Why Is Gavin Newsom Invoking a Failed World War Two-Era Governor?

Culbert Olson Talked A Good Game About Democracy, But He Failed to Protect Californians’ Civil Liberties

California Democrats Need Real Opposition | Zocalo Public Square • Arizona State University • Smithsonian

At the beginning of his recent State of the State speech, Gov. Newsom quoted the late Gov. Culbert Olson. But Olson’s story is an example of how not to save democracy, argues columnist Joe Mathews. Image of Culbert Olson courtesy of Public Domain.

If you’re ever inside the Great Mausoleum at Forest Lawn cemetery in Glendale and hear laughter ringing through the hallways, it’s probably me visiting the tomb of Culbert Olson.

Olson is perhaps the most anomalous figure in California political history. During our long era of Republican dominance (1896-1958), he was the only Democrat to serve as governor. And he was an unapologetic atheist in our god-crazy country, refusing to say “So help me God” while taking the oath of office in 1939. After an ineffective four-year term and re-election defeat at the hands of Earl Warren, he went on to run United Secularists of America.

In this century, Olson is an unknown, forgotten by all but the kookiest connoisseurs of Californiana, like your columnist, who cracks up every time he encounters our late, great god-denying governor in that cathedral-like mausoleum, just steps from a stained-glass reproduction of Da Vinci’s The Last Supper. This state is a bottomless lavabo bowl of contradictions.

Culbert Olson is almost never quoted, much less invoked, by powerful Californians today.

Which is what made Gov. Gavin Newsom’s June 25 State of the State speech shocking for those few of us who know Olson’s story.

Newsom started his speech by invoking Olson’s January 2, 1939 inaugural address—a document that not even I had read previously—and its opening call for California to stand up “in the face of ‘the destruction of democracy.’” Back then, with Europe sliding into war, Olson said:

As we witness destruction of democracy elsewhere in the world, accompanied by denial of civil liberties and inhuman persecutions, under the rule of despots and dictators, so extreme as to shock the moral sense of mankind, it seems appropriate that we Californians, on this occasion, should announce to the world that despotism shall not take root in our State; that the preservation of our American civil liberties and democratic institutions shall be the first duty and firm determination of our government.

Confronted by economic and social crisis, are we going to move forward toward the destiny of true democracy, or slide backward toward the abyss of regimented dictatorship?

Though he only directly quoted one Olson line, Newsom noted that in 2024 we face the same choice. Newsom continued:

The California way of life is under attack. For conservatives and delusional California bashers, their success depends on our failure. They want to impeach the very things that have made us successful, as a tactic to turn America toward a darker future.

Then Newsom pivoted to a more familiar speech, including blasts at Republicans, and long lists of progressive policies.

What Newsom didn’t mention—or, more likely, didn’t know—is that Culbert Olson is a very good model of how not to behave when democracy is under attack. Newsom isn’t an Olson clone. He is Catholic, for starters. But he has enough in common with Olson—each was the most progressive governor of his respective era—that he might reflect on this particular predecessor’s failures.

Olson won the governorship because he had the good fortune to run against the corrupt incumbent Frank Merriam. But his luck ran out there.

In retrospect, Olson appears cursed, almost as if a higher power were punishing him. Four days after Olson gave that inaugural speech, he collapsed, from a heart ailment. Three months later, his wife Kate Olson died at 56. She remains the only California First Lady to die in office.

Olson not only had a massive agenda (including public pensions, universal healthcare, and government takeover of the utilities), he was unusually strident in pursuing it. Like Newsom, he had a taste for public feuds. Where Newsom targets Fox News, Olson battled William Randolph Hearst’s newspaper empire. Newsom has usually been wise enough to make enemies of non-Californian politicians (like red state governors). But Olson got into local fights that frustrated his agenda, battling Republican and conservative Democratic legislators, and the Catholic archbishops in San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Olson’s rhetoric about democracy did very little—and ultimately may have caused harm when he didn’t back it up with action.

Olson, like Newsom, was criticized for pursuing too much. That 1939 inaugural speech resembles a Newsom speech in stating way too many progressive ambitions to accomplish. Olson’s many legislative enemies in both parties blocked almost all of his broad agenda. Newsom, instead, often finds his grand ambitions foiled by mismanagement and a complicated and restrictive state governing system.

Newsom, like Olson, has made warnings about democratic decline a major talking point. What should be sobering for him is Olson’s utter failure to protect liberties and democratic practice.

Notably, when World War II came, the governor failed to defend civil liberties—most obviously, with the incarceration of Californians of Japanese heritage.

Olson knew this was wrong and warned against it publicly. He wrote his confidant President Roosevelt, asking him to defend Japanese Americans as loyal citizens, and lobbied General John DeWitt against forced relocation and incarceration. But when DeWitt imposed the policy, Olson, as governor, stopped fighting and embraced it.

Similarly, Newsom, after years of pursuing pro-immigrant policies, has recently bowed to the political winds and President Biden’s rights-violating restrictions on immigration and asylum seekers, which mirror Trump’s policies.

Olson’s rhetoric about democracy did very little—and ultimately may have caused harm when he didn’t back it up with action. We are learning this lesson again now. When elected officials claim they are defending democracy—as Newsom and Democrats do most loudly—they make democracy look like just another talking point or political issue. When elected officials issue warnings, they spread not hope but fear, and fear is an ally of authoritarians and dictators.

Purity, progressivism, and strong faith (or Olson’s strong lack of faith) are not nearly as convincing as affection and hope. Political rhetoric that taps our fears doesn’t encourage democracy nearly as much as the hard work of building solidarity and compromise with our political opponents.

And nothing is healthier for democracy than ensuring that everyday people have the power to make decisions for themselves. In other words, keeping our democracy is not up to our governors, but to the people.

Heaven help us.


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