One thing to know about working for a governor of California, which I did roughly a quarter of a century ago: when the clocks “fall back” at this time of the year, so too does the governor’s workload diminish.
That has nothing to do with the Earth’s rotation around the sun. Rather, it’s a function of the natural ebb and flow in Sacramento. By early-to-mid November, the annual fiscal and legislative processes are well over. By early December, a California governor is looking ahead to January and the one-two punch of a budget proposal early in the month and an agenda-setting State of the State Address days or weeks later. (When I worked for Pete Wilson, a two-term Republican, we trotted out the big speech just days into the new year so as to get the jump on legislative Democrats plus other GOP governors across the nation offering familiar-sounding orations.)
Still, the fact that a California governor can ease off the throttle heading into Thanksgiving doesn’t fully explain why Gavin Newsom, the Golden State’s current chief executive, vanished from public sight for the better part of two weeks earlier this month after abruptly announcing that he wouldn’t be attending an international climate-change conference in Scotland.
The timeline: on Oct. 25, Newsom announced that he’d be leading a California delegate to the COP26 conference in Glasgow. His office’s very words: “California has become a working model for how to aggressively fight the climate crisis while bolstering the clean economy. . . . The Governor will make the case that the state needs national and international partners to join us in committing to safeguard our future.”
But four days later, the Governor’s Office pulled the plug on said trip, citing unspecified “family obligations.”
By the time Newsom did re-emerge in public, at an economic summit in Monterey two Tuesdays ago, he did have a fuller explanation for his about-face:
“I signed up to go to Europe and I was ready to go and I had [a family dinner] . . . and the kids literally, they kind of had an intervention and said they couldn’t believe I was going to miss Halloween. We’ve got a 5-year-old, the oldest is 12, so four young kids, and I’m defending myself, saying, ‘I’ve for to go,’ this and that . . . And mom and dad missing Halloween, for them it’s worse than Christmas. And I woke up that next morning with something that’s probably familiar to a lot of parents, that knot in your stomach. I had no damn choice: I had to cancel that trip.”
Newsom also alluded to the recent bill-signing period and September’s recall election in noting that he spent his time off the grid “catching up after a pretty intense period of time with the family, myself, the team—and it’s been probably the most productive week I’ve had since I’ve been governor.”
California’s governor telling us that life is more productive without social media? So much for a post-governorship Twitter board seat.
I’ve been thinking about what if any significance there is to a governor vanishing for a stretch of time as did Newsom, especially when it doesn’t end in scandal (students of American politics might remember South Carolina governor Mark Sanford supposedly “hiking the Appalachian trail” back in the summer of 2009 when in fact he was in Argentina carrying on an extramarital affair).
Was It a Legitimate Excuse? Two caveats here: I don’t have kids of my own, so I’ve never had to deal with the family politics of trick-or-treating; the older I get, the less I am a fan of the commercial spectacle and adult silliness that is Halloween (I remember carrying around little boxes seeking coinage for UNICEF and grown-ups letting kids have all the fun).
Instead, I’ll defer to the Los Angeles Times’s always insightful George Skelton, who found something of a common ground. He credited Newsom for being a good dad, but noted the public deserved a fuller explanation—in this case, from a governor who affixes climate change to many of California’s woes. (It’s worth noting that Skelton did take a swipe at the notion of Halloween as having the same standing as Thanksgiving and Christmas; he also asked why the First Couple couldn’t strike a compromise—the patriarch jetting off to Scotland; the matriarch staying home for Halloween).
Filling the Void. When a politician goes off the grid, haters don’t take a pause for the cause. It’s just the opposite: social media, like nature, abhors a vacuum. And it’s even worse when one of the last images a pandemic-weary electorate sees is that of a prominent, pro-science politician receiving a Moderna shot booster soon before vanishing from sight.
The Biden administration learned this lesson the hard way earlier this month, in its glacial response to this Wall Street Journal story claiming that the federal government is in talks with immigrant families separated by Trump-era policies, with possible compensation of $450,000 per person or up to $1 million per family. It took the president six days to respond (calling the story “garbage”), by which time the narrative was firmly embedded in some voters’ psyches (just google “Biden $450,000” and see what pops up).
While Newsom chose not to show a glimpse into his daily routine—a picture posted to Twitter or Instagram showing him pushing work papers, hanging out with the kids, or date night with the missus—online conspiracists did their level best to turn the Governor’s Office into Sacramento’s version of the Grassy Knoll. Thus, the rumors that Newsom was either dead or disabled due to an adverse reaction to his booster shot (fed, ironically, by an anti-vaccine group tied to Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the namesake son of Newsom’s political idol).
A second note of irony: while Newsom didn’t go to the climate-change summit, he did attend a wedding thrown by San Francisco’s Getty royalty—like many a high-end California social gathering these days, a window into masking double standards. The irony: a California governor who blew off a climate-change conference, instead schmoozing with a family that owes its fortunes to . . . fossil fuels).
Delayed (Tweeting) Gratification. One reason why #whereisgavinnewsom creeped up the Twitter charts: a feisty tweet (since deleted) from First Partner Jennifer Seibel Newsom, soon before her husband re-emerged. Her observation: “It’s funny how certain folks can’t handle the truth. When someone cancels something, maybe they’re just in the office working, maybe in their free time they’re at home with their family, at their kids’ sports matches, or dining out with their wife. Please stop hating and get a life.”
Perhaps the First Partner regretted the tone of the sentiment—the last three words, at least (indeed, she did delete the tweet not long after posting it, but not before a reporter managed a screen-grab).
The takeaway: maybe Twitter should have an embedded feature for officeholders and their spouses—a delay function (30 minutes, an hour) that allows cooler heads to prevail.
A final thought about California and the COP26 summit: while a contingent of Democratic lawmakers did journey to Glasgow (including one with dubious green bona fides), it’s worth noting that former governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who signed California's first economywide greenhouse gas mandate 15 years ago, did not.
Arnold’s rationale: too much bloviating, not enough action. “Every time you meet and you meet and you meet, and now decades later, you have the same problems as you have had decades before, you ask yourself, ‘How much longer do you want to go and do the same thing?,’” Schwarzenegger noted at a Southern California environmental justice conference in late October. “Remember what Einstein said, ‘The definition of insanity is to do the same thing over and over again and expect different results.’ You’re not going to get different results.”
Or maybe Arnold knew something else: COP26 wasn’t the best of times for American politicians. Barack Obama attended—and offended the locals by mistaking Scotland for Ireland and making Shakespeare, not Robert Burns, his rhetorical poet of choice. President Biden reportedly committed a different kind of atmospheric disturbance while making small talk with Camilla Parker Bowles, the Duchess of Cornwall. Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti was quarantined in Scotland after testing positive for a breakthrough case of COVID.
Perhaps it was best that Newsom stayed home—and stayed silent for a few days.