Many readers outside of California will not have heard of Governor Gavin Newsom. But if you need to summon up a mental image, imagine Marie Antoinette without that late Queen’s sense of self-awareness.
Newsom has been uniting opinion in California ever since he took over as Governor last year — against him. He had previously been Mayor of San Francisco and during his tenure there had helped to turn one of the world’s most beautifully-positioned cities into one of the first world’s most shameful slums. Since his election success last year, he appears to have tried to establish whether he could replicate this success on a state-wide level.
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During his time as Governor, as during his tenure as Mayor, homelessness has skyrocketed. This isn’t accidental; it has been encouraged. The state’s subsidies mean that it has become a magnet for homeless people, so that in California, as in San Francisco, people can essentially live wherever they wish to pitch their tent or shopping cart. There are now over 150,000 people living homeless in the state, the highest such proportion anywhere in the US. This is now one of the major reasons why so many Californians are leaving and heading elsewhere.
But in recent days, Newsom has been making wider headlines because he has transgressed one of the cardinal rules of politics, specifically “Do as I say not as I do”. For many months, California’s Covid restrictions have been among the most stringent anywhere in the United States, and at present if you travel around the formerly great state you can see the results of the policies that Newsom and his colleagues have instituted.
Among the most visible trends is with the state’s restaurants, which can remain open only so long as they transfer to a sort-of open-air, vaguely tent-like structures in parking lots and other spaces adjacent to the state’s restaurants. The whole thing has the air of a permanent state-wide celebration of the Jewish holiday of Sukkot. The diners of California now pay top whack to have the pleasure of eating out in a parking lot.
But Newsom has not been content with simply instituting that piece of communal inconvenience. Until the start of October, the state forced you to wear a face mask on entering a restaurant and heading to or from your table. But you were allowed to take your face-mask off (as on aeroplanes) when you were actually eating. Then, at the start of October, Newsom’s office issued updated guidance, so that diners in California would henceforth be required to keep their mask on at all times other than when they were actually taking bites. The governor’s office advised: “Don’t forget to keep your mask on in between bites”. So during a meal you would have your mask on throughout, whip it off to allow yourself a forkful of food, and then as soon as the food was in your mouth you would have to put the mask back on.
It was my experience, being in California during the days after this edict was issued, that people in the state did not follow this particular madness. Many treated themselves to chewing in an overheated parking lot without covering their faces, and so far as I could see neither restaurant staff nor the local police did anything to enforce that particular measure. But it was indicative of the overzealous insistences that were coming out of the Governor’s office.
Newsom had previously liked a tweet from Cory Booker which declared that “Wearing a mask is not a surrender of liberty. It is an affirmation of love.” His Twitter profile shows him wearing a mask and his pinned tweet declares: “CA, you are now REQUIRED to wear a mask in public spaces.”
So what a beautiful thing it is to now see that Newsom himself follows none of this advice. This week, footage emerged of him breaking every single piece of Covid regulation that he has attempted to foist upon the unhappy people over whom he rules. Earlier this month he had attended a dinner at an expensive French restaurant called French Laundry in Napa, the unmissable occasion being the birthday dinner of a lobbyist called Jason Kinney.
And during the course of the evening he followed absolutely none of the advice he himself had spent months doling out.
First off, the dinner appears to have been indoors. Second, everybody at the table was closely packed together, in a gathering of more than a dozen people — AND absolutely none of the them were wearing masks. In other words, it was the sort of dinner that was perfectly normal until 2020, but which people like Governor Newsom have insisted are a total health hazard this year.
As photos of the gathering emerged, it has further transpired that the Governor was joined by two high-level members of the California Medical Association. The $400 per person menu included a starter of “Oysters and Pearls” followed by “Sole aux Crevettes” and Braised Veal. All of which must have left a delightful taste in the mouth of the Californian leader, various medical authorities and assorted lobbyists, but leaves a rather less pleasant aftertaste with pretty much every other resident of California.
Since being outed for his hypocrisy Newsom has made a public apology of the predictable kind. He seems to be hoping that people will forgive his actions because of a miscalculation by him about the precise size of the gathering. He claimed that when sitting down at the table he realised that “it was a little larger group than I had anticipated. And I made a bad mistake. Instead of sitting down I should have stood up”. He acknowledged that the “spirit” of what he was telling everyone else to do had been broken.
And he also acknowledged that what he was “preaching” all the time had been contradicted “because I need to preach as well as practise”. It is questionable whether a politician should be into any sort of “preaching” at all, let alone preaching an ideal they then self-confessedly cannot live up to. But more than any other Covid scandal so far, Newsom’s lobbyist supper is deeply telling about a divide which is emerging between rulers and ruled.
In Britain, the biggest Covid-breaking scandal was that surrounding the Prime Minister’s then chief advisor, Dominic Cummings. When Cummings was criticised and made to explain his behaviour, the UK was in a state of feverish anger about a potential breaking of the rules. But through all of that there was no question of Cummings having done something frivolously. He stood accused of having perhaps ill-advisedly attempted to make alternative childcare arrangements to look after his young child while he and his wife were falling sick with Covid. People may have disagreed with his decision, or not, but he was acting in the best interests of his son.
Newsom by contrast broke the far more stringent rules of California, which he himself was extolling for the pleasure of having an exquisite dinner with a bunch of political lobbyists and healthcare professionals. Everything that is wrong with the American political class might be summed up in that fact — that of all the things one might have broken the Covid rules for (visiting a sick or dying relative, attending the funeral of a loved-one), the Governor of California did it to have a $400-per-head indoor dinner with lobbyists.