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Raining on Many Parades

All anyone could talk about was the rain. Here was the California governor, trying his best to impersonate Ronald Reagan and thus elbow his way into presidential politics, and all anyone could talk about was the rain. Here was Willie Brown Jr., long the Most Powerful Politician in California, now fighting to keep but a fraction of his old domain, and all anyone could talk about was the rain. Politics was supposed to be the main event in this political town this week. The rain upstaged it.

It rained here as it rained everywhere in California: in every way it can rain. There were cloudbursts, followed by sprinkles. There were hours of hard, steady rain, followed by reprieves of a warm, misting rain; now a wink of sunshine, now a deluge of huge raindrops. The rain never stopped--took a few breathers, maybe, but never stopped.

The rain stalled cars, swamped houses, slopped over creek beds, unleashed rivers. It was an irresistible demonstration. Elected officials and office workers alike stood at windows in the Capitol, watching awe-struck as the rain came down. Or they gathered in front of television sets, studying satellite photos that showed storms stacked up to Hawaii. Weather reports were passed down hallways, across lunchrooms.

“Here it comes again,” someone would holler.

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“Take a look at it now,” someone else would say.

Since this is a natural disaster of the ‘90s, communiques from Oregon to the Mexican border arrived via e-mail and cell phone and passed around like political gossip. Van Nuys was swamped. Guerneville was sunk. Everybody understood this was something happening everywhere at once. Everybody, too, knew there was more to come. Everywhere. Say what you will about divided Californians: This week they stand together as one, under an umbrella.

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On Monday night Pete Wilson delivered his fifth State of the State address. It was raining only lightly as he began. Wilson spoke, ironically enough, of natural disasters overcome. He spoke, too, of recessions outlasted and criminals put on the run. Things were going so well, so swimmingly, Wilson reported he could now advocate a tax cut of $7 billion plus. The figure presented an interesting bit of symmetry, equaling the very tax increases Wilson had endorsed in his first term. Atonement?

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Wilson also introduced his latest lineup of social villains--pregnant teen-agers, deadbeat dads, tenured teachers, greedy lawyers and out-of-control bureaucrats. Gonna nail ‘em all, Wilson vowed. With this mishmash of glad tidings and tough talk, Wilson sought to project a politician with both an attractive record of performance and conservative themes ready for national prime-time. He may not have decided to take the plunge and run for President, but clearly he stands on the edge of the pool, crouched and ready, hoping to be pushed.

In the 35 minutes it took Wilson to assess the condition of California, the condition took a turn, if not for the worse--we need the rain, glub, glub, we need the rain, gurgle, gurgle--at least for the wetter. The light rain had turned into a torrent. L Street, on the Capitol’s northern border, was under almost a foot of fast-running water. Sirens of firetrucks blared across downtown. And, most significant to the governor’s promoters, the TV trucks were packing up fast for reassignment upriver.

“Better rethink that tax cut, governor,” someone joked as a crowd of speech attendees forded L Street together. “Save it for sandbags.”

Sacramento wit.

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It rained clear through to Tuesday morning when--for the first time since the Assembly speakership fight deadlocked 40-40--Republican members ventured back into chambers, ready to take on Willie Brown. “It’s time,” Jim Brulte, the Republican leader, said grimly. It was not time.

Instead, what followed was a daylong dance of meetings behind closed doors. The Republicans would huddle among themselves and then march back onto the Assembly floor. This would send the Democrats into a huddle of their own. They would return, and the Republicans would vanish. And so on. Reporters left behind could only imagine what great dramas were in play. Complicated scenarios were constructed, coups and double-crosses. The truth, Assemblyman Tom Bates (D-Berkeley) reported during one changing of the guard, was less intriguing, but nonetheless understandable:

“We’re all sitting around watching television, watching the flood.”

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It was all anyone could talk about. And so, by the end of Tuesday, Wilson had hopped aboard a helicopter, following the camera crews to the scene of the North Coast flood. And Brown, not exactly displeased, sent the Assembly home early--a precaution, he said, against yet another advancing storm.


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