Joe Mathews: Some Californians are tuning out Governor Gavin Newsom, with consequences for everyone

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Governor Gavin Newsom speaking with attendees at the 2019 California Democratic Party State Convention at the George R. Moscone Convention Center in San Francisco, California. Photo credit: Gage Skidmore/CC 2.0, via Flickr

Governor Gavin Newsom understands the science and has a flair for communication, and most Californians believe he’s been making responsible decisions during the coronavirus pandemic. However, a certain percentage of us don’t want to hear it. Joe Mathews says it’s because Newsom is a partisan politician, not a scientist. As capable as Newsom is at delivering his daily updates, Mathews is asking the governor to back down for the good of the state.

Read Mathews essay below:

Newsom at Noon

Dear Governor,

Your lunchtime COVID-19 briefings – “Newsom at Noon” - are must-see TV.

No California governor has ever had such a regular platform, and you’ve demonstrated a memory, policy knowledge, and verbal facility (especially with long words) that are almost superhuman. You might be California’s greatest  polysyllabic performance since Julie Andrews recorded “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” for Disney’s Mary Poppins.

Your skilled delivery of vital rules and data have put you at the center of Californians’ daily lives as we struggle through the pandemic and its associated social disruptions and economic earthquakes.

Which is precisely why you need to stop giving these briefings.

I’m not kidding.

The problem is—to borrow two long words you love—fundamental and foundational. You are a politician with deep experience and well-known views. In normal times, that’s great. But we are a politicized and polarized society in the midst of a pandemic.

And when a politician is the one giving vital instructions on masking, social-distancing, and business openings, public health questions are by definition politicized. And so we are seeing the wearing of masks and the safety of public-facing institutions become a political issue.

Two weeks ago, in northern San Diego County, I was in a park with 150 people watching a softball tournament, and not one person was wearing a mask or socially distancing. When I asked people why not, many mentioned you, and none in a good way.

It’s obvious that you understand the dangers of politicizing the briefings. I appreciate how careful you are to avoid partisan statements, and to halt your righteous criticism of the Trump administration during the pandemic. I also appreciate that you treat Californians as adults, that you provide context and lean into complexity.

I especially admire your habit of offering caveats to so many of your assertions, and of pointing out the weaknesses in your own policies. It’s a sign of integrity—perhaps even a miracle—that none of the political consultants you’ve employed over the last 25 years has beaten that politically problematic habit out of you.

Of all the politicians who have taken the microphone in this moment, you are among the most responsible. But you can’t change who and what you are. So you need to change the briefings.

Across the country and around the globe, myriad reports and leading public health experts have concluded that, in situations like this, scientists and doctors—not politicians—should be the ones leading public briefings. The good news is that our state has no shortage of such experts.

I suggest you elevate one of the state health officials who sometimes appear with you on “Newsom at Noon.” Dr. Sonia Angell, the director of the California Department of Public Health, who worked at the CDC, is a warm, straightforward communicator. Dr. Mark Ghaly, the California health and human services secretary, has the reassuringly goofy-nerdy mien of a teacher in an ’80s comedy.

Neither can match your familiarity with all facets of the crisis. But with Angell and Ghaly handling the briefings, you’ll have more time to work on stubborn problems—like opening the schools and fixing the failing unemployment system. Angell and Ghaly also speak more simply than you. Your sentences—with their asides and wonk speak—remind me of the sentences that my seventh grade English teacher made me diagram as punishment for being a wise-ass.

Of course, Hegelians and other nerds will mourn that you are no longer on TV saying things like: “I recognize the dichotomy and to an extent, the dialectic.” But remember what Hegel, the 19th century German philosopher and master of dialectics, said: “We learn from history that we do not learn from history.”

Governor, be the rare leader who learns. If you cancel yourself as the star of “Newsom at Noon,” you will be losing a platform. But you will be meeting the moment.

Your constituent,
Joe Mathews

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.



Joe Mathews