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The Emperors Really Nice Clothes 

Wednesday, Jan 10 1996
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There was nothing Charlemagne liked more than annexing new kingdoms and deposing whatever ineffectual dukes loitered around the places. But even as his power metastasized, Charlemagne -- like our own newly installed maximum leader -- understood that the consent of the mighty was essential to cementing a grip on the rest of his empire. A real mensch about the process of power consolidation, Charlemagne allowed the conquered to keep their properties as he busied himself subordinating the existing bureaucracies into his own. Sound familiar?

Of course, one thing Charlemagne didn't have to worry about was an unruly, demanding press. Then again, neither does Emperor Brown. Sure, both papers endorsed Frank Jordan. Sure, Lance Williams of the Examiner battered Brown with tales of his tobacco perfidy early in the campaign. And, yes, as late as inauguration day the Chronicle's Matier and Ross were needling Brown with a list of the "avalanche of problems" he must address (the jail, the Health Department, the Housing Authority, 911, labor contracts, and other fiscal crises). But so much of the Brown coverage since the runoff has been clap-your-hands Brioni baloney that the A section has begun to read like home team coverage in the sports pages.

Finishing in a dead heat for the feeblest Page One Willie Brown story prior to his takeover are the Examiner's "Lining Up for Willie Wear" (Jan. 7), about Brown's annual donation of Brionis to a thrift store, and the Chronicle's "Brown Plays Cards Close to the Vest" (Jan. 2), in which we learn that the mayor-elect is saying ... nothing.

Covering nothing is something our two dailies excel at, so it would be less than unappreciative to nag them about their achievement. But the twin themes of suck-up and kiss that typify recent Examiners and Chronicles invite further scrutiny. The dailies are indulging in the rich newspaper tradition of the "beat sweetener" -- the conveniently timed article that praises and polishes the pol early in his term in hopes of winning access for the supplicant.

Listen to John King and Clarence Johnson in the Chronicle (Jan. 9): "The inauguration itself was not dreamlike but majestic, at times feeling almost like a coronation." The headlines in the Jan. 8 Examiner say it all: "From White House to S.F. schools, everyone's a fan as new mayor is inaugurated," and "Sunrise over a stylish new S.F." Inside, the Examiner polls the notable for their views on "Da Mayor's Style."

And people complain about the cynical press? Have all the skeptics down at Fifth and Mission been furloughed, or are they suffering from chemical imbalances? (The only Chronicle writer remotely connected to her senses this week was Susan Yoachum, who in the Jan. 9 issue deflated Brown's inauguration speech.)

Why have San Francisco dailies succumbed to Brown's sorcery? Pound for pound, San Francisco journalists are as bright as many of those who have climbed high enough to leap atop the shit heap of America's great newspapers. What holds the city's reporters back is an exorbitant allegiance to place, one based on reality and dreams of the possible. The downside of this allegiance is that it often blinds them to the blandishments of such a seasoned flatterer like Willie Brown. Brown has succeeded in making himself the personification of the city: To attack him, the emotional logic goes, is to attack the "soul of the city," and no one can abide by that.

It would be unfair to say Chron/Ex reporters coast on the Coast. But their celebration of Brown's anointment as savior of the city and failure to hold him accountable will have long-lasting effects. Brown offers hope, but a $2 million recreation center and an affordable housing bond measure do not glory make. Since losing its pre-eminence as California's banking and business center to Los Angeles in the '70s, and suffering the ignominy in the '80s as it was replaced by the virtual city of Silicon Valley as the regional source of wealth and power, San Francisco has been in the throes of an identity crisis. Should it proceed on its current path and become a faded tourist destination like Venice where the opera, symphony, and ballet are swell, or what?

The conquering emperor has exploited those psychic vulnerabilities, and hasn't had to work hard to convert the homies in the press corps into sportswriters rooting for him to put the home team back in first place. Plus, they're wacky for Brown because they're overjoyed to be rid of boring Frank Jordan -- Da Mayor is superbly soundbiteable. They're daunted by Brown's intelligence, his ability to swing deals. Best of all, he's decisive, which means that a Brown story stays written. His brilliance is understanding that journalists desire a coherent narrative line for their stories, a positive spin that he's all too happy to provide. Hence the bread and circuses, choirs and red carpets of his ascension.

Willie Brown is a genius, but he is not a god; in fact, he is the living reason the state of California voted for term limits, blanching at the big-time pol's perfection of the art of honest graft. San Francisco's sloppy embrace of Brown will soon move the narrative wheel to the place where the feel-good stories will no longer suffice. The honeymoon will last 18 months give or take a few, about the duration of that other honest graftsman/career politician/potentate, Lyndon Johnson.

Until the honeymoon ends, parse Brown's boasts for the truth for yourself. Look for Brown to establish a "line for the day," as Ronald Reagan did, one that the pliant press will parrot. When he claims that Muni runs on time, double-check him. When HUD sends him millions for housing, or Sacramento bails him out with transportation subsidies, make an independent analysis for yourself and ask if it was truly Brown who did it and if the accomplishment was really significant.

And remember who crowned him when he proclaims the divine right of kings.

About The Author

Jack Shafer

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