Speechwriter Bows Out on an Up Note

Times Staff Writer

If there's anyone more anxious than the governor on inauguration day, it's got to be the guy who writes his speech. That would be Jason Kinney, the tall, brawny Indiana native whose job is among the toughest in state politics.

Life as a speechwriter for any politician is rough. Life as the word meister for Davis, a notoriously hard-to-please man, can be downright brutal.

"The governor does a lot of tweaking -- he is very hands-on," said Steve Maviglio, Davis' press secretary. "It's gotta be hard on Jason.... His work goes through the sausage grinder."

The speech the governor delivered Monday as he was sworn in for a second term was a good one, perhaps his best ever, some say. It also was draft No. 17.

"Thematically, it didn't change much," Kinney said. "But as trained as my ear is, only the governor can speak in Gray Davis-speak. So he got ahold of it and we were off and running."

Kinney, 32, has been with the governor for four years and has written or edited 1,200 Davis speeches. This one was tricky, coming after a tough election and at a time when the state faces a $35-billion hole in its budget. With such bleak news, how does a governor avoid depressing his audience? "The goal was to articulate a vision that was confident and defiant, and I think he did that," Kinney said. "There's actually a certain freedom in being down a few runs. You can swing for the fences."

As pleased as he was with the address, it was one of the last he will write for Davis. Burnout, he said, has arrived. And speechwriting can be frustrating -- you build the car, as Kinney says, but you don't get to drive it. "It's hard to write speeches every day and still sound fresh and new and interesting," he said. "It's time to move on."

Pucker Up

A kiss is just a kiss ... or is it? Does winning a second term unleash a governor's passions, creating a more relaxed chief executive more prone to public displays of affection?

While the hearty smooch Davis planted on his wife, Sharon, at his swearing-in ceremony Monday may have looked ordinary to many Californians, it took Capitol insiders by surprise. The first couple are known as loving but chaste, holding hands and showing obvious ardor for one another, but never venturing into openly passionate territory.

Indeed, the governor's previous onstage kisses have mostly been modest pecks, often on the cheek or forehead. Monday's was a three-second, lips-on-lips zinger accompanied by a pronounced embrace.

All the affection in the air at Sacramento's Memorial Auditorium did have a downside, however. Somehow, the invocation was skipped. Too bad, one aide quipped: "This year, we need all the prayers we can get."

Who Was That Tenor?

One of the more uplifting moments at the Davis inaugural came when 74-year-old David Flagg sang the national anthem, an a cappella version. As is often the case with politics, there's a story behind his appearance.

Seems Flagg and his wife, Astrid, ran into Sharon Davis at a meeting in Orinda last fall. Astrid Flagg handed the governor's wife a tape of her husband singing a few patriotic songs, and told the first lady the tenor's musical performances are dedicated to his late father, a POW during World War II. The story apparently resonated with Sharon Davis, whose husband served in Vietnam. She gave the tape to the Inaugural Committee, and the next thing Flagg knew, he was set to perform.

While he has sung at bigger venues -- ballparks and the like -- Flagg said there was something special about singing for California's governor. "I let it rip," said Flagg, who later chatted with the governor. It's a good bet politics weren't discussed, because the Flaggs are Republicans. No matter, Flagg said. "Music is nonpartisan."


Times staff writers Dan Morain, Carl Ingram and Nancy Vogel contributed to this report.

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