California Screaming

Super Tuesday has come and gone, effectively narrowing the Democratic Party’s presidential race for these United States down to two: septuagenarians Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, both of whom are older than their Republican opponent by a mere four or five years. We have come a long way from the days when Ronald Reagan ran for president the first time, causing many to wonder whether 70 was too old to enter the White House. As it stands, if either Democrat wins, he shall celebrate his 80th birthday at America’s most prestigious residential address.

Of greater interest to me than questions of gerontocracy is Senator Sanders’s victory in the Golden State of California, where I have lived for most of my life, and whose recent political course never fails to horrify me—though, to be fair, the governor-mayor combo of Newsom and Garcetti is hardly worse than my native New York’s offering of Cuomo and di Blasio. Bear in mind that the current Democratic majority in the assembly has presided over a decline which features countless homeless encampments in our major cities, with a concomitant return of rats and typhus. For the past several years, more Americans have left California than have immigrated from the rest of the union. Voting for Bernie seems completely in character for my second native state.

This is a sad development in a place that has traditionally been the land of opportunity. Compare the hacks who rule from Sacramento to St. Junipero Serra and his gallant Franciscans, Spanish soldiers, and Mexican settlers who pioneered El Camino Real from San Diego to Sonoma with its chain of 21 missions—to say nothing of the countless Indian souls saved thereby. Short as it was, the mission era in California history laid deep foundations that were not undone by the American conquest. They even gave rise to a Romantic literature of sorts, as embodied by Zorro and Ramona, as well as the Mission and Monterey Revivals in architecture.

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Shortly after American annexation, the Gold Rush of 1849 brought thousands of would-be gold barons from all over the nation—and the world. When the dust had settled, San Francisco’s Barbary Coast was a city as proud as any in the East. In the years following the Civil War, hordes of Easterners and Midwesterners came out in search of good weather, health, and El Dorado. This would continue into the 1960s, and my family and I were in the last wave. Dreams dreamt in more established states could come to fruition out here. So it was that the cult-spawning center of the country, which had shifted from New England to the Midwest after the Civil War, moved to Southern California in the 1890s. So it was that Pentecostalism, Theosophy, the Great I AM, and literally dozens of others were either born or prospered out here. But more mundane—if more successful—visionaries also came: Missouri’s Dr. Hubert Eaton, founder of the Forest Lawn chain of user-friendly cemeteries; Chicago’s Walt Disney; and rural Illinois’s own Ronald Reagan. Such men made as much of the raw clay of California as their intellect and drive allowed.

Indeed, the post–World War I arrival of the film industry pushed forth Southern California’s growth as thousands of dreamers arrived to take part in the dream factory. Its highest-paid denizens radiated a manufactured elegance—a veneer of Hollywood decadence that enveloped Los Angeles’s corrupt old cowtown mores. From Hollywood Boulevard’s Musso and Frank’s to Caesar’s in Tijuana and the Montecito Inn near Santa Barbara and on to the present day, restaurants, bars, and hotels make much of whatever connection they have to that golden era.

Of course, it was also the heyday of California Noir. It is no coincidence that Dashiell Hammett wrote of Sam Spade in San Francisco and Raymond Chandler of Philip Marlowe in Los Angeles during this time. The über-polite society that developed in such favored enclaves as Pasadena produced no less than Julia Child. World War II brought out thousands more, and the resulting growth of the aerospace industry created a last golden age for the state.

Meanwhile, highways opened up extraordinary vistas such as Big Sur for the average driver, and the Automobile Club helped him navigate them. Architects gave us the California bungalow and storybook styles. Painters developed California plein air to take advantage of the state’s unique climate and lighting.

The Beats were attracted to California’s climate and lifestyle and, after them, the hippies. As immortalized by Scott Mackenzie, the Summer of Love in 1967 brought thousands to the Bay Area to wear flowers in their hair as the Age of Aquarius dawned. All the while, the state’s politics were fairly conservative, but it was Governor Reagan who signed the Therapeutic Abortion Bill into law in May of 1967—a decision he would live to regret. Gerry Brown happily signed legislation legalizing sodomy seven years later. (This had the unexpected effect of legalizing necrophilia; as a result, when two decades later Warren Christopher’s great-nephew and his boyfriend were found in Forest Lawn violating corpses, they could only be charged with trespass.)

Economic policies in time followed moral ones, choking off growth, and reducing the state’s political life to its current pass. In keeping with California’s incredible natural and historical riches, the State Park system has always been the best-run part of the state government, and the only one that turns a profit. This was too ripe a fruit to leave unplucked. So it was that, in 2001, Governor Brown decided that 70 out of 278 State Parks should close. Almost immediately, many citizens’ groups arose to take over the operation of the parks without costing Brown’s government any money. A year later, it turned out that the parks had hidden assets totaling $54 million, which gave the lie to the Governor’s claims about closing the parks. All of which goes to show that California is already governed by men like Bernie Sanders.

Photo credit: Getty Images


  • Charles Coulombe

    Charles A. Coulombe is a contributing editor at Crisis and the magazine’s European correspondent. He previously served as a columnist for the Catholic Herald of London and a film critic for the National Catholic Register. A celebrated historian, his books include Puritan’s Empire and Star-Spangled Crown. He resides in Vienna, Austria and Los Angeles, California.

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