Wednesday, January 02, 2008

A Reconsideration of Amy Wilentz's Calif. Book

On Sept. 2, 2006, I wrote enthusiastically about a book review by the New York Times' chief literary critic, Michiko Kakutani, that was highly critical of the Amy Wilentz book on California, "I Feel Earthquakes More Often Than They Happen, Coming to California in the Age of Schwarzenegger." Kakutani said many authors had dumped on California before Wilentz, and, in any case, she had not done a particularly good job of it.

On a few occasions thereafter, I referred to Wilentz's book as showing "disdain" for California, a state I am much devoted to, and even suggested that Wilentz and her husband, Nick Goldberg, Op-Ed Page and Opinion editor at the Los Angeles Times, move back to New York, if they did not like California.

Finally, one day, I received an e-mail from Wilentz. She suggested it was unethical that I kept criticizing her book on the strength only of the Kakutani review, without having read the book myself.

I felt Wilentz was right. I told her I would buy the book and read it, and the next day I did, although, since I'm always reading three or four books at once, in addition to two newspapers a day, Time magazine and countless online reports, I wasn't too quick about it. However, now I'm finished, and this is, at least, a more considered view of Wilentz's effort.

I feel it is no longer quite right to say that Wilentz has shown "disdain" for California, after living here several years, although it's kind of a close call. The Webster's New World Dictionary defines the word "disdain" as "to regard or treat as unworthy or beneath one's dignity," or "to refuse or reject with aloof contempt or scorn."

This, as I say. is not quite right about the Wilentz book. She does often look at California from the point of view of an Easterner (she was raised in Perth Amboy, N.J. and only lived in New York later), and often she is not high on it. But she does not reach the point of treating it as unworthy or beneath her dignity. At times, she seems to be trying to adjust.

Wilentz, I found, is an able writer, engaging and always intellectually curious. On Schwarzenegger, the subject of a significant part of the book, she is mostly right about him, I feel, although she makes two serious mistakes in dismissing him as something of a Neanderthal whose election as governor of California is to be regarded with considerable ridicule.

First, Wilentz is not correct in contending that Gray Davis, the Democratic governor the Republican Schwarzenegger replaced in the celebrated 2003 Recall election, had not done anything that justified his ouster. The fact is that the Davis administration catered to lobbies, was intellectually dishonest, and even verged on corruption. The Recall did not succeed against a good governor. He had badly mishandled the deregulation of the electricity providers in the state, he had allowed the budgetary deficit to balloon, and he was unable to get along well with anyone, not only the Democratic-dominated Legislature but even his Sacramento neighbors (as a Washington Post story at the time documented). He was just the kind of failure that Hiram Johnson envisioned as being removed when he established the Recall provision of the state Constitution in the early years of the 20th Century.

Second, Wilentz gives Schwarzenegger too much credit for hiring Susan Kennedy as his executive secretary, when he encountered abject defeat at the polls in a special election he organized in 2005 to pass certain reforms. Kennedy is a Democrat, but not a "liberal" as Wilentz describes her. On the Public Utilities Commission as a Davis appointee, and in Schwarzenegger's office, Kennedy has seldom seen a lobbyist she didn't like and cater to. She represents corruption, not reform, in Schwarzenegger's office. She is simply not a liberal.

Still, I can understand why, on balance, Wilentz is inclined to be critical of Californians for electing the celebrity Schwarzenegger to the governor's office at a time when several more qualified candidates were available and on the ballot.

Putting Schwarzenegger aside, there are several other points about the book that seriously disturb me.

Like many Easterners or Southerners who come to California to live, Wilentz's initial reaction to the California desert is one of extreme dislike and, yes, "disdain." Two parts of this book are devoted to California City in the Mojave Desert, and the Salton Sea, in the Colorado Desert, and Wilentz, it is clear, cannot understand why anyone would reasonably want to live in either place.

I can understand this, because the first time I ever brought my former wife, who had grown up in Alabama, to California, we crossed the Colorado River by car and started across the desert to Indio, when, all of a sudden, she burst out crying, and asked angrily, "Did you bring me out to this?"

The fact is, however, that California is by no means all desert, or even mostly desert. As one goes toward the Pacific, there are wonderful mountains, a fertile coastal plain, and, along the Northern California coast, a rain forest.

Wilentz's view of California is preoccupied with the deserts, suburbs like Lakewood, and the Hollywood celebrity bastions of West Los Angeles, where she lives with Goldberg and her three children. So, she often portrays the state as not in accord with Mother Nature, and even is dismissive of the system that brings water from the north to the south. With the exception of Big Sur and the Esalen Institute, Wilentz seldom ventures elsewhere in California. She deals little or not at all with San Francisco, the Redwood country, the Wine country, the great Central Valley, Berkeley, Stanford, the Silicon Valley or the national parks, Yosemite, Sequoia and Lassen. At one point while reading this book, I sent her an e-mail offering to take her and her husband on an auto trip to the Eastern Sierra and Yosemite, where my grandfather visited every summer for 60 years, but, so far, have not had an acceptance.

Some people who come to California, like Wilentz and Los Angeles Times publisher David Hiller, are fascinated with celebrities, and cannot get enough of them. In Wilentz's book, one of her preoccupations is her desire to rent out her home to movie or television people, so she can participate in the Hollywood scene, and she writes enthusiastically about the celebrities she meets.

To many other Californians, like myself, celebrities are not of particular interest.

Finally, and this is my most serious criticism of Wilentz's book, she does not seem at all into the California dream or the persistent genius of this state. She pays more attention to Charles Manson than she does to the California gold rush as shaping what she views as the "dark heart" of California.

To me, this is all wrong. The Gold Rush was not simply about "greed," drawing the "forlorn" from elsewhere, it was the beginning of one great development after another that made California the most prosperous state in the world. It was the first realization of the state's wealth, and others later built on it.

California history since 1850 is one Gold Rush after another. The great climate attracted such industries as agriculture, aviation and entertainment, plus millions of Midwesterners and Southerners seeking a more pleasant outdoor way of life. Modern Silicon Valley, buttressed by the great universities, Berkeley, Stanford, UCLA and Caltech, is the latest example of California industry and academia leading the nation and the world to new heights. As early as Abraham Lincoln, other Americans have realized that California was something special, and Wilentz does not seem to agree with them.

I can only suggest that after she is here a while longer, (her husband has now made the masthead of the L.A. Times), she try another book, representing a more considerate view of the Golden state and recognizing, perhaps, that she would really not be so eager to return to New York.

It's either that, or a return to the Middle East, where Wilentz has much experience. Just last week, she wrote an eloquent article about the slain Benazir Bhutto, who she knew at Harvard and had only recently interviewed in Dubai.

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