Cut Newsom from “Newsom at Noon”

Joe Mathews
Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)

Dear Governor,

Your lunchtime COVID-19 briefings—“Newsom at Noon”—are must-see TV. 

No California governor has ever had such a regular platform, and you’ve demonstrated a memory, policy knowledge, and verbal facility (especially with long words) that are almost superhuman. You might be California’s greatest  polysyllabic performance since Julie Andrews recorded “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” for Disney’s Mary Poppins

Your skilled delivery of vital rules and data have put you at the center of Californians’ daily lives as we struggle through the pandemic and its associated social disruptions and economic earthquakes.

Which is precisely why you need to stop giving these briefings.

I’m not kidding. 

The problem is—to borrow two long words you love—fundamental and foundational. You are a politician with deep experience and well-known views. And in many ways, that’s great. For all the criticism your face, Californians are lucky to have someone of your knowledge and judgment is our governor in this moment. 

But we also are a badly politicized and polarized society in the midst of a pandemic. It’s literally a matter of life-and-death that people listen to and follow your complicated public health instructions—on mask-wearing, social-distancing, and the opening and closing of businesses.

When a politician, no matter how skilled and public-spirited, is the one giving that information, the public health response is by definition politicized. The fact is that while many Californians voted for you, many others don’t trust you. And so we are seeing the wearing of masks and the safety of public-facing institutions become a political issue. Two weeks ago, in northern San Diego County, I found myself in a park with more than 150 people watching a softball tournament, and not one person was wearing a mask or socially distancing. When I asked people why they weren’t protecting themselves, many mentioned you, and none in a good way.

It’s obvious that you understand the dangers of politicizing the briefings. I appreciate how careful you are to avoid partisan statements, and to halt your righteous criticism of the Trump administration during the pandemic (even though your reticence angers some of your core supporters). I also appreciate that you treat Californians as adults, that you rigorously avoid oversimplifying things, and that you explain the larger context of state and local governance in the Golden State.

I especially admire your habit of offering caveats to so many of your assertions, and of pointing out the weaknesses in your own policies. It’s a sign of integrity—perhaps even a miracle—that none of the political consultants you’ve employed over the last 25 years has beaten that politically problematic habit out of you.

Of all the politicians who have taken the microphone in this moment, you are among the most responsible. But you can’t change who and what you are. So you need to change the briefings.

Across the country and around the globe, myriad reports and leading public health experts have concluded that, in situations like this, scientists and doctors—not politicians—should be the ones leading public briefings. The good news is that our state has no shortage of such experts.

I suggest you elevate one or both of the esteemed state health officials who sometimes appear with you on “Newsom at Noon.” Dr. Sonia Angell, the director of the California Department of Public Health, who worked at the CDC back when it was functional, is a warm and straightforward communicator. Dr. Mark Ghaly, the California health and human services secretary, has the reassuringly goofy-nerdy mien of a teacher in an ’80s movie comedy. Neither will be able to talk with the facility or breadth you can about all facets of the crisis. But they are better messengers than you are right now.

There will be other advantages. With Doctors Angell and Ghaly handling the briefings, you’ll have more time to work on stubborn problems—like opening the schools and fixing the failing unemployment system. Angell and Ghaly also speak with a simpler vocabulary and structure than you do. Some of your sentences—with their endless asides, moral persuasions, and wonk speak—remind me of the sentences that my seventh grade English teacher made me diagram as punishment for being a wise-ass.

Of course, nerds and Hegelians across the state will mourn that you are no longer on TV saying things like: “I recognize the dichotomy and to an extent, the dialectic.” 

But you might remember what Hegel, the early 19th century German philosopher and master of dialectics, famously said: “We learn from history that we do not learn from history.”

Governor, be the rare leader who learns. Be brave enough to step back from the airtime in service of the public good.

If you cancel yourself as the star of “Newsom at Noon,” you will be losing a platform. But you will be meeting the moment.

Your constituent,

Joe Mathews

 

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