Column: Why Newsom might not be cut out for Washington

WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 14: Capitol Hill intern for NBC news Sejal Govindarao asks California Governor Gavin Newsom questions on the Senate side of the U.S. Capitol Building following the governors meeting with Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) on Thursday, July 14, 2022 in Washington, DC. Governor Newsom is continuing a visit to Washington after accepting an award recognizing California's financial investments in public education and holding meetings with White House officials and lawmakers on Capitol Hill. (Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)
NBC News intern Sejal Govindarao asks California Gov. Gavin Newsom questions in the U.S. Capitol after governors met with Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) in 2022 in Washington. (Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times)

Sorry, governor, that wasn’t very presidential. It would never fly in the nation’s capital.

A president couldn’t get away with delivering a State of the Union address by transmitting a written text and a link to a prerecorded video — and not bothering to show up in the House of Representatives.

That iconic event is an annual Washington highlight. A booming voice announcing, “Mr. Speaker, the president of the United States.” Members of Congress jockeying for camera position along the center aisle as the beaming commander in chief makes his way to the rostrum. Whoops and yelps. Then the somber address.

Governor, maybe you’re not presidential stock after all — not in 2028 or any year — despite all the media speculation that we political newsies love to generate.

In case readers missed it — and many probably did, because it’s not exactly atop the public’s list of concerns: Gov. Gavin Newsom delivered his annual State of the State address Tuesday in a very odd way. Except it wasn’t odd for him — just abnormal compared with the previous 10 California governors going back 82 years.

Newsom sent the Legislature the text of what he called a State of the State address that he recorded and posted on his YouTube page. He didn’t go near the Assembly chamber, where governors have annually delivered these speeches.

He did invite lawmakers over to the governor’s historic mansion for a private reception the night before — something smart governors do on a regular basis anyway.

OK, no governor — not even a California governor — can be equated with an American president. And Sacramento is not a little Washington; it’s a big Carson City.

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That said, the governor’s State of the State speech traditionally marks the most festive day of the year in California’s Capitol. The 19th century-decor Assembly chamber is jammed with lawmakers, state elected officials, Supreme Court justices, movers and shakers. Most everyone is giddy and on best behavior.

No one has yet shouted, “You’re a liar,” as some Republicans have during a State of the Union in Washington.

Newsom might well have gotten some GOP boos if he’d read Tuesday’s remarks to a live audience. He repeatedly lambasted “red states” and “the poisonous populism of the right.”

Still, a State of the State address is a time when legislators of both parties can embrace and pause in their perpetual polarization. All three branches of government come together for brief fellowship. It’s good for the spirit.

And it provides the governor with a valuable platform to promote his agenda to the Legislature in person.

Not showing up seems disrespectful and even insulting. And it’s certainly dismissive of an historic institution. Too many are crumbling around us.

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The governor’s office told reporters that State of the State addresses are only a “relatively recent construct in California.” They were merely annual written reports before the reign of Gov. Earl Warren.

Recent? Warren was elected 82 years ago. And since then, every governor — including Newsom, three times — has delivered their speeches in person to a joint session of the Legislature.

For starters, Newsom was inexcusably late this year.

State of the State addresses have traditionally been delivered at the beginning of the year, usually just after the governor unveils his proposed budget in early January. It’s summer already.

Newsom initially had planned to address the Legislature in mid-March. But the governor called it off, he said, because the fate of his Proposition 1 — providing housing and treatment for homeless people — still had not been decided. Rubbish.

Then there were “scheduling challenges” with the Legislature and “few available dates” before fall, the governor’s office claimed. More nonsense. The Legislature will always accommodate a governor who asks for speaking time — especially when it’s one-party rule.

The truth is, Newsom hates reading speeches off teleprompters. “It’s anxiety-producing for him,” a top aide once told me. He must rehearse several times. That’s because of the dyslexia he has struggled with all his life.

Read more: Newsom, lawmakers use cuts, reserves and ‘fiscal emergency’ declaration to solve budget deficit

He’s a master at winging it. And that’s probably what he should do with a State of the State speech. Hand over a prepared text to lawmakers, then ad-lib.

Newsom has tried several ways to escape giving in-person major speeches — although when he does deliver them, he performs flawlessly.

As San Francisco mayor in 2008, rather than delivering a customary State of the City speech, Newsom posted a 7½-hour eye-glazer on his YouTube channel. It bombed.

In 2021, the governor gave his State of the State speech in center field of an empty Dodger Stadium. The Assembly chamber that year was out of bounds because tight seating would have risked spreading COVID-19. But an empty stadium? He was widely jeered in the media.

Last year, Newsom abandoned any State of the State pretense. He hit the road on a four-city tour to promote new policies.

This latest duck was a hybrid State of the State address and national political speech — and heavy on the latter.

It was as if the governor was auditioning for a prime-time speaking slot at the Democratic National Convention in August. But don’t be surprised if President Biden’s protectors insist on reviewing his text first — then demand that he stick to the script. More teleprompter headaches.

If Newsom really has the Potomac bug, he should bone up on major speechmaking as governor. Unfortunately, he just passed up a golden opportunity.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.