Pete Wilson’s What-Ifs and What-May-Bes


“I’ve had better years,” Gov. Pete Wilson readily admits. Nobody would argue that point. Most political observers would take it another step and say he never has had a more disastrous year.

At least in 1992--when he backed losers in legislative primaries, got mired in a summer-long budget stalemate and sponsored an anti-welfare initiative that voters rejected--the governor only was embarrassed inside California. In 1995, he ran for president and was embarrassed across America.

Wilson had been the most unpopular first-term governor in the modern history of California. But in 1994, after two successful legislative sessions, he won reelection in a mini-landslide over an unfocused opponent. He was reborn politically.


As 1995 began, the Republican governor and his inner circle basked in euphoria. A positive job rating was recorded for the first time in nearly four years by the California Poll. Then Wilson broke his promise, leaped into the presidential race and suffered a terrible fall. At year’s end, his job rating was back to negative.

“The ideal would have been if this presidential race had not been held in 1996 but in 1998,” Wilson commented during a pre-Christmas interview in his office. “Then we would have had a very different situation and a different outcome.”

Californians would not have fretted about his abandoning the office to Democratic Lt. Gov. Gray Davis, Wilson said, because simultaneously there would have been a gubernatorial election. “I would have had a much stronger base here [in California]. And that was significant.”

Clearly, the nation is not going to alter its presidential elections to coincide with California’s quadrennial choosing of a governor. But California could change its gubernatorial terms to match the president’s. That would make it more publicly palatable for a sitting governor to catch Potomac fever.


“I’ll say this--it’s tough doing both; it’s real tough,” Wilson conceded, referring to running for president while governing the nation’s biggest state.

Plus, he added, outside California, “nobody knew who the hell I was.”

But “the most significant thing was utterly unpredictable,” Wilson said, pointing to his vocal cords. Aside from some croaking, he was virtually speechless for three months because of throat surgery.


“People were so distracted by the voice quality that they weren’t able to pay attention,” he recalled. “I remember vividly being in a hotel in Washington. I saw looks of absolute horror on the faces. I mean, I saw women go. . . .” The governor sucked in air, as if gasping in shock, then continued: “It evidently sounded like I was suffering terrible pain. . . . People would ask, ‘Does it hurt?’ And I’d say, ‘Only to listen.’ ”

If he had to do it over again, would he? “Forgive my saying so,” he replied, “it’s kind of a foolish question. . . .

“Absent the knowledge [I was] going to have a 3 1/2 month voice problem? Probably. Although, what I’d have to do is deal with the home situation.”

Translation: He’d not be so cavalier about breaking his promise.


The question everyone in the Capitol has been asking is whether Wilson can bounce back in 1996. Or is this lame duck too beat up?

Not unexpectedly, Wilson insists he doesn’t feel like a lame duck. “People are--as they term it--’happy to have me back,’ ” he said. “Christ, maybe if I’d been away more, it might have been a little better from the standpoint of presidential ambition. If you count the days I was really absent campaigning, you’ll find they weren’t that many.”

Says one advisor: “The truth is, Pete Wilson is more upbeat than he’s been in a long time, but you’d never know it because he’s keeping a low profile.”


That’s about to change, however. He’ll reenter the spotlight in two weeks with his annual State of the State Address and budget proposal.

There’s no secret about what he must do to make up with California Republicans: Ring up legislative achievements--tort and regulatory “reforms” and some tax cuts. For the electorate generally, add education “reforms” while continuing to battle illegal immigration, racial preferences and gangbangers.

That’s a tall order in an election year with the state Senate controlled by Democrats and with Assembly Republicans in chaos.

“I’m going to work like hell at it,” the governor vowed. “Get involved with a lot of people, a lot of legislators . . . actually working bills.”

Wilson is wounded, but he still holds the best weapons--the power to sign and veto, hire and fire and appoint, especially judges. And with wily Willie Brown now history in Sacramento and Republicans seemingly inept, there is a cavernous vacuum of leadership waiting to be filled.