”It sounds so California. I can’t imagine Idaho having a task force on self-esteem.” — Dr. Roy Christman, retired San Jose State University political science professor

There is no pocket veto in California.

Even though the president can simply stuff an unwanted and undesirable piece of legislation in her or his pocket and forget about it, the California Constitution does not provide that same luxury to the state’s chief executive.

When a bill emerges from California’s Havana-esque one-party Legislature, the governor must either sign it, allow it to be chaptered into law without signature, or veto it with a mandatory explanation message.

Serving in the press office of California Governor George Deukmejian during bill signing in 1986, I was searching through stacks of legislation for the veto message for Assemblyman John Vasconcellos’ self-esteem bill. The governor had vetoed previous iterations of the bill calling for the state to examine the impact of self-esteem or more precisely, the lack of self-esteem.vasco1

Where the heck was this year’s veto message?

Assuming that something was missing, namely a veto message, the author of Almost DailyBrett picked up the phone and called our Legislature unit asking for the constitutionally obligatory why-this-is-a-bad-bill language.

“Ahh … you better come down and see us.”

Are you serious?

Never Assume; You May Be Wrong

Earlier iterations of the Vasconcellos bill called for the creation of an expensive statutory commission with permanent bureaucracy and oodles of high-priced staffers to study and re-study the linkage between the lack or loss of self-esteem and bad things in society (e.g., crime, substance abuse, teenage pregnancy, jaywalking … ).

Governor Deukmejian campaigned repeatedly on controlling the “size and scope” of state government. A brand new expansion of state government, namely an eternal self-esteem commission, was not consistent with the governor’s philosophy or rhetoric.

To his credit, Vasconcellos did not retreat from his notion of studying the promotion of self-esteem, but he did drop the idea of a statutory and permanently enshrined Commission on Self-Esteem. In its place after meeting with Governor Deukmejian, he amended the bill to make it a task force on self-esteem, which would issue a report on the subject and then move on into the sunset.

The 1986 bill the governor actually signed, officially created The California Task Force to Promote Self-esteem and Personal and Social Responsibility. There was no veto message, but there was a ton of media coverage.

Man Bites Dog Story

George Deukmejian signing (the late) John Vasconcellos’ self-esteem task force bill was a consummate man-bites-dog story.deukmejian2

My boss, Governor Deukmejian was the counterculture to the counterculture. His biggest vice was jamoca almond fudge. He was from sleepy Long Beach. In contrast, “Vasco” was Mr. Touchy Feely or Mr. Warm and Fuzzy, if you prefer. He was from liberal Bay Area.

It was not rocket science to predict that our press office land lines would light up (no cell phones or Internet back in the Pleistocene). “Let me get this right, George Deukmejian just signed Vasco’s self-esteem bill … Ahh … the same bill he vetoed at least twice … Has the governor been listening to the Grateful Dead?”

There is little doubt that Vasco was familiar with Jerry Garcia and not just for his line of ties. Yours truly never asked the Duke about “Truckin,” Jerry Garcia and The Dead.

After the bill was signed, the governor’s office received a flood of applications to serve on the task force. Garry Trudeau of Doonesbury fame had a field day in the form of series of cartoons about the state’s seemingly wacky self-esteem task force, particularly reinforcing California’s stereotype for those east of the Hudson.selfesteem

The task force was just one more metaphor to add to the notion that all the fruits, nuts and berries flow toward the left coast. Yep, this is the place where highly educated, rich people from Marin, Sonoma, Alameda and (of course) San Francisco Counties don’t vaccinate their kids, and hippy-style natural childbirth is just so natural until the pain kicks in.

After three years the task force issued its report, which reportedly set a state document record with 60,000 reading its conclusions. The task force examined the linkage between self-esteem crime, violence, academic failure and responsible citizenship.

Looking back nearly three decades to Governor Deukmejian signing Vasco’s Self-Esteem Task Force bill, public relations professionals need to always be on guard against drinking their own bath water (e.g., believing their own rhetoric).

Just as important, we should refrain from automatically predicating and assuming. Circumstances change. Bills are amended. And every once in a while, man actually does take a bite out of Bowser.