Symbols are powerful forces in politics. Public appearances, mannerisms, and budgets are among the many elements that define leaders and help us evaluate their performances. To that end, Californians have witnessed something of a political earthquake in the symbolic gestures of Gov. Jerry Brown compared to predecessor Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Seven years ago, Schwarzenegger, the actor-turned-governor, staged a grand inauguration ceremony highlighted by huge theater screens on either side of the Capitol walkway showing slides of himself in various campaign scenes. The day's activities included several luncheons attended by 7,000 dignitaries, accented by a large Hollywood contingent.
Brown's inauguration and festivities earlier this month telegraphed austerity and populism. A simple swearing-in ceremony in a large public hall followed by a "feast" of hot dogs and chips conveyed the image of an individual who placed more significance in the rite of passage than the right of the privileged.
Leadership styles also take on great symbolic significance, especially early on in a term where they set the stage for future expectations. Schwarzenegger assumed command immediately after the swearing-in ceremony by marching into his office and signing an executive order that eliminated California's car tax, one of his campaign issues. He showed all that he was in charge.
Brown took the opposite approach. Rather than sweep in with a dramatic gesture, he held forums throughout the state, seeking common ground with California's political forces. While warning the state of great pain to come, he called for people to put California first, partisan bickering second.
Then there's the concept of leading by example, always an important symbol. As soon as Schwarzenegger took the reins of power, he had a tent installed in the inner Capitol courtyard so he could convene stogy-punctuated meetings. Never mind that the state has a firm "no smoking" law in and near state buildings; he was the governor.
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Brown has taken just the opposite approach. Warning Californians that the state would need to tighten its collective economic belt, he slashed the budget of the governor's office by 25 percent as a sign that he would take as much or more from himself than he would expect from others.
None of this is to suggest that the low-key frugality exhibited by Jerry Brown is more desirable than the over-the-top mannerisms of Arnold Schwarzenegger. Still the contrast is stark. And in a world where more than ever a picture is worth a thousand words, Brown has began his own narrative with a symbolism much different than that demonstrated by Schwarzenegger.