Newsom waxes wonky, but can get lost in translation
To understand California’s governor on the pandemic and economy, you need a dictionary of his favorite jargon.
Gov. Gavin Newsom sure has a way with words.
For a year now, the governor has been offering updates at least twice a week on the state of the pandemic and the economy. That’s given millions of house-bound Californians — maybe not otherwise inclined to flip on the gubernatorial YouTube channel in the middle of a weekday — a taste of what political reporters who cover Newsom have known for years: The governor loves his jargon.
Never satisfied with one syllable when seven will do, his speeches are wondrous broadsides of statistics, acronyms and Silicon Valley buzzwords. Pity the journalist looking for a snappy quote.
It’s a rhetorical approach that has served the governor well in the past. Newsom has a prodigious memory for facts and figures — something he says he has honed in response to his dyslexia, which makes it difficult for him to rely on cue cards or teleprompters. His facility with policy minutia can impress well-versed advocates, academics and newspaper editorial boards. Every January, when the governor presents his proposed budget for the coming year, Newsom is most in his element. At the presentation earlier this year, he waxed wonky for nearly three hours. The impression that kind of performance tends to leave is indelible: No matter what a recent “Saturday Night Live” skit might suggest, there is in fact a working brain beneath that shellacked sweep of ashen hair.
But to a broader, less plugged-in audience, the response to that communication style is often “huh?” rather than “wow.”
The most memorable example: While on tour promoting his 2013 book “Citizenville,” Newsom tried to convey its thesis to late-night comedy show host Stephen Colbert with a few particularly knotty tendrils of word salad. The “broadcast model of governing” needs to experience a revolution akin to the “contours” of change that have rocked the media industry, Newsom explained. “Big is getting small and small is getting big.”
“What the f— does any of that mean?” asked Colbert.
Political analyst Sherry Bebitch Jeffe said Newsom’s speaking style is more than a shtick. It’s who he is.
“He’s a technocrat. He’s a policy wonk. And it shows,” she said. “You watch him, and his face lights up when he gets into the real nitty-gritty, which I’m not sure most people are even interested in. They just want to know what is being done and why what is not being done is not being done.”
As for all those impressive budget presentations, Jeffe said: “I can almost guarantee you that the average Californian did not consider that appointment television.”
“He’s a technocrat. He’s a policy wonk. And it shows.”
— Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, political analyst
Tonight, the governor will have a new crack at prime time with his third State of the State speech. In recent years, the governor’s annual presentation to the Legislature has held in the middle of the day and so rarely draws a large live audience. But this year, perhaps with a possible recall election in mind, the governor has rescheduled it for 6 p.m.
For Californians planning to watch, but who might be unfamiliar with Newsomese, here’s a short vocabulary lesson. Brush up below and then prove you’ve mastered the material by playing a State of the State game of Newsom lingo bingo.