Newsom's inauguration was picture perfect, and that's a shame

SACRAMENTO, CA - JANUARY 06: Governor Gavin Newsom in People's March on Tower Bridge during inauguration ceremony for a second term in downtown on Friday, Jan. 6, 2023 in Sacramento, CA. (Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)
Gov. Gavin Newsom participates in the People's March on Tower Bridge prior to his inauguration ceremony. (Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)
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Gov. Gavin Newsom's second inauguration day was as picture perfect as a politician could hope.

Hand-in-hand with First Partner Jennifer Siebel Newsom, surrounded by his charming children, the man with the good hair marched across Sacramento's Tower Bridge on his way to the Capitol. Sunlight spilled though clouds that thoughtfully parted for his big day, as photographers captured the carefully orchestrated moment reminiscent of Barack Obama's march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala. — itself a commemoration of the civil rights march there in 1965.

Then Newsom discreetly slid into an SUV, bypassing the last blocks of walking. He reappeared on a cleverly-crafted round stage that made the crowd look huge, American flags draped at every camera angle, as he gave a speech to usher in his fifth year on the job.

"In our finest hours, California has been freedom’s force multiplier, protecting liberty from a rising tide of oppression taking root in statehouses — weakness, masquerading as strength. Small men in big offices," he told the crowd. "More than any people, in any place, California has bridged the historical expanse between freedom for some, and freedom for all."

Gov. Gavin Newsom waves from stage with his family.
Gov. Gavin Newsom, with First Partner Jennifer Lynn Siebel Newsom and children Dutch, Brooklynn, Hunter and Montana, after taking the oath of office in Sacramento. (Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

Alas, if only Newsom enjoyed some of that freedom instead of constantly being bound by his own image.

But our governor seems controlled by his need to control, never letting his guard down even in this hand-picked crowd, billed as the People's March.

It could have more aptly been named the Certain People's March, a made-for-television special.

The media was instructed to huddle at one end of the bridge while Newsom and the crowd gathered on the other side. With dire warnings — including the threat that our press passes could be revoked for future events if we disobeyed — we were allowed a few quick pictures as Newsom approached. Then we had to clear the way, no questions, and absolutely no joining the stream of people as they passed by.

Now, you may not care how the press was treated, and fair enough. But it goes to the heart of that need to control and a focus on appearances.

Gov. Gavin Newsom smiles while speaking at a lectern.
Gov. Gavin Newsom gives his inaugural address after taking the oath of office for his second term. (Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

This is pretty much how Newsom regularly treats journalists. That is especially true since the pandemic, when he became accustomed to call-in press conferences where unwanted reporters could be ignored. Since Newsom rarely has a spontaneous moment, that lack of media access means the public usually only sees what he approves.

For the good of California and his own political ambitions, this term he should focus on being a little messier, a little bolder and little less concerned with how it all looks.

Because the history book leaders, the ones like Newsom's idol Bobby Kennedy, are the ones who connect with us in ways sometimes awkward and uncomfortably revealing.

Joe Biden's gaffes may make us cringe, but they also make him human. Our last two governors, Jerry Brown and Arnold Schwarzenegger, shared little in the way of politics. But both had an authenticity that at least felt real — lives filled with corgis and cigars and a willingness to engage. Big men in big offices, open to big criticisms because trust can't be staged.

Newsom has every reason to loosen up this term. He's earned it.

People standing in a crowd wave small California flags.
Guests wave state flags at Gov. Gavin Newsom's inauguration ceremony at the Capitol Mall in Sacramento. (Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

He beat a recall in the midst of a pandemic, when a lot of folks were mad and beleaguered. He's got a campaign chest so full it could make a railroad baron blush, and he skated into a reelection so easy most of us barely noticed he was running.

He's made a name for himself as a foil to the far right, outshining Vice President Kamala Harris on that front.

And while massive troubles still loom large for California — homelessness, affordable housing, an addiction crisis, inflation — Newsom has passed important legislation and enacted good policies.

He championed a controversial plan for CARE Court, which I am hopeful will help families with seriously mentally ill loved ones finally find pathways to meaningful treatment. He's fighting the oil companies over profits and pushing for clean energy. He's funded guaranteed income programs, passed legislation to help our poorest kids save for college and expanded access to both pre-kindergarten and healthcare.

His second term will be about turning those policies into successful programs, no easy task. But 53% of Californians approve of the job he's doing, according to a poll last fall.

Still, despite their general approval, Newsom hasn't made that all-important leap from competent to inspiring for many Californians.

Except Barbara Hawkins.

Since my job was actually to speak to people in the People's March, and because I am a short woman who can easily disappear into a crowd, I joined despite the threats.

A woman in a coat smiles and applauds.
Barbara Hawkins, 74, an enthusiastic supporter of Gov. Gavin Newsom, listens to his inaugural address in Sacramento. (Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

I met Hawkins, a dapper septuagenarian who broke her foot last week slipping on the pavement in front of an I Heart Teriyaki restaurant on her lunch break from work as building manager. Hobbling in a black orthopedic boot, Hawkins marched the whole way with the help of a four-pronged cane.

"I assure you I was not going to miss this," she told me as she rested on some stairs at the end of the mile-long route. "I was determined."

Hawkins is a serious Newsom stan — an average citizen who showed up because she sees in him a "respect of people" that resonates with her own. She likes "the way he delivers" on policies including LGBTQ rights and education.

"Even against adversaries, he stands up and stands firm," she told me as we waited for Newsom to make his speech. "He doesn't waver, like some of those politicians up in Washington."

Though Newsom has been clear he is not running for president, Hawkins wishes he would.

"He would get my money and my vote," she said.

Gov. Gavin Newsom and his family walk with a crowd holding hands.
Gov. Gavin Newsom walks with his family toward his inauguration. (Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

The majority of people who marched with Newsom on Friday were part of the Democratic machine. Even labor icon Dolores Huerta was there, front row in a red puffer jacket, though only a few months ago she was in a knock-down, drag-out standoff with Newsom, eventually forcing him to cave and sign a farmworker organizing bill he opposed.

Those are the supporters who put politicians in office.

Hawkins is the kind of believer who transforms politicians into leaders.

It's their trust that fuels the serious swings, and their loyalty that allows for the misses.

Inaugurations are meant for spectacle and praise, so I don't begrudge Newsom the polish or the scripting of the day. And California has long been a state where television rules politics, in no small part because it's too big to shake every hand.

But Newsom's speech Friday, the most personal he has ever given, showed awareness that he lacks the kind of emotion from many constituents that Hawkins has. And it showed a desire to cultivate it.

He delved deeper into a personal, humanizing story than he's ever done before. He spoke about his father, "the judge, guilty because he had left" the family, and his mother, Tessa, "busy juggling three jobs." He brought up his dyslexia, which he has spoken of many times, but went deeper into how it made him "fake stomachaches and dizziness" to ditch school.

He revealed a different narrative than the rich-boy persona that has dogged him, enshrined in part by his own reserve, and it felt as genuine as Schwarzenegger's giant stogies or Brown's beloved pups.

The guy with the divorced parents is more interesting, and more powerful, than the guy with the perfect hair.

Let's hope we see more of him.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.