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Frank Gruber

Democracy, Big-D

By Frank Gruber

A consensus formed around the country last week that Barack Obama's 17.4-point win over Hillary Clinton in Wisconsin made his nomination inevitable. The fact that Mr. Obama overwhelmed Ms. Clinton in a state that is 90 percent white with a lot of working people was more evidence that given enough time to reach voters, Mr. Obama is unstoppable.

The day after the primary my son, 18, who was a precinct captain for Mr. Obama in the February 5 primary, asked at dinner what my wife and I thought would be the ultimate meaning of the election.

Well, we said, we won't know until November. Choosing between Mr. Obama and Ms. Clinton won't mean much unless the Democratic nominee -- presumptively now Mr. Obama -- wins the general election. But then, with somewhat bated breath, and touching the wood that is our dining room table, I ventured that if Mr. Obama pulls it off, it will be momentous because it will represent what didn't happen in 1968.

Then America was also mired in an unwise and unpopular war, but the then best candidate for change, Robert Kennedy, who was on his way to the nomination, was assassinated.

His killing had a drastic impact on the future of American politics. It's hard to believe that he would not have picked up just a few more votes than Hubert Humphrey did in November (Humphrey lost the popular vote by only seven-tenths of a percent), and that he would have defeated Richard Nixon. Perhaps I am engaging in prospective hagiography, but in my version of counterfactual history RFK, not Ronald Reagan, would have been the "transformative" American political figure of the late 20th century.

A President Robert F. Kennedy would have reformed and revived the progressive New Deal coalition between middle class liberals and workers; he would have been able to explain to the latter why exiting Vietnam was not unpatriotic, and he would have defused the need for the radical politics that brought us President Reagan and created the coalition between conservative corporate interests and Reagan Democrats over cultural issues that has empowered Republican domination ever since.

So now we have Mr. Obama and Iraq. Hillary Clinton is losing this nomination for various tactical reasons, but at the heart of her failure to close the deal that looked inevitable before people started to caucus and vote is that "Yea" vote she gave to authorizing the invasion of Iraq. Meanwhile, Mr. Obama is trying to create a new version of the New Deal coalition.

If Mr. Obama wins in November, over John McCain, it will be as if Robert Kennedy won in 1968.

And the country seems ready to vote against the war. The important numbers in the Wisconsin vote, which I have not seen discussed much in the press or on the Internet, were not 646,007 and 452,795, respectively the counts for Obama and Clinton, but rather 1,098,802 and 375,427. The first number is the combined vote for the two Democrats, who both want to get us out of Iraq, while the latter is the total vote for the two pro-war Republicans, John McCain and Mike Huckabee.

Of all the votes cast for the major candidates in both parties, the Democrats took nearly 75 percent. To put it another way, Hillary Clinton may have lost dramatically to Barack Obama, but she can take some satisfaction in the fact that in an open primary where voters can choose the party primary they want to vote in on the day of the election she outpolled the combined vote for the two Republicans 452,795 to 375,427.

Between now and November is a long time in politics, and a lot can happen, but right now the big story is that Americans want the Republicans out of power and the U.S. out of Iraq.

* * *

"One woman walked up to the microphone and let out an earsplitting shriek that could have been the agonized cry of a tree being chainsawed.

"'We are not crazy tree huggers,' she told the council."

-- From the Lookout's article about the Santa Monica City Council's decision not to designate the ficus trees on Second and Fourth Streets as city landmarks.

"[Y]ou know, this is where we start getting into silly season" -- Barack Obama, speaking at last Thursday night's debate in Texas (but not about the ficus trees).

Jerry Rubin and Dan Jansenson, two of the organizers of Treesavers, the group trying to stop the City of Santa Monica from removing about fifty of the hundreds of ficus trees downtown, are two of my favorite people in Santa Monica politics, and it thus pains me to say it, but this tree thing has become ridiculous, or "silly" in current political parlance.

There is nothing natural about those trees. They are not native to Santa Monica nor the region. Trees like them of different species would not even have been part of the natural environment here before "civilization." Their existence on Second and Fourth streets is artificial, the product of human beings who planted them there to enhance the pleasure people experience as they walk those streets.

Now the City proposes to remove about one-third of the trees on those six blocks and replace them two-for-one with new trees. Trees that in forty years, when all the ficus have died or toppled over, will enhance the pleasure of future Santa Monicans. (I doubt that Messrs. Rubin and Jansenson, or myself for that matter, will be around at that time, but I hope that someone then takes note of the Santa Monicans of the early twenty-first century who were so forward thinking as to plant new trees.)

* * *

There was one side note to the City Council meeting on the ficus trees that is worth comment. At the end of the public hearing Nina Fresco, the Chair of the Landmarks Commission, spoke to the council to the effect that while the commission could not make the findings to justify landmarking the trees, the whole thing took up a lot of commission and staff time, and that the people who love the trees should have had another route to challenge the City's proposed action.

While Ms. Fresco and most of her colleagues should be commended for voting not to designate the trees as landmarks, Ms. Fresco made to errors.

One is that the tree supporters lacked a route to voice their concerns. The history of this project goes back years. There have been many meetings and opportunities for input. If the Treesavers people had participated in those meetings, then it's not likely that the original plan, which called for all of the trees to be replaced, would have been adopted. Even so, coming in late, the Treesavers were able to improve the plan by causing the City to adopt a phased replacement policy.

This was a big and important victory for the Treesavers (and one of the reasons I like Messrs. Rubin and Jansenson so much). But they were not satisfied with victory, and now they are talking about chaining themselves to trees.

The second point that Ms. Fresco missed is that it has been the actions of her own commission that have encouraged Treesavers along with anyone else opposed to a change in Santa Monica's existing physical state to use the landmarks law to affect the City's land use policies.

After all, if the Landmarks Commission will designate a Quonset hut as a landmark, why not a row of trees?

* * *

Injury report. I am happy to report to my readers that I am almost completely recovered from my bike accident. In fact, this past week I started cycling again (with a new helmet). Thanks for all the good wishes.

A lot of people have asked me if I have recovered any memory of the accident. The answer is no; the accident took place where Ocean Park Boulevard crosses Eleventh Street; my last memory is east of Fourteenth.

I asked the neurologist about his when I saw him for my checkup a few weeks after the accident. He said that I wouldn't get the memory back and that, if I think about it, this is common -- we often hear about crash victims waking up in the hospital with no memory of their crash. But then he said something else that I found fascinating.

The doctor said that the brain is complex, more so than any computer, and that we don't understand much about it. But as for blacking out the memories of what happened before unconsciousness, he said that it's not necessarily related to trauma. He said that it's probably akin to the fact that we never remember the last few minutes before we fall asleep.

Anyway, I just thought that was interesting.

Meeting notice: The next big workshop in the City's land use and circulation elements update process is this Saturday. It will be about transportation, and take place at Samohi, in the cafeteria. For details, to go the City's website for the workshop:

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The views expressed in this column are those of Frank Gruber and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of
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