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C'mon, California, we need you to shine

Evidence that California no longer occupies the special place it once held in the American psyche can be found in the state's declining suicide rate.

Two decades ago, Californians committed suicide at a rate 50 percent higher than the rest of the country. The explanation was that California was the end of the line for those searching for the frontier that was so central to the American character. People seeking that elusive goal just beyond the horizon could go no further. So, they ended the journey.

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But over the past 20 years, California's suicide rate has declined so that it is now in line with that of the rest of the nation. The state no longer represents the frontier. It's just another place to live.

And not that attractive a place if you consider another piece of recent demographic evidence. Census data show that for the first time more people are moving out of California than moving from other states to it. Many are leaving for Nevada. Your money buys a much bigger house in Las Vegas than it does in Los Angeles.

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So California has become just another state. And it is having trouble dealing with that.

This state came into being as a place to get rich quick in the gold rush of 1849. No matter that few made money off their labors then, California retained the aura of the American Dream writ large. The sun is shining. The beaches are beckoning. The mountains are towering. The deserts are scorching. The cars are fast. The people are beautiful. And a seam of gold called Hollywood is always lurking.

For the last quarter of the 20th century, Los Angeles became, perhaps, the most important cultural center in the world. Its media products set the tone and taste for hundreds of millions of people. The American image had moved from the Atlantic coast to the Pacific.

And then a shocking event changed that perception. When the terrorists who struck on Sept. 11, 2001, went looking for symbols of America, they found them in New York. Even if earlier plans to attack Los Angeles' airport had succeeded, it would probably not have had the same effect on the country. The importance of Los Angeles was revealed as ephemeral and illusory. It was New York that offered landmarks that were permanent and important, whose destruction would shake America to its core.

Californians appear to have it all - the weather, the landscape, abundant agriculture, beautiful cities - and yet they seem to be feeling that, as Gertrude Stein said of Oakland, "There is no there there."

Can you imagine any other state where the entry of a bodybuilder-turned-actor into the governor's election would throw the political arena into chaos? When someone with a similar profile - wrestler Jesse Ventura - won the Minnesota governor's race, it was considered an odd upset. In California, Arnold Schwarzenegger is a heavyweight contender.

The former Mr. Universe evoked the California myth in announcing his candidacy, saying, "There were times when people said it can never be done, that an Austrian farm boy can come over to America and get into the movie business and be successful in the movie business. They said, 'You cannot pronounce your name, you cannot speak English well, and your body's overdeveloped.' And you know what happened? I became the highest-paid entertainer in the world, OK?"

He talked of how different California is today from the state he found when he arrived in 1968. But are politicians responsible for that change?

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Consider the venue Ah-nald chose to make his announcement. He could have done it in front of the Golden Gate Bridge, or in Yosemite Valley, or in Santa Monica with palm trees and the Pacific Ocean as a backdrop. But he did it on Jay Leno.

Leno took over The Tonight Show from Johnny Carson. When Carson took it over from Jack Paar, it was in New York. Carson moved it west, an acknowledgment that Los Angeles had become the center of the entertainment industry, the locus of American imagination.

When Carson ran Tonight, his wonderful monologue generally included one bomb - from which he deftly recovered - and one home run that caused laughter to escalate into applause.

Contrast that with Leno's version, which begins with the staged frenzy of audience members coming up to shake his hand. The excitement remains at high pitch. Virtually every joke, no matter how lame, is greeted with thunderous applause. It doesn't matter if it is funny, it was said by a celebrity, standing right there in front of you. You are in the presence of greatness. Scream. Yell. Applaud. Eventually the audience applauds itself for applauding.

It was this feedback circuitry that greeted Schwarzenegger's announcement with a predictable overabundance of enthusiasm. And it is a metaphor for what became of the California that Schwarzenegger found when he arrived a generation ago. Then, it was a rambunctious youth convinced of its own importance. Now it is aging and uncertain, running on a frenzied treadmill in a desperate attempt to generate enough energy to convince itself that it is still important. "Look, we have a big star running for governor, isn't that great?"

It comes off looking like a state with a bad botox injection. Which is too bad. Oh, sure, we can engage in a certain amount of schadenfreude at California's meltdown because it has been so insufferably smug for so long. But here's hoping the state puts it back together. We need California. We need a place where we can put our dreams.

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What's the alternative? Las Vegas?

Please.


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