By Frank Gruber
It was a slow week in Santa Monica politics, notwithstanding
the behind-the-scenes maneuvering over the Herb Katz succession
issue, but a big week nationally, and I'm going to indulge myself
with a little wallowing in the stall of post-inauguration punditry.
As with most of the country, the inauguration left me in a mellow
mood, as in "sure we're up the creek, but now we have a man
of both thought and action, a deep thinker and strategist, in
charge of the paddles. But watching the proceedings last Tuesday,
I felt some disconnect -- not from the event itself, but from
the consensus about it.
I didn't buy the analysis of why this inauguration was so epochal.
But I agree it was epochal. Your garden-variety inauguration
doesn't attract that many people to the mall (including my son
who walked there from a friend's dorm room at Georgetown at three
in the morning and was so cold he stuffed his shoes with newspapers).
Not to mention the hundred million or so watching around the country
onTV or the billions watching around world.
Photo by Henry Gruber
Hell, I was invited to two breakfasts to watch the thing and three
parties that night to celebrate it.
But I didn't quite buy either of the two most common explanations
for the specialness, namely that the hubbub was because (i) Barack
Obama is our first African-American president, and/or (ii) the
country is in epochal bad shape, what with our being at war in
two places and our economy being in free fall.
Yes, electing a black to the presidency is a big deal, until
recently a quite unbelievable thing, but I have the feeling that
if this event were taking place in a different time, when the
country was less troubled, the event would have been profound,
but the party for it would have been smaller.
But then what about these troubled times -- are our troubles
so great as to engender such anxieties that nearly two million
people show up on the mall?
Let's be honest -- saying that the country today is confronted
with dangers of historic proportions is yet another example of
the narcissism and lack of historical context that have characterized
Americans for a generation or so.
Okay, so the economy is in bad shape, but so far it's nothing
like it was in March 1933 when FDR took office. And two wars?
Two little wars? And our enemies are a bunch of non-state crazies?
We're not talking about 1861 here, or even 1917 or 1941, when
inaugurations, albeit of sitting presidents, occurred in the context
of world wars that prescient people assumed would soon include
us, or even 1969, when Richard Nixon took office while 500,000
American soldiers were mired in Vietnam and the economy was overheating.
Hey -- remember 1990? Well for 35 years before then we had an
adversary that could annihilate us with nuclear weapons. Remember
"duck and cover?"
As they say, get a grip.
Sure George W. Bush is competing for the title of worst president
in history and left us with a big mess, but let's not get all
self-pitying about it.
All right, but then why all the excitement? Well, it could be the
qualities of Obama himself -- he has fired up a lot of people who
are ready to go (to work). But it's not like he won in a landslide.
I suspect it's something else. Something
has happened to the political culture in America that makes people
believe that Obama's victory reflects change that goes beyond his
53 percent of the vote.
There's a reason many newspaper headlines heralded the inauguration
as the dawn of a new era, or its equivalent.
In my mind, it all goes back to Hurricane Katrina, in September
2005. That was less than a year after Bush's reelection, and although
the feisty Democratic minority in Congress had so far rebuffed his
number one legislative priority of privatizing Social Security (could
you imagine?), Bush was still reasonably popular; his approval ratings
were in the mid to upper '40s.
Katrina changed everything, not only with respect to the country's
attitude toward Bush, whose approval ratings started heading toward
the basement, but also to the politics he stood for. Katrina led
directly to the Democratic gains in the 2006 congressional elections
-- a more dramatic turning point than the 2008 presidential election.
What happened? Katrina was when people realized that the whole
phony patriotism of the right -- that of those who "love"
America but despise so many of its institutions, including its government,
and disdain much of the Constitution, and believe that Americans
are sinful and unworthy to boot -- was baloney, just cover for selfishness,
narrow-mindedness, and uncaring incompetence.
Change is gonna come.
That the candidate who represented "change" better than
any candidate in history emerged to carry the ball was serendipitous
and very American in its own way, but all the celebrating was about
The people had found that they loved not only America, but also
Let's do what lovers do -- take care of each other.
* * *
So as not to go totally national, let me flag two items on tomorrow
night's City Council agenda. Both involve streets.
One thing that the City of Santa Monica has been doing for about
20 years, since it reduced the number of lanes on Fourth Street
south of Pico, is to reconfigure streets to make them better for
pedestrians and nearby neighbors than they are for motorists.
Some motorists complain, but the success and popularity of this
program cannot be doubted, as residents continue to ask for its
extension to more streets. Santa Monica has become a more congenial
place for the people who live, work, and play here by the "road
diets" (as they're called in the world of professional urbanists)
the city has implemented on parts of Fourth Street, Main Street,
Broadway, Montana Avenue, Santa Monica Boulevard, Ocean Park Boulevard,
and probably some streets I'm forgetting.
The most common method is to turn a four-lane street into one with
one lane in each directly and a center lane for left turns. Bike
lanes are included where feasible; on Fourth Street a center lane
of parking was added. On other streets, such as Wilshire Boulevard
and Pico, the City has not reduced lanes, but it has added landscaped
medians and "bulb-outs" to calm traffic and improve the
Tomorrow night the City Council will review proposals for reconfiguring
Twentieth Street and Cloverfield south of the freeway, and for re-landscaping
Ocean Park Boulevard west of Lincoln with either wider sidewalks
or large medians (traffic lanes on Ocean Park west of Lincoln were
scaled down in the '90s).
The City's staff is recommending a cautious approach -- not recommending
at this time reconfigurations of traffic lanes on Twentieth and
Cloverfield, but leaving open the possibility of doing so later
in the context of the traffic reviews that will take place under
the update of the circulation element.
I have no particular recommendations to make at this time, but
I hope the City Council reflects on the now long history of road
diets in Santa Monica and by doing so finds the confidence to be
bold about these new plans.