Not always fairly, history tends to judge political executives – presidents and governors, especially – by how they handle crises.
Abraham Lincoln is rightly revered for his willingness to wage civil war rather than see the country disintegrate.
Franklin Roosevelt is equally venerated for dealing with two immense crises, the Great Depression and World War II.
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John Kennedy’s presidency was highlighted by his nuanced response in the Cuban missile crisis, prevailing while avoiding nuclear war.
Recent California governors likewise will be valued – or discounted – in large measure by their crisis management.
The only one to be blessedly free of memorable crises was Republican George Deukmejian (1983-1991), but his Republican successor, Pete Wilson, was not as fortunate.
Wilson came into office with hopes of being a Tory reformer on such issues as growth management and “preventive government” that would attack issues before they became crises.
Fate, however, threw him a curve. His governorship was marked by a very severe recession, which posed a major threat to the state budget, plus riots, drought, wildfires, floods and earthquakes. During Wilson’s governorship (1991-99), every county in California was declared a disaster area at least once.
However, Wilson figuratively shrugged his shoulders, accepted his fate and met the nonstop crises head-on, such as suspending red tape to rebuild the earthquake-damaged Santa Monica Freeway in record time.
Wilson’s popularity suffered, but in 1994, he won a landslide re-election from voters who seemed to appreciate his dogged sense of duty.
The next governor, Democrat Gray Davis, didn’t fare as well, for good reason. He faced another budget-damaging recession when the dot.com industry collapsed and, most of all, a historic meltdown of the state’s electric power industry due to an misbegotten experiment in partial deregulation that Wilson had signed.
Davis mishandled both – mostly by freezing when decisive action was needed, learning that risk aversion is the riskiest strategy. After winning a very narrow re-election in 2002, he was recalled by voters and replaced with action movie star Arnold Schwarzenegger.
The actor-turned-politician wasn’t a very good crisis manager either. He blinked when he should have acted decisively on the budget crisis he inherited from Davis and despite his tough guy image never recovered from that early miscue.
And then there’s Jerry Brown, whose first stint as governor (1975-83) preceded Deukmejian’s and whose current (2011-19) followed Schwarzenegger’s.
Brown 1.0 had one major crisis, a 1981 infestation of Mediterranean fruit flies that threatened to destroy the state’s citrus industry, and he stumbled badly.
Rather than authorize a chemical attack with malathion, Brown decided to make an environmental statement and declared that he would stop the Medfly with nonchemical means.
It came across, however, as political posturing rather than crisis management. The Legislature, dominated by fellow Democrats, revolted and forced Brown to do precisely what he had refused to do. It contributed to voter rejection of his bid for a U.S. Senate seat in 1982 in favor of Pete Wilson.
Brown 2.0 is more adept. He handled the budget crisis he inherited from Schwarzenegger with aplomb and showed similar ability when Oroville Dam threatened to collapse and when killer wildfires swept through California’s scenic wine country this month.
Except for one very brief visit, he stayed away from the fire scene, and last week issued a lengthy executive order suspending laws, regulations and fees so that those driven out of their homes could find shelter and rebuild more quickly.
It was precisely the sort of decisive executive action that marked Wilson’s governorship, and will improve Brown’s place in history.