Kevin Starr: What's Happened to California's Spirit?

Roundup: Historians' Take

Peter Schrag, in the Mercury News (April 18, 200):

For the ever-ebullient Kevin Starr, who retired almost three weeks ago as California's state librarian, optimism about his native state is second nature, the view almost as grand as it was a decade ago when he took the job. And as California's premier social and cultural historian, he's as entitled to it as anyone.

Even when Starr talks about the latter-day ``intellectual impoverishment'' of California's leadership, or the ``time-out'' in support of the state's once celebrated public programs and policies, it sounds as if he regards the enervation as little more than a passing thing.

Why, he asked the other day, is there no grand vision? Where are the Clark Kerrs, the Earl Warrens, the Phil Burtons, the scholars, the visionary writers, the people who, in this period of crisis, can ``rebuild the California narrative?'' Why is ``the Democratic Party (his party) brain-dead?'' As a poor boy growing up in San Francisco a half-century ago, he ``struggled for the optimistic view of life,'' a view that was nurtured by ``the larger California impetus.'' Now, he says, he's less optimistic about California than he used to be -- finds fewer people to share or sustain his optimism.

Yet almost in the same breath, the tone changes. There are the writers Richard Rodriguez and Gregory Rodriguez (no relation), who are thinking about California's new demographics and its emerging culture in new ways. There is the political maturity of a new generation of Latino politicians who -- contrary to the warnings of anti-immigration nativists -- are not irredentists seeking to retake lost Mexican soil. And, of course, there's Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The state, he says, is fortunate to have Schwarzenegger -- a most improbable governor -- who ``has the state moving again.'' Like many others who have dealt with Schwarzenegger, including a lot of Democrats, he finds him smart, a good listener, ``not the Terminator . . . but quiet and good-humored. . . . Arnold wants to be great.''

Schwarzenegger, he said, really is trying to re-establish bipartisanship in Sacramento, ``trying to build up the self-esteem of the Legislature.'' (That statement was made just before the governor, declaring that legislators wasted too much time on trivia, called for a return to a part-time Legislature.)...

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