As Gov. Edmund G. Brown toured the devastation wrought by the raging Eel River on California’s North Coast in late 1965, he reportedly summed up the awful flood scene with typical Pat Brown gusto: “This is the worst disaster since my election as governor.”
The quotation became a Pat Brown legend in political circles, a classic example of the likable, well-meaning chief executive prone to verbal bumbling.
The fact is that the quote was remembered incorrectly. What Brown really said was: “It’s the worst disaster I’ve seen since I’ve been governor.” But the incident underscores the potential political disaster that can await any official who does not approach calamity and human suffering with just the right measure of action and sensitivity--and choice of words.
Earlier that same year, Brown’s image suffered from the fact that he was vacationing in Greece when rioting broke out in Watts and from the perception that he dawdled in returning and was slow to mobilize the National Guard.
The potential for a political misstep can be magnified during disasters in a campaign, such as the one this year featuring Republican Gov. Pete Wilson and his potential 1994 Democratic challengers.
“When you handle a disaster coolly, it can help,” University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato said Tuesday. “On the other hand, if you do something rash, it can hurt.”
Wilson has mastered the first rule of disaster politics by showing up promptly on the scene to assure people of government’s concern and desire to do what it can to help.
If a politician fails to show in a timely fashion, Sabato said, “people resent the fact that you’re not there sharing their misery.”
President Clinton will tour quake damaged areas today after getting assurances that his visit would not disrupt recovery efforts.
Wilson has had plenty of practice responding to disasters. The extent to which California has been dealt a variety of catastrophes during his single term is becoming a political legend in its own. Wilson has issued disaster declarations covering 56 of California’s 58 counties since taking office in January of 1991, said Dan Schnur, communications director for Wilson’s campaign for reelection.
The governor inherited the impact of an ice storm and has gone through both drought and flood, toxic spills, the Landers, North Coast and San Fernando Valley earthquakes, and two rounds of devastating brush fires--first in the Oakland Hills in 1991 and then the Malibu, Altadena and Laguna Beach fires last fall.
All of this comes atop the Los Angeles riots of 1992 and the worst economic recession since the 1930s.
The governor’s approach to disasters generally has been low-key and businesslike, beginning with an aerial tour of the affected region and briefings with federal, state and local officials on the magnitude of the problem and what’s needed.
Wilson promises to do whatever the state can to deal with the problem and help people recover. But he is cautious.
On Tuesday, Wilson said it was too early to say whether any revenue increase would be needed even though the state budget currently is in the red.
“We simply do not know what the magnitude of the problem is yet,” Wilson said on a television talk show.
On the day of the 1971 Sylmar earthquake, a touring Gov. Ronald Reagan quickly said he would support a temporary increase in the gasoline tax if that was needed to rebuild damaged streets and highways.
Whether Wilson’s handling of the 1994 earthquake creates any opening for his political opponents this campaign year will depend more on the pace of action in coming weeks in Sacramento and at the reconstruction sites in Los Angeles County.
Failure to cope adequately with disasters has been blamed for the loss of mayorships in several major cities, governorships and other offices.
The venerable Richard J. Daley machine lost its grip on Chicago City Hall in 1979 when Mayor Michael Bilandic’s Administration failed to clear a heavy snowfall promptly. The Daley machine had boasted that its Chicago was the “the city that works.” Maverick challenger Jane Byrne defeated Bilandic after citing the storm as evidence that “the city that works doesn’t.”
Testing in crisis has molded many political careers in California. Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein was on the verge of retiring from politics in 1978--at the time she was chairwoman of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors--when Mayor George Moscone was assassinated and Feinstein became mayor. The keystone of her 1990 race for governor against Wilson was the “forged from tragedy” campaign ad showing her being sworn in as mayor after Moscone’s slaying by a gunman.
Now seeking election to a full term, Feinstein promptly visited quake devastated areas this week and promised federal action as quickly and as fully as possible.
In general, Sabato added: “It’s hard to compete with a governor or a President in times of crisis because they have the troops. . . . They have to take the blame if things don’t go well so it’s only just that they take credit when they do.”
Several California political experts said there is far more potential for suffering political damage than gaining credit.
Political consultant Darry Sragow said, “People have a legitimate expectation that government will do certain things, and when government delivers those services, it’s only doing its job, so you’re not going to win big points.”
“On the other hand,” he added, “history is replete with examples of officials who failed to do what people expected of them. They pay a price.”
Sragow said he spoke on the basis of long experience working for political officials who have had to deal with such situations. He now serves as manager of state Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi’s campaign for the Democratic nomination for governor, Wilson’s job.
Garamendi on Tuesday made the rounds of Los Angeles television stations to discuss what earthquake victims could expect in terms of insurance claims and related topics.
But Garamendi also was making a broader statement about the need to repair the earthquake damage. “It’s absolutely imperative that we do it, and do it quickly,” Garamendi said in a pre-dawn appearance on KNBC-TV.
Was that, perhaps, a subtle or indirect challenge to Wilson to have the freeways up and running by next November, or face the wrath of slow commuting voters?
Wilson aide Schnur said: “We’re going to rebuild and rebuild as quickly as possible, because that’s what the people of California need. If someone thinks that isn’t happening fast enough, they can be very hard-pressed to say how to do it faster.”
As if to hammer home the point, Wilson chose the site of a freeway collapse--the Golden State and Antelope Valley interchange about 25 miles north of Downtown--to answer media questions Tuesday. As he spoke, state workers could be seen on television clearing the rubble in the background.
If there are political perils in dealing with a crisis, the risk can be even higher for a challenger or candidate, Sabato said.
“They risk appearing to be a scold or a grandstander, or even worse, as someone who’s getting in the way,” he said.
As the overseer of insurance companies in California, Garamendi holds an office that has a direct stake in earthquake recovery, Schnur noted. Thus, Garamendi could seek media exposure without being accused of exploiting the disaster for political purposes.
The other major Democratic candidate for governor, Treasurer Kathleen Brown, was quietly touring earthquake-damaged areas, visiting with victims, and even helping give out food at Hollywood High School. Without notifying reporters, Brown went to a site of the Santa Monica Freeway collapse early Tuesday. Between stops she telephoned major bond-rating houses in New York to reassure them of the integrity of projects financed by state bonds.
Both Wilson and Brown postponed major events planned this week in deference to victims of the earthquake. Brown had planned to deliver a political address Tuesday in San Francisco on her plans for the California economy. Although she could have tailored the speech to take account of the earthquake, she told a reporter: “I just didn’t think that was the right thing to do. I live in Los Angeles. This is my town. My mind was on the crisis.”
Wilson postponed a long-planned “crime summit” in the Los Angeles area today and Thursday. It was to involve scores of top governmental and law enforcement leaders from around the state.