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By JOE MATHEWS
I don't care what our elites say. No one is going to stop me from speaking the truth to power. And here's a truth about power that a lot of people can't handle: the attorney general of California is hot. Very hot.
But when the most powerful man in the world spoke the same truth last week about Kamala Harris -- our "best-looking attorney general," he called her -- he got crushed like a bug. President Obama is a sexist, said pundits. His words were inappropriate and wolfish. He is contributing to a culture that judges women on their appearance.
Predictably, Obama called Harris to apologize and have what spokespeople called a "great conversation." (And why wouldn't it be great? President Obama: "Madam Attorney General, I'm really sorry I called you good looking." AG Harris: "I've been called worse.")
But I, for one, wish the president hadn't backed down. Yes, the kind of comment Obama made is inappropriate, and more than a little sexist, in normal professional situations. But California politics isn't normal.
In our peculiar context, Obama's praise was almost refreshing. Politics in California are based on complete, unrelenting hatred of politicians. Our Legislature hasn't had a positive approval rating in 23 years. We recall governors. We hate politicians so much that we set our taxes and school funding levels according to irrational, decades-old, constitutional formulas. The alternative -- letting today's elected officials decide -- is unthinkable here.
When was the last time a California elected official was praised, in public, as No. 1 on anything? Rather than throw back Obama's compliment as if it were some kind of insult, Harris and all Californians should savor it. Maybe even hold a victory parade.
Some will say that praise is fine; it just shouldn't center on something as superficial as looks. But that's disingenuous, at least in California. Running for office in this state -- with its giant regions, weak political parties and lack of civic engagement -- is entirely about getting on TV. If you want to be on the news, you have to compete with knockout starlets who crashed their cars on the Pacific Coast Highway last night. For our pols, being attractive is a job requirement. Do you think Ronald Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger became governor solely because of their ideas?
Heck, today's California elected officials, stripped of so much of their discretion by the state constitution, the courts, and the voters, have very little to do but look good. It helps them raise money while they're looking around for new offices to run for when their term limits are up. Of course our attorney general is easy on the eyes. Of course our rakish lieutenant governor is married to a Hollywood actress. Of course Jerry Brown, who turns 75 this week and looks not a day over 60, was fetching enough to attract Linda Ronstadt in the '70s.
When you think about it, our politicians are so hot it's worrisome. Look around the world, and beautiful politicians and effective democratic decision-making rarely mix. Venezuela has elected more than its share of beauty queens. Italy has blurred all lines between entertainment and politics with a steady stream of model-and-actor legislators. In Russia, some of Vladimir Putin's associates are so dazzling you'd barely notice they were dismantling the rule of law.
If attractive leadership is bad for democracy, then maybe California, as in so many other ways, is on the leading edge of a dangerous trend. Unsettled by this thought, I decided to fact-check Obama's claim. Had he studied the photos of other states' attorneys general? Is California really in that much trouble?
Well, maybe. To be sure, when I visited www.naag.org/current-attorneys-general.php, the website of the National Association of Attorneys General, to investigate, I discovered that our nation's state attorneys general are a handsome bunch. Douglas Gansler of Maryland and Kathleen Kane of Pennsylvania may be from the mid-Atlantic, but there's nothing "mid" about their looks. The blue eyes of Chris Koster of Missouri are mesmerizing. And the attorney general of Florida, Pam Bondi, is so vavoom that it's a political liability; Democrats have accused her of working on her tan instead of prosecuting foreclosure abuses. But even against those contenders, I'd still vote for our Kamala as No. 1. Yes, I'm proud, but I'm even more worried for our state.
Meanwhile, here's something else that should be said: Why is our president ogling our stunning AG at a fundraiser when his visits here might be spent trying to figure out how to help America's largest public university systems or the inland Central Valley, where the unemployment rate is still pushing 20 percent?
But it may be too much to expect that kind of thing from Obama. Like most politicians these days, he's just another pretty face.
Joe Mathews writes his "Connecting California" column for Zocalo Public Square.