By Benjamin Wachs
Part 1: Health Care
My favorite story about Fidel Castro comes from 1997, when there was considerable speculation that the Old Man was dying. In response, Castro gave a nine-hour address to the Cuban Communist Party, in which he implicitly dared other world leaders to prove that they were healthy enough to stand up for nine hours under hot lights, and shout.
I thought of this when I first learned that Gavin Newsom had given a 7-and-a-half hour State of the City Address, in one take, to staff who were ordered to edit it and put it on YouTube.
This has been a tough year for Gavin: his candidates lost big in local elections, his image was drafted by the enemies of Gay Marriage (turning his one big success story into a low-rent Greek tragedy), and his prospects for state office have gone so dim that he needs to carry a fluorescent light bulb just to meet other California Democrats.
Could he, like Castro, have given this enormous speech just to prove to us that he's alive? Is the message of 7.5 hours "I am relevant?"
Newsom, of course, claims that this is an advance in Democracy; and it is, if, by Democracy, you mean "A system wherein elected leaders give the public what they never wanted."
There is no way -no way in Hell- that the people of the city that invented web 2.0 wanted 7.5 hours of old-school municipal policy discussion. Newsom refers to his YouTube state-of-the-citysodes as "discussion and debate," but the fact that he appears to have disabled the "rate this video" and the "comment about this video" options means that the communication is entirely one way: which is oligarchic, even dictatorial; not democratic.
This is a distinction that will likely be lost on the chattering classes, and if Newsom's real reason for putting a massive policy discussion (if that's what it really is - I start watching it in just moments) on YouTube is so that he can say he "used technology to reach out to San Franciscans" in a campaign commercial, this will probably be good enough.
But it still places Newsom firmly in the company of the other leaders infamous for making unnecessarily long speeches like Castro, Mao, and Khrushchev. Except that those guys had whole countries to run: Gavin's got a 49 square-mile peninsula, and he doesn't even control the schools.
So it's scary egomaniacal propaganda....unless, well, here's the interesting thing: unless he really is that excited about talking policy.
Okay, not "talking" policy, but "lecturing" it: Newsom's people have always claimed he's a policy wonk, and I've never believed it. He's always struck me as someone pretending to care about policy because politically it beats admitting that you care about whiskey and women. History has borne me out.
But at some point, pretending to care about something and actually caring about it become one and the same. If Gavin pretends to care about policy so hard that he memorizes its minutest details, becomes fluent in its nuances, and thinks up exciting new ideas, then...he's not pretending anymore.
Can Gavin have actually hacked his way to wonkdom? Is that what this is about? I can't imagine, and yet it's possible - and in this scenario, he's using a two-way technology to speak one-way for the same reason that he never shows up to Board of Supervisors meetings: he's conflict-averse. (To put it nicely).
I have no idea what's going on - but as we delve in to the gorgeous set-piece that is Gavin's Newsom's episodic State of the City address, I will keep an open mind to find out.
We begin with Episode 1: Health Care
00:00 - Newsom is dressed in a sharp blue suit and tie, standing against a luminescent blue background. A large screen behind him has the words "Health care" and a picture of a patient receiving a shot (I think) set against yet another color of blue. The whole thing looks like the Magnavox commercial of tomorrow.
00:20 - Newsom really talks with his arms. Apparently you need dramatic gestures to illustrate how bad health care is in America.
00:40 - Newsom makes the dubious claim that San Francisco "is the first city in the United states of America to actually do something about the health crisis."
00:50 - OH GOD, THE SCREEN BEHIND HIM IS A POWER POINT PRESENTATION!
1:13 - Newsom the policy-wonk emerges as he starts talking about the rate of health-care cost increases for the nation, the state, and San Francisco. Lots of numbers.
2:10 - "I can give you three or four studies that give you three or four different conclusions about the total number of uninsured." He always says things like that, but he never actually does.
3:50 - ACK! THEY JUST SWITCHED TO ANOTHER CAMERA! SUDDENLY WE'RE LOOKING DOWN AT HIM What the hell happened? Was that an attempt at production values? YIKES! THEY JUST SWITCHED BACK! WHAT IS THAT?
4:40 - I must admit, the teleprompter loves him. He could probably read the weather on CBS.
8:40 - He's now spent eight minutes and 40 seconds explaining how Healthy San Francisco works. I can do it in one sentance: "The city has pledged to cover all the medical expenses of its uninsured residents, beginning with the poorest and working its way up." I mention this to illustrate how much more Gavin might have accomplished with only a five minute speech.
8:50 - At this point he wants to pause to clearly illustrate the difference between "preventative care as opposed to acute care." For a moment, I hope there will be a pantomime involving sick clowns. No such luck.
8:51 - He resumes explaining Health San Francisco
10:30 - He thanks Tom Ammiano and Mitch Katz for helping create Healthy SF. It's the first time he's mentioned any other human beings.
12:20 - He concludes the Healthy San Francisco part, and now talks about how they're trying to encourage people who go to city run clinics to go online and fill out only one form that can be distributed between all clinics.
13:13 - Somebody's walking through the shot. Whoever it is, you can see his shoulders and back.
13:20 - Next year they will be sending out a Request For Proposals to develop Electronic Medical Records, so that clinics and emergency rooms can have entire medical history on hand in electronic format. This fits with both the city's plans to improve health care and invade your privacy.
14:09 - Starts talking about San Francisco General and this past election's Prop A.
15:13 - There are 31 more minutes to go in this video. I want to claw my ears out.
16:40 - Is he really showing us a projection of how the new rooms at the remodeled San Francisco General will look? Really? Who is that supposed to impress?
18:30 - That mysterious head and shoulders start walking into the shot again, then appear to realize they're in the shot, and walk out.
18:50 - Did you know that San Francisco is "aging and graying?" Apparently we are: he's got a diagram of census data. "People 60 and over is that large bar, 65 and over is the blue bar, 85 and over is the green bar."
20:00 - Did he just tap on his power point's screen with his finger?
21:00 - I have to admit it: I'm spacing out like crazy. I LOVE public policy, and I'm spacing out like crazy.
21:52 - It's time to call it. This is unwatchable. I'll grant you he's articulate, knowledgeable, and detailed ... but he's answering questions nobody asked. It feels so much like an infomercial that I automatically reach for the remote. I can't help myself: no matter how much he talks sense, I feel like I'm being played. Is Newsom one of those people who comes across as most insincere when he's trying to be himself?
22:20 - An enormous part of the problem may speak to one of his biggest problems as Mayor: instead of articulating a detailed policy vision for San Francisco, he's looking at a whole bunch of programs one at a time. Even with an infomercial-of-the-city devoted exclusively to health care, there's no sense how ... or even if ... these proposals all connect with one another. Sure he knows all the relevant numbers, but without a larger vision, they're just numbers. A bunch of "programs" is not the same as a "policy." Where does San Francisco want to be in 20 years? How do we get there? There's no indication.
23:22 - Is he really showing us "schematics" of Laguna Honda Hospital? Or am I just hallucinating? Either way it's not really a schematic - more like an artist's rendering. Surely this epitomizes a visual aid for its own sake.
24:50 - He's so passionate about the reasons the Laguna Hospital bond went wrong - and how we learned from it - that I can't help but believe he means. That's not a con job. It's also the first time he really steps forward and says, in terms meaningful beyond just single programs "THIS is how we should do business, THAT is not." For a few moments, this show is interesting.
27:00 - My eyes are crossing. I feel light headed. I want to sleep. Forever.
28:40/31:09 - This is a verbatim transcript of this segment, just so that you can know what I'm dealing with. He's talking about the CIRM:
"You can see from this slide that 26 California institutions have been awarded grants totaling $614 million dollars. $614 million dollars has been distributed! Remember it's a $3 billion dollar program, and we've got these grants already being distributed through UC, Stanford, other Bay Area institutions getting a good percentage of this money, generating real jobs, generating real opportunities. In fact, those opportunities, ah, connect to the rest of the world. And this is important. We said this when we were going after the institute and why it was important to San Francisco's fate and future to get the institute in this international city, this 24-hour global gateway city we call home, San Francisco, and that was we wanted to reinforce that connection, particularly again in those leading and cutting edge industries, like stem cell research, we wanted to connect it with the rest of the world. And by the way, we are literally the heart and soul of stem cell research in the world. Meaning this is where the action is. This is where people are anchored because of this institute, and because of the money it's distributing. Now that's going to change, I'm convinced, with new president, I think it will change very shortly after he takes over, in early 2009, but in the absence of leadership at the federal level Californians stepped up with Prop 71, and we stepped in to get that institute anchored here in San Francisco, and you can see not only those $600 million dollars have been distributed, not only those 26 institutions across the state of California benefitting - and by the way those numbers by the time you watch this will probably be higher - but also those MOUs, those Memorandums of Understandings that are in place with countries like Canada, and Australia, the UK ... again, these relationships were forming with the best and the brightest ... and not just the throwaway line the best and the brightest ... with truly some of the best researchers and minds and scientists, where we're establishing this relationship, we've got 5 more that are coming up, again California the focal point, San Francisco the hub of that focal point, that spoke that anchor, something again we're very proud of and we thought we'd celebrate that in the 2008 state of the city, appropriately as it relates to our health care initiatives. Again, San Francisco leading the way."
This is NOT eloquent. All these numbers do not add up to a passing thought.
31:00 - He says he's going to conclude his remarks, but there are 15 minutes left in the clip. Does he have closing credits?
32:48 - Gavin is amazed, truly amazed, by the broccoli kids are eating at school. "These salad bars are working!" he says, which is first time I've laughed in over 30 minutes.
35:00 - Curiously, he calls the "Sunday Streets" closing of the Embarcadero to cars "democratizing the streets." What does that mean? I know cars are polluting, but I've never heard anyone call them anti-democratic before. "It was controversial," he says, "but I respect the controversy." What is he talking about?
35:28 - Another weird moment. He's talking about how he thinks we should have more Sunday Streets programs. "I think that it's something we should do more of next year. I hope in my 2009 State of the City I talk about the program we did out there in the Great Highway, the program we did out in the Mission, the program we did in the Tenderloin, the program we in other parts of the city, not just the Embarcadero. Those are not literally examples, but figurative, how I want to build this program and make it much bigger in the next year."
So ... he's given us figurative examples of where he wants to close streets? Couldn't he actually tell us where those streets are? Is it a secret?
To be fair, Gavin's been at this for almost 40 minutes. He's got to be getting tired. I'm getting tired. On the other hand, he has over 6 hours to go - and no one to blame but himself.
37:32 - "It's an example where, again, our city can have a residence far outside its 47 and a half square miles."
Huh? Does he mean "have an impact?"
Gavin's definitely getting loopier as this goes on. Hmmm ... I wonder that means the later videos will get progressively more fun?
38:37 - Weirdly, Gavin seems to be developing a southern accent. We're leading the way "in somethin' that don' get highlighted."
Is he having as hard a time saying all this as I am listening to it?
38:50 - San Francisco leads the nation in liver cancers.
39:50 - The hand gestures get out of control here. The Gavin-gesture for a "playground" is to point at the ground with your left hand and move it in a semi-circle.
40:16 - I swear to God, Gavin says this sentence with a distinct southern twang: "Now, you'd think that that would have been self-evident to a lot of folks, but this was wildly con-tro-versial."
41:03 - After hilariously saying that people go to pharmacies to get a patch to cure their addiction .. and then clarifying "their tobacco addiction," ... Gavin says that there is nothing more dangerous in this country than tobacco.
42:30 - "I'll close this section with just a few more slides."
42:40 - TELL ME this is not a southern accent coming through! Newsom says "(M)y friends in the democratic party! I know how difficult this is, but I couldn't believe it when I heard about it!" For a moment, he's channeling Boss Hogg. Yet Newsom's Wikipedia page says he's a fourth generation San Franciscan. What the hell is happening?
44:38 - He notes that the U.S. Senator from San Francisco "happens to be from California."
45:36 - The state of health in the city, he says after 45 minutes, "is very positive."
Huh - he notes that the $1.5 billion we're spending annually on health care is "paying great dividends." But after all this, I don't actually remember any numbers suggesting improvement - just spending. All that talk, and not a single result stands out ... if he even mentioned any.
That's got to be indicative of something - but there's no time to think what because the video ends abruptly and I have to go make up for a lot of lost living. We'll return tomorrow, with the education portion of Gavin's State of the City Address.
There are six and a half hours to go.
Gavin's score so far: 2 Sarah Palins out of a possible 5.