Living in a very large, very populous, very diverse and ever-evolving state, Californians have a notoriously weak sense of civic identity.
The fierce – even sometimes obnoxious – pride that residents of other states (read: Texas) exhibit is rare among Californians, who tend to identify with their local communities, their cultural groups or perhaps their favorite sports teams, rather than the state.
Given that lack of communal spirit, a California Hall of Fame to give Californians a better sense of their rich heritage is a good concept.
It was initiated a decade ago by Maria Shriver, wife of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, and the 10th class of honorees was inducted last week, bringing the total to 106.
However, as that class of eight demonstrates anew, having governors make the selections on their own – first Schwarzenegger and since 2011 Jerry Brown – has produced a very erratic, even inexplicable, mélange that reveals more about their quirks than it does about California.
The list is way overloaded with entertainment and sports figures – more than a third – who had little or nothing to do with how California evolved from what it was to what it is. And the presence of some is just plain weird.
Take, for instance, golfer Tiger Woods, who was reared in Southern California but moved to Florida to escape California’s high income taxes before becoming enmeshed in personal scandal. What message does his selection by Schwarzenegger for the California Hall of Fame convey?
And then there’s actor Robert Downey Jr., whom Brown named last year just before granting him a pardon for his conviction on drug charges and a few months after Downey made a $50,401 donation on behalf of Brown to the Oakland School for the Arts, a charter school Brown founded. What does that tell us?
Many of the nonsports and nonentertainment honorees are well-chosen for their lasting impact on California, such as Brown’s father, former Gov. Pat Brown, and Ronald Reagan, who unseated the elder Brown and went on to occupy the White House.
But there are curious lapses.
Former Defense Secretary William Perry joined the list of political figures this year, but former Assembly speakers Jesse Unruh and Willie Brown, the Capitol’s dominant figures for decades, have been ignored.
There are just three labor union figures, all associated with the United Farm Workers union, but no farmers, unless one counts vintner Robert Mondavi.
There are more than a dozen business figures on the list, but it’s weighted heavily toward Silicon Valley wunderkinds such as Steve Jobs and omits such towering figures as Donald Douglas. He virtually founded California’s aircraft industry, and his DC-3 made commercial air travel possible and played a huge role in World War II.
However, there’s aviatrix Amelia Earhart, whom Schwarzenegger placed on the first list in 2007. Famous though she is, Earhart had almost no connection to the state other than learning to fly in Long Beach after World War I.
Her inclusion is a puzzler – and not the only one.