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Don’t Whine for California : Recession. Quakes. Riots. Fires. Floods. Murder Trial. Why Our State Endures and Triumphs in the Whoe National Scheme of Things.

<i> Richard C. Paddock is a staff writer in The Times' San Francisco bureau. His last piece for the magazine was about Stanford University's long-term study of gifted children</i>

Crane your neck upward as you tour the public artworks adorning the nation’s Capitol--all those classical statues and paintings and murals, and if you see anything to remind you of California at all, it is California the outpost, the distant footnote, the quirky afterthought in the sweep of American history.

Few signs exist in the nation’s artistic firmament to show that California has become the mightiest state of a vast nation. More aesthetic honors have been paid to Pocahontas, the Native American princess said to have saved the English immigrant Capt. John Smith from execution. Pocahontas appears three times in the 166-year-old Capitol rotunda, while California is shown just once--in a single panel of a frieze near the top of the dome that depicts Gold Rush prospectors. You almost need a map to find it and binoculars to see it.

But, hey, that’s all right. California, the state where people go to remake themselves, is reshaping Pocahontas’ image to fit Hollywood’s standards through the animated film about the legendary Indian maiden.

California has been molding the nation for decades--in movies, in style, in business, and lately even in politics. The state with the standard single star on the flag of the republic has the rest of the country outnumbered in just about everything else.

Other states can snicker about boogie boards and tofu; California, the state that knows how to play, knows how to play the game, too. Even suffering as it hasn’t since the Great Depression and wounded by natural disasters, California is indisputably No. 1. It is the 800-pound gorilla--the trend-setting, politically dominating, racially diverse, cultural capital of the country.

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Just look at the figures. Nearly one in eight Americans lives in California. If the Golden State were an independent country, its economy would be the world’s seventh largest, trailing only the first-teamers, the United States, Japan, Germany, France, Italy and Great Britain.

Among the states, California ranks first in (take a deep breath) manufacturing, agriculture, foreign trade, entertainment, high tech, aerospace, biotechnology, enviro-technology and political contributions, to cite a few.

We have more rich people and more unemployed workers, more terror bombings and more professional sports teams, more legal immigrants and more illegal immigrants, more colleges and universities and more prisoners than any other state.

California is so big that if it were on the East Coast, it would stretch from Springfield, Mass., to Augusta, Ga. Not that size is always a blessing; in recent years, the Golden State has experienced the biggest defense cutbacks, the worst recession, the steepest decline in education.

Always a magnet for immigrants, California leads the country--if not the world--in racial and cultural diversity. By the year 2002, the non-Latino white population is expected to drop below 50%, and California will be populated entirely by minority groups. Even now, its public schools teach in more than 40 native languages, including Punjabi, Mixteco, Serbian, Lao, Hmong, Armenian, Farsi, Hindi, Portuguese, Tongan, Gujarati, Urdu, Khmu, Ilocano, Lahu, Mien and Pashto.

California imports its people from virtually every country in the world--and exports in exchange the mass-market dreams and high-tech fantasies of its movies and music and TV shows. In the otherwise forgettable summer movie “Congo,” a Berkeley professor who lands in a triple-canopy African jungle on a scientific mission begins quietly singing a Mamas and Papas oldie “California Dreamin’ "--and is astonished when the natives join in.

Since World War II, federal bucks have fed the rapid growth of the state, producing a bumper crop of freeways, water projects, research institutes, military bases and, of course, defense-related businesses. California’s population is now at its peak of more than 32.3 million--and so, too, is the political power that flows from sheer size.

With 54 electoral votes--20% of the electoral votes needed to make a President--California is the biggest prize in the presidential election. In the House of Representatives, California commands 52 seats, contrasted with 31 for New York and 30 for Texas.

Flexing its ballot initiative process, California has lit a fuse to social movements that have spread nationwide: the rise of environmentalism, the tax revolt, term limits for elected officials, victims’ rights and tougher prison sentences, among others.

Sometimes, it seems California has become the Gulliver of national politics, waking up to find itself hemmed in by Lilliputians. Just as earlier Europeans could not comprehend the vastness and diversity of North America, some Washingtonians who have not spent time in the Golden State--and there are many--have difficulty understanding California’s complexity.

Take, for example, the influential East Coast senator who kept phoning a transplanted Los Angeles lawyer now in the Clinton Administration. The senator--presuming that everyone from California must know the courtroom combatants as they would in his far smaller state--demanded the scoop on O.J. Simpson. The Administration official, of course, knew no more about the double-murder trial than anyone else in Washington, but he directed his aides to clip each day’s stories so he could study up. The senator seemed satisfied with his “inside” dope.

Talk about no respect: The statue of Thomas Starr King, the 19th-Century minister who persuaded Civil War Californians not to declare themselves a sovereign nation, stands in an alcove near the House restaurant, where waiters and tourists deposit water pitchers and empty coffee cups on the base of his monument.

Then there is the venerable Lloyd Cutler, the former Clinton White House counsel who used a California slam in the Washington-based Legal Times to convey his irritation at the aggressive techniques of Donald Smaltz, a skilled L.A. attorney turned independent counsel to investigate former Agriculture Secretary Michael Espy on corruption charges: “Maybe there’s something in the water in L.A.”

But most Washington politicians are reluctant to offend Congress’ largest delegation. So they leave it to people like Washington Post writer Joel Achenbach to express what others on the Other Coast are thinking: “If cities have an organic quality, then Washington is a flower,” he ruminated after a recent visit. “Los Angeles is a tumor. It has metastasized. In fact, the patient may actually be dead.”

And in a column after the Northridge earthquake, he wrote: “We see the footage and our hearts go out to the victims in California. Then we hear our inner voice saying: This is for your Jacuzzis, this is for your past-life recall, this is for your sunglasses perched on top of the head during meetings at the Polo Lounge.”

As the most recent Californian in the Oval Office shed criticism like Teflon, so do Californians, knowing they live in a superior state, accept that kind of talk as jealous ravings. “You talk to the average person in the rest of the country, you’ll get a lot of ‘California is the home of the kooks and the weirdos,’ ” scoffs state Sen. Tom Hayden (D-Santa Monica), the onetime radical and ci-devant husband of actress Jane Fonda. “But these very same people would sell their parents to have a ticket to the Academy Awards.”

*

The coveted corner White House office that once was home to another Californian, a crew-cut UCLA alumnus by the name of Bob Haldeman, is now the domain of a Northern Californian, Clinton’s chief of staff, Leon E. Panetta. For 16 years, he represented Monterey in Congress, flying home almost every weekend, and then back to D.C. on the red-eye.

He can’t do that nowadays but he has brought California to this office overlooking the White House gardens. Above his desk hang seven black-and-white photos, images of pounding California surf and wind-twisted coastal pines. A longtime Panetta constituent named Ansel Adams gave them to him, and Panetta has lugged them from office to office around Washington ZIP codes as he has risen in power. “It’s a piece of home. I try to keep California close.”

Clinton lured Panetta away from Congress and California, first to oversee his budget, then to create order out of the Administration’s early chaos. But this son of Italian immigrant walnut farmers also has a secondary role as California’s foremost politician in Washington. “Obviously, I’m looking at the impact of policies as they affect the whole country. But I always ask the question, ‘What does this mean for California?’ ”

Panetta plays the lead in the Administration’s California road show, but the rest of the cast is well peopled with Golden Staters; indeed, so many hold positions of power that behind their backs, some--in both envy and admiration--call them the California Mafia.

As many as two dozen people have entree to the big table at Cabinet meetings; at any one time, six of those could be Californians: Panetta; Secretary of State Warren Christopher, a former Los Angeles lawyer who headed the Christopher Commission, created after the Rodney G. King beating; Defense Secretary William Perry, a onetime Stanford University engineering professor; National Economic Council Chairwoman Laura D’Andrea Tyson, who had been a UC Berkeley economics professor; John Emerson, former L.A. special assistant city attorney, now a deputy assistant to the President, and U.S. Trade Representative Mickey Kantor, also a former Los Angeles attorney.

From defense conversion aid to disaster relief to foreign trade, Panetta says the Clinton Administration has made California and its economic woes a priority because it believes the nation cannot recover from recession until California does. “Almost in every area you look at, we have made a major emphasis on trying to assist California to rebuild itself,” he says. As a sign of Clinton’s interest, his aides note that he has made 19 trips to the Golden State since he took office, far more than his predecessor, and California has gotten big checks and big programs--more than $18.4 billion--from various federal agencies since Clinton took office (much of it, admittedly, disaster aid).

“The fact is, you can hardly name an industry where California doesn’t have a major stake,” Kantor says. “Whether you’re talking about almonds or airplanes, California is always in the forefront of your considerations.”

*

It was during the decade between the Gold Rush and the Civil War that the seeds of California’s present dominance were sown.

“California is the creation of all American civilization,” says Kevin Starr, the state librarian. “No sector of the nation was excluded. California is the state that has everything in common with the other states. There is no state that can’t see some of itself here.”

Instead of getting away from it all, early Californians brought it all with them, as place names still show: Manhattan Beach and Bostonia in Southern California; Yankee Hill, Chicago Park, Iowa Hill and Michigan Bluff in the Gold Country; the Dixie Elementary school district and the town of Alamo in the Bay Area.

The state’s founders made California big enough so that it might someday be split in two, perhaps one a slave state and the other free. One of California’s first two senators was explorer John C. Fremont, “The Pathfinder,” an anti-slavery general who in 1856 was the first Republican Party presidential nominee. The other was William McKendree Gwin, who owned a Mississippi plantation the entire time he represented California in Washington, D.C.

“People try to look at California as a great exception. My view is that California is the place where everyone came together,” says UC Berkeley professor Arthur Quinn, author of the compelling new history, “The Rivals,” about Gold Rush-era California.

Schoolchildren grow up believing California was founded by hardy pioneers who single-handedly scraped a new life out of the wilderness. But the historians say that is only part of the story. Practically from the moment statehood was granted in 1850, the federal government began pumping millions of dollars into California to build up its defenses and tie the state more closely to Washington.

As early as 1852, the federal government funded the Mare Island Naval Shipyard near Vallejo--a facility only now being shut as part of the sweeping military base closure program. Similarly, in the 1850s, the government poured money into fortifications on San Francisco Bay, including the Presidio, the historic military post converted into a national park last year. And the United States spent millions to survey the coast, erect coastal defenses and lighthouses, dredge San Diego harbor and build a maritime hospital, among other projects.

“There is no region that is more dependent on federal actions, more a creation of the federal government,” says Quinn. “The California economy has always been artificially supported by the federal government because the federal government always saw California as the opening to the Pacific Rim.”

California repaid the federal government by becoming every bit as big as all those vitamin dollars could make it, especially in the half-century following World War II. Now, after 150 years of big government spending, California is suffering the withdrawal symptoms of a subsidy addict.

*

Rep. Lynn Woolsey, California’s most upwardly mobile ex-welfare mom and the Honorable Member from Petaluma, taps her ballpoint pen impatiently on the huge wooden desk in the House Budget Committee hearing room. Why is it, the Sonoma County Democrat wants to know, that the Republican governor of California has been going around saying he’s the leader of a sovereign state?

At a table several feet below sits Gov. Pete Wilson. “We think that the 10th Amendment recognizes sovereignty of the states,” he croaks, sounding a bit like a sick bullfrog after his throat surgery. (Not quite; constitutional scholars might remind Wilson that this issue was settled 130 years ago when the South surrendered at Appomattox.)

But it’s this kind of talk that has mightily ticked off some members of Congress toward California. First the state comes begging for billions of dollars in disaster relief. Then Wilson scolds the federal government, telling it to cut spending and balance its budget. Now the Man Who Would Be President is here in this ornate hearing room, saying he wants still more federal money for California. And to top it off, he plans to turn around and give state taxpayers an income tax cut, to his own political credit.

“We call him Deadbeat Pete,” says Rep. Patricia Schroeder, a Colorado Democrat who once grabbed tentatively at the White House ring herself. “Everyone here groans when they see him coming. Anytime you look up, here he is with his tin cup and saying we don’t need the federal government any more. If Californians are so sovereign and know more than we do, they should take care of their own disasters.”

If Wilson seems to be playing both sides, it’s hardly surprising: California’s role as the nation’s political Godzilla comes as the state itself is suffering as it hasn’t since the Depression.

Beginning with tax-slashing Proposition 13 in 1978--and accelerating with the end of the Cold War--state and federal governments have cut back on public investment and defense spending. While Wilson has been at the helm, California has become a state of growing racial division, from race riots in Los Angeles to Proposition 187’s opposition to illegal immigrants.

Any governor of California, simply by entering the presidential race, becomes a top contender. Republican strategists say they have learned their lesson from 1992, when Bush gave up on California months before Election Day. This time, starting with the GOP national convention in San Diego next August, they will fight to the finish for California.

Given the growing Republican strength in the South, the White House knows it must take California again if Clinton is to win again.

During the past half-century, California has been pivotal in presidential races. One Californian or another has been on the Republican ticket in eight of the past 12 elections. Only once since World War II--in 1988--has California not fielded at least one candidate in the primaries.

The Golden State has given the country two of its past six Presidents, Ronald Reagan and Richard M. Nixon. Only twice since 1916 has a President won election without taking California: in 1960, when the state voted for Nixon, and in 1976, when it went for then-President Gerald R. Ford.

Nevertheless, with its traditional June primary election, California has rarely influenced selection of the presidential nominees. Perhaps with his own future in mind, Wilson signed a bill to enlarge California’s role by moving up its 1996 primary to March. But, reminding voters of department stores racing to hang their Christmas decorations by Halloween, states such as New York and Pennsylvania have scheduled their primaries even earlier. Now, next year’s primary season will seem like a six-week cross-country sprint--or the NBA finals--with California-style media blitzes likely to play a greater role. By the time California votes on March 26, 61% of the delegates--and probably the nominees--already will have been chosen.

*

The high ceilings and the rich red carpet of Rep. David Dreier’s office bespeak his new power. The handsome, clean-cut, 43-year-old Republican Boy Scout from San Dimas is one of California’s rising congressional stars. With the Republican takeover, he has been transformed from a voice in the wilderness to a man in the midst of things. In his eighth term, he takes a boyish delight in explaining how times have changed.

Yes, California lost control of four important House committees when the Democratic majority was upended. And it’s true, no California Republican had the stature or seniority to take over any major committee. But the Republicans today, Dreier says, are playing by different rules.

“There was a sense the moment we won the majority last Nov. 8 that the loss of these committee chairmen would automatically diminish greatly the influence of the largest state in the union when, in fact, nothing could be further from the truth.”

Instead of bills and appropriations that could help California’s many industries and constituencies, he says, California will benefit most from sweeping Republican economic policies to restore the country’s fiscal health, like a capital gains tax cut and a permanent research and development tax credit. To make sure California is not ignored in the new Congress, House Speaker Newt Gingrich has created the Speaker’s Task Force on California and named Dreier to head it.

Two blocks away in the Rayburn House Office Building sits the most powerful Californian in the House these days, Rep. Christopher Cox of Newport Beach. A Gingrich ally, he was elected chairman of the House Republican Policy Committee, the fifth-ranking leadership post. He is a handsome, clean-cut, 42-year-old Republican, with the look and the sound of a smooth East Coast lawyer. Indeed, he earned both a law degree and a master’s in business from Harvard in 1977.

Cox, too, says the GOP Congress will produce broad economic benefit to the state and embrace what he calls the “California Agenda.” When pressed, though, he has difficulty defining just what that is. “In the past we have had to work overtime simply to prevent the federal government from doing bad things to our state,” he finally explains. “Now, we can’t imagine ways that the United States code might be changed to advantage our state.”

California was once known for sending some of the most ardent and outspoken liberals to Congress: Ronald V. Dellums, the longtime Berkeley peace activist; Maxine Waters, the Los Angeles firebrand; Henry Waxman, the crusading Westside liberal; Woolsey, the onetime welfare mother who has become a staunch defender of government assistance.

Now that the GOP is in charge, it is California’s right-wingers who grab the spotlight. There is “B-1 Bob” Dornan of Garden Grove, the flamboyant presidential candidate briefly suspended from the House floor for charging that Clinton was a traitor; Randy “Duke” Cunningham of San Diego, a former Navy combat pilot who complained of “homos in the military,” and Dana Rohrabacher of Huntington Beach, a former Reagan speech-writer and surfing libertarian. (Not so extreme but undoubtedly better known is Rep. Sonny Bono, the Palm Springs Republican and Cher’s onetime singing partner.)

“I think California congressmen are a different breed of cat,” says Rohrabacher, who used to party with heavy metalist Sammy Hagar. “Californians are cultural trendsetters, they are intellectual trendsetters and they are legislative trendsetters. Plus we’ve got the only two surfing congressmen in the whole House,” himself and Brian P. Bilbray (R-San Diego).

While the congressional delegations of other states work together, it has been years since the entire California delegation has even gathered in the same room--and it isn’t for want of a bigger room. “If we had meetings like that and started talking policy . . . we’d be yelling at each other by the time it was over,” says mild-mannered Rep. Robert T. Matsui, a Sacramento Democrat who at 6 months old was imprisoned at the Tule Lake internment camp during World War II.

In the Senate, the Republican takeover has also weakened California’s power. Even the unprecedented Democratic duo of female Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer has become mere junior members of the minority party with little real influence.

So why should the feds join California’s cause, when its own members of Congress can’t get their act together? “The money should go where the need is,” Feinstein says during a hurried interview in her office, which receives as many as 40,000 pieces of mail each week from Californians seeking action--or help. “It’s easy for me to say because California has most of the need. By our size we are intimidating, because California could take up virtually all the available dollars.”

*

A few weeks back, Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-Panorama City) was driving down Sunset Boulevard in Beverly Hills with his 15-year-old daughter and one of her friends. Suddenly they spied Kato Kaelin jogging alongside. “Kato! Kato!” the girls shrieked as the would-be actor stopped to sign autographs. Kaelin smiled and waved. The congressman resisted the girls’ pleas to pull over.

“He is jogging in the fanciest area of town, obviously just to get attention and he’s getting it,” recounts Berman, shaking his head. “There is no politician--except maybe the President--who could have been jogging down Sunset Boulevard and have people screaming as they go by.”

Kato Kaelin--to the dismay of Berman and others--has also become the face of the new California. Catapulted to fame simply by being O.J. Simpson’s house guest and a friend of one of the murder victims, the shaggy fortune-seeker has demonstrated that, especially in California’s media fishbowl, anyone can rise to the heights of television celebrity.

“It’s the worst image,” cringes Berman, a longtime Democratic representative, who is usually recognized only in certain L.A. and D.C. ZIP codes. “There’s an aspect of California that’s a national joke. Some people get enjoyment out of making a caricature out of the California culture, the California lifestyle. There’s a combination of jealousy and amusement.”

Of course, the power of Hollywood has made it just about impossible for the rest of the world to ignore California. In fact, some would suggest that Californians have done more to caricature the state than anyone else. Consider the self-parodies, conscious or unconscious, such as television’s “Baywatch,” or films such as “Falling Down” and “The Player.”

“There are more movies and television programs that are set in California and about Californians than any other state in the country,” observes Hayden. “So culturally, everybody is forced to think of themselves as living in California, or in Melrose Place or in Beverly Hills, and that is truly odd.”

Hayden, the onetime member of the Chicago Eight, came to California in 1968--the day after the Chicago demonstrations--hoping to start a new chapter in his life. This was the home of the Free Speech Movement, the birthplace of the Beat Generation, a place where, as a political organizer, he might make a difference.

The senator may be older and wiser for that--he has spent 13 of his 55 years in the state Legislature--but his passion for change seems hardly muted. California, Hayden believes, is a fallen state. “We have gone from first to worst in the last 10 years,” he says, citing state government corruption, decline in education, weaker environmental protection and the rise in the prison population.

“We’re propped up by an old image that’s become more and more false. The new image is relentless gang violence, murder in the streets, respectable celebrities being accused of double murders, the most expensive fires, floods and earthquakes in anybody’s memory.”

Picking at a Capitol cafeteria salad on a plastic plate, Hayden warns that Californians need to change the way they view themselves: “I think we’re on the threshold of having to get real, to put fantasy aside and develop a different dream of California.”

His vision, already printed up in a nice, neat pamphlet, calls for investing more in education, building on diversity as a strength, creating jobs through environmentally friendly industries, ridding government of special interest influence and finding more meaning in our personal lives.

“People are having a very hard time reconciling themselves to the end of the frontier, the end of cheap growth, the end of cheap resources,” he says. “We need to view the fact that we are a multicultural society as a fact rather than a threat, and see it as a strength, rather than a weakness.”


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