Feb 5, 2021

Why Do We, Like, Want So Much To Be, Like, Liked?

And is California Governor Newsom smirking his way to a recall?

By Ed Goldman

A recent bill for garbage, water, sewer and recycling services contained an insert entitled “Your Utilities. Your Partner. City of Sacramento.”

This irks me on a number of levels. None are especially deep, you’ll be relieved and probably not surprised to learn. But still.

Edgy Cartoon

Howdy… Partner?

When did companies, retailers and government all log into the same webinar, “How to Make Everybody Like You”? Did Dr. Norman Vincent Peale, author of “The Power of Positive Thinking,” return from the dead—and if so, did he accomplish it by thinking himself outside his box, so to speak?

First of all, if I took on a partner, it would be for reasons of romance, friendship or business, not to manage the pickup of my trash or maintain the integrity of my sewer (though for all I know, mine may also have a sense of personal dignity, but that’s for another essay).

Second, why do I have to “partner” with services for which I pay or stores at which I shop? I don’t recall receiving a year-end dividend statement or check from my cable provider, municipal government or Rite-Aid store. The supermarkets I frequent have yet to send me lovely holiday gift baskets replete with fresh fruit, vegetables and smoked hams. So, obviously we’re not partners. I’m not even one of their shareholders.

On a recent installment of the interview show Studio Sacramento, which is produced by Sacramento’s PBS station, KVIE, host Scott Syphax asked me for my take on California Governor Gavin Newsom. For our out-of-state readers (or in-state but politically narcoleptic ones), our governor—who started out very strong as an exemplar of leadership at the beginning of the pandemic—made a major misstep by attending, without a mask, an expensive indoor dinner, on behalf of a lobbyist, when he’d just shut down the state’s restaurants. He admitted he’d made a booboo, but people losing their businesses, jobs and loved ones to COVID haven’t exactly been in forgiveness mode. 

Anyway, I told Syphax (a perceptive and deceptively assertive interviewer) that Newsom suffers from Willy Loman Syndrome—a reference to the tragic protagonist of Arthur Miller’s great play, “Death of a Salesman.” I simply meant he always needs to be liked. 

A British author I very much admire, George Monbiot, says the syndrome is a manifestation of the character’s being “torn apart by the gulf between his expectations—the promise held out to everyone of fame and fortune—and reality. Even as his modest powers decline and his career falls apart, he believes that he can still be No 1. This used to be called the American dream. Now it is everyone’s nightmare.” (Monbiot is deeper than I am. But so are most wading pools, so let’s move on.)

Newsom is a movie-star handsome pol who some of his fans think looks like Superman. But to me, even without secret-identity eyeglasses, he still comes across as Superman’s alter ego, Clark Kent. Superman doesn’t spend a lot of effort on trying to be liked in the comic books, movies or TV shows he’s been featured in since the character was created in 1938 by artist Joe Shuster and writer Jerry Siegel. He just gets the job done. (The fact that he does so while wearing a cape, tights, boots and his underpants on the outside has been mentioned here—so again, let’s move on.)

At his briefings on how the state is handling the coronavirus, Newsom is a festival of facial tics. In a raspy voice that begs for a hit of Chloraseptic spray, he goes through a shape-shifting routine of Tough and Focused, Shyly Grinning, Somewhat Smirking and Grim Reaper, all within about 45 seconds. It’s that adorable little half-smile that rankles the most as he tells his constituents, alternately, to: 

  • Stay home; 
  • Go out but don’t enjoy yourself;
  • Reopen your business but don’t let anyone inside; and
  • Okay, forget that last thing. I may have had too much Merlot at that dinner.

I regard Newsom’s Macho-Pander-Persona in the same way I can take only so much of Jimmy Fallon, a far more talented comedian than his late-night competitors, but, alas, a far more desperate one. Even actress Sally Field’s famously (and usually misquoted) thank-you speech, when she won her second Oscar, was about her surprise that the movie industry liked her. It wasn’t a plea for its membership to continue to do so. 

Apparently, my contempt for groveling goes pretty far back. 

The first time my mom heard me swear was when I was about 10 years old and home from school with a cold. I had a headache, was already cranky, and watching too many kid-oriented shows in the afternoon did little to improve my disposition. So when a cartoon bear came on screen and said, “Hi, boys and girls, I’m your new best friend,” I blurted out a suggestion for him to go perform a near-impossible anatomical act. I won’t belabor this by writing my mom’s reaction. Suffice it to say that for the next few hours, she didn’t much like me.

Ed Goldman's column appears almost every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. A former daily columnist for the Sacramento Business Journal, as well as monthly columnist for Sacramento Magazine and Comstock’s Business Magazine, he’s the author of five books, two plays and one musical (so far).