Nicholas Goldberg, Tribune News Service
Wanna be in politics? Wanna be president? If so, you need an origin story.
Every politician needs one. And not just any old story, but preferably a rousing narrative that shows you’ve faced adversity and overcome hurdles. If you can say you’re an immigrant or a child of immigrants, that’s a start. If you grew up in poverty or suffered discrimination, maybe that’s your narrative.
Gov. Gavin Newsom, looking to the future, understands this.
But what’s his story? He didn’t come up from deep poverty. His father was a judge and then a lawyer for the ultra-wealthy Getty family (though his divorced mother at times struggled to make ends meet). Gavin got rich in business when he was relatively young, partly thanks to family connections.
He’s been tagged as a guy who has had it easy. People think he was born into affluence, and that he’s grown into a slick, perfectly coiffed pol. He’s been defined, in many people’s minds, by his maskless, mid-pandemic visit to the mega-pricey French Laundry in Napa. And by his hair.
For obvious reasons, Newsom’s not happy with this particular version of his life, especially as he seeks to raise his national profile and contemplates his future, which could include an eventual run for the presidency. The story he’s been stuck with is neither uplifting nor, to use the popular phrase, relatable.
So he’s out to fix it. Which is probably why he’s getting more personal, telling more anecdotes and trying to recast himself as someone who faced and overcame obstacles in his day.
“A child of divorce and dyslexia, trying to find my bearings” is how he described himself at age 10 or 11 in his unusually personal inaugural address earlier this month. He described his mom, juggling three jobs. The difficulties he faced in school.
“I couldn’t read, and I was looking for any way to ditch classes,” Newsom said. “I’d fake stomach aches and dizziness. I’d bite down on the thermometer in the nurse’s office trying to make the temperature rise past 100.”
The emphasis on family history and personal challenges was “a departure from past speeches,” reported The Times.
“What’s the first thing you need to do when you’re running for president or thinking about it? You tell your story,” Katie Merrill, a Democratic political strategist, told The Times.
(Expect to read less in that book about the affair he had with his campaign manager’s wife when he was mayor of San Francisco and how he sought treatment for alcohol abuse. That’s not the kind of overcoming-adversity story voters are looking for.) By the way, I’m not blaming Newsom for any of this. Personal narratives are an age-old part of politics.
Why do voters crave them? Partly because overcoming obstacles in life is honestly admirable. But also because humans respond to stories more than they do to policies, statistics, polemics, resumes or canned rhetoric. And because we all love a Horatio Alger, up-from-humble-beginnings tale.
Bits of personal bio are what voters remember — sometimes the only thing they remember. Jerry Brown slept on a mattress on the floor and drove a Plymouth. Dianne Feinstein found the body of San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk after he’d been assassinated. Richard Nixon was born in a house his father built. Abraham Lincoln was raised in a log cabin the size of a postage stamp and walked a thousand miles to school every day in bare feet. (Yes, sometimes the stories get better over time.)
These narratives aim to tell voters not only who the candidate is and why they’re running, but also that they can be trusted, that they’re not out of touch with ordinary people and that they share our values.
“We cannot just sweep this under the rug. We need to know why it happened, who did it and people need to be held accountable for it. And I’m committed to make sure that happens.” Just five days after the Jan. 6, 2021, mob invasion of our Capitol, those words were spoken, with patriotic determination, by one of
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