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"Hail to the Chief" (suddenly I love that tune)

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 something else.

The people had found that they loved not only America, but also each other.

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 pedestrian's experience.

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.

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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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