Column: Newsom’s inauguration was picture perfect, and that’s a shame


Governor Gavin Newsom’s second day of inauguration was as perfect as any politician can hope for.

Hand in hand with First Partner Jennifer Siebel Newsom, surrounded by his charming children, the man with the beautiful hair marched across Sacramento’s Tower Bridge on his way to the Capitol. Sunlight filtered through clouds that parted thoughtfully for his big day, as photographers captured the carefully orchestrated moment reminiscent of Barack Obama’s march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala. — itself a commemoration of the civil rights march there in 1965.

Then Newsom discreetly got into an SUV, skirting the last few streets. He reappeared on a cleverly crafted round stage that made the audience look huge, American flags draped from every camera angle, as he delivered a speech to usher in his fifth year on the job.

“In our prime, California has been freedom’s force multiplier, protecting freedom from a rising tide of oppression taking root in state houses—weakness masquerading as strength. Little men in big offices,” he told the crowd. “More than any nation anywhere, California has bridged the historic expanse between freedom for some and freedom for all.”

Gov. Gavin Newsom, with first partner Jennifer Lynn Siebel Newsom and children Dutch, Brooklynn, Hunter and Montana, after taking the oath of office in Sacramento.

(Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times)

Alas, if only Newsom enjoyed some of that freedom instead of being constantly bound by his own image.

But our governor seems to be controlled by his need to control and never lets his guard down, even in this hand-picked crowd billed as the People’s March.

It could more appropriately have been called the Certain People’s March, a made-for-television special.

The media was ordered to huddle on one end of the bridge while Newsom and the mob gathered on the other side. With dire warnings – including the threat that our press passes could be revoked for future events if we disobeyed – we were allowed to take a few quick shots as Newsom approached. Then we had to clear the way, no questions, and absolutely no participation in the flow of people passing by.

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Now you might not care how the press was treated, and fair enough. But it gets to the heart of that need for control and a focus on appearance.

Gov. Gavin Newsom smiles as he speaks from a lectern.

Gov. Gavin Newsom delivers his inaugural address after taking the oath of office for his second term.

(Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times)

This is roughly how Newsom treats journalists on a regular basis. That’s especially true since the pandemic, when he got used to dialing in press conferences where unwanted reporters could be ignored. Since Newsom rarely has a spontaneous moment, that lack of access to the media means the public usually only sees what he approves of.

For the good of California and his own political aspirations, he should focus this term on being a little more messy, a little brasher, and a little less concerned about how it all looks.

Because the leaders of the history books, the ones like Newsom’s idol Bobby Kennedy, are the ones who connect with us in sometimes awkward and uncomfortably revealing ways.

Joe Biden’s blunders may make us cringe, but they also make him human. Our last two governors, Jerry Brown and Arnold Schwarzenegger, had little in common politically. But both had an authenticity that at least felt real — lives filled with corgis and cigars and a willingness to be involved. Big men in big offices, open to big criticism because trust cannot be staged.

Newsom has every reason to loosen this term. He deserved it.

People standing in a crowd wave small California flags.

Guests wave state flags at Governor Gavin Newsom’s inauguration ceremony at the Capitol Mall in Sacramento.

(Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times)

He covered a recall in the middle of a pandemic, when many people were angry and distressed. He’s got a campaign chest so full a railroad baron could blush, and he skated to reelection so easily most of us hardly noticed he was running.

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He has made a name for himself as a counterpart to the far right, surpassing Vice President Kamala Harris on that front.

And while huge problems still loom for California — homelessness, affordable housing, an addiction crisis, inflation — Newsom has passed important legislation and put in place good policies.

He championed a controversial plan in CARE Court that I hope will help families with seriously mentally ill loved ones finally find ways to meaningful treatment. He fights the oil companies for profits and pushes for clean energy. He funded guaranteed income programs, passed legislation to help our poorest children save for college, and expanded access to both preschool and health care.

His second term will be about turning those policies into successful programs, no easy task. But 53% of Californians approve of the work he does, according to a poll last fall.

Yet, despite their general approval, Newsom hasn’t made that all-important leap from skilled to inspiring for many Californians.

Except Barbara Hawkins.

Because it was my job to address people in the People’s March, and because I’m a small woman who can easily disappear into a crowd, I joined in despite the threats.

A woman in a jacket laughs and applauds.

Barbara Hawkins, 74, an enthusiastic supporter of Governor Gavin Newsom, listens to his inaugural address in Sacramento.

(Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times)

I met Hawkins, a dapper seventy-year-old who broke her foot last week when she slipped on the sidewalk outside an I Heart Teriyaki restaurant during her lunch break from her job as a building manager. Hawkins stumbled into a black orthopedic boot and marched all the way using a four-pronged cane.

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“I assure you I wouldn’t miss this,” she told me as she rested on a staircase at the end of the mile-long route. “I was determined.”

Hawkins is a serious Newsom stan – an average citizen who showed up because she sees in him a “respect for people” that resonates with her own. She likes “the way he’s performing” on policy, including LGBTQ rights and education.

“Even against opponents he stands up and stands firm,” she told me as we waited for Newsom to deliver his speech. “He doesn’t waver like some of those politicians in Washington.”

Although Newsom has been clear that he is not running for presidentwishes Hawkins he would.

“He would get my money and my vote,” she said.

Gov. Gavin Newsom and his family walk hand in hand with a crowd.

Gov. Gavin Newsom walks his family to his inauguration.

(Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times)

The majority of the people who marched with Newsom on Friday were part of the Democratic machine. Even labor icon Dolores Huerta was there, front row in a red puffer jacket, even though just a few months ago she was in a knocked-down, protracted standoff with Newsom that eventually forced him to give in and sign a farmworkers organization bill he opposed. .

These are the supporters who put politicians in office.

Hawkins is the kind of believer who turns politicians into leaders.

It’s their confidence that fuels the serious swings, and their loyalty fuels the misses.

Inaugurations are for spectacle and praise, so I don’t begrudge Newsom the polish or script of the day. And California has long been a state where television dominates politics, not least because it’s too big to shake hands with everyone.

But Newsom’s speech on Friday, the most personal he’s ever given, showed that he was aware that he doesn’t have the kind of emotion that Hawkins has with many voters. And it showed a desire to cultivate it.

He delved deeper into a personal, humanizing story than ever before. He spoke of his father, “the judge, guilty for” leaving the family, and his mother, Tessa, “busy juggling three jobs”. He brought up his dyslexia, which he has talked about often, but elaborated on how leaving school made him “fake stomach ache and dizziness”.

He revealed a different story from the rich kid chasing him, anchored in part by his own reticence, and it felt as real as Schwarzenegger’s giant stogies or Brown’s beloved pups.

The man with the divorced parents is more interesting and powerful than the man with the perfect hair.

Let’s hope we get to see more of him.