically, spending money on education and signing the nation's first global warming measure, which was pretty out there for the buttoned-up politico. And then he was creamed by an energy crisis that sent prices for electricity soaring and Davis onto the sidelines, courtesy of a celebrity recall won by Arnold Schwarzenegger.
As the state's longest-serving governor, Jerry Brown has seen squalls in multiple during his four terms: recession, floods, droughts, an influx of crop-destroying Mediterranean fruit flies. And, of course, Proposition 13, the suburban rebellion that slashed the funding for government and ushered in decades of fiscal chaos.
Brown's second turn as governor has seemed accompanied by something like calm — even if the state finances had to be put back together like Humpty Dumpty. But it's California, so there was always another crisis coming down the road, and now it has.
The state librarian, Greg Lucas, noted that California's sheer size has generated much of the recent drama. An earthquake that knocks down some missions in the 1800s becomes one that displaces thousands of people; a drought resolved by snitching a little water from the Colorado River becomes another thing indeed when millions in multiple states are fighting over the same drops, he noted.
"There have been these issues for 165 years," he said. "Sort of the cool thing is somehow in the rest of the world, the perception of us persists — people think we are just taking it in stride."
Indeed, that is how the state sells itself in those ads meant to draw even more people here: There we are, strumming a guitar under the Hollywood sign, biking next to the Golden Gate, staring up at the redwoods, walking the Venice boardwalk with impossibly toned abs, trotting toward the waves, surfboard in arm. No worries, no calamities, no problem that can't be solved by serendipity or time.
That sort of willful optimism is part of the state's DNA: For all the bravery it takes to survive the streets of Manhattan or the winters of Boston, it takes some fortitude too to plow ahead not knowing when the ground will open or the taps run dry.
Davis, at the Town Hall meeting, issued the familiar California complaint: that for every dollar we send to the federal government, we get back 70-something cents. Not fair, he noted, but added this about his adopted state: "We can change the future, and we do it every day. With Apple, Google, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram. Every day, companies are born that in time will change our lives and the lives of people all around the world."
It is that upbeat sense that Brown has seemed to embrace even as scarcity threatens a basic necessity. His message last week: Everyone, calm down. Maybe the current plan won't be enough, he said; maybe things would have to be done differently. But it would get done.
"That's the beauty of government," he said to some laughter. "It doesn't go away. Every day we're governing."
And waiting for the next calamity to hit.
For more on California politics, go to latimes.com/decker.