San Diego Union-Tribune

June 5, 2001


  Stereotypes cloud the complexity of energy issue


WASHINGTON -- When Gov. Gray Davis refers to those Texans taking Californians to the cleaners with electricity prices, the impression he apparently wants to leave is one of greedy and unscrupulous Republicans who probably look like oil baron J.R. Ewing.

And when Bush administration officials sniff that Californians got
themselves into this energy mess, they seem to be conjuring up the image of short-sighted, tree-hugging Democrats who care more about Alaskan caribou than about people.

Even if Davis and Bush shook hands and appeared civil in California
last Tuesday, the previous weeks of discord between the two left an
indelible impression on the public, experts said -- one colored by stereotypes that easily strike a chord with voters but that also cloud the complexity of the energy issue.

Those stereotypes pit the languid, Birkenstock-wearing Californian
against the respectable Texas corporate man; the gluttonous executive against the rabid environmentalist; John Wayne against out-of-towners in black hats. Just as when many in this country maligned Arabs during the 1970s oil embargo, attempts to create victims and villains in the current energy crisis easily appeal to public emotion.

Davis, a Democrat, recently invoked the image of hand-to-hand combat
with a fearsome foreigner: "We are literally in a war with energy companies, many of which reside in Texas," Davis said after Bush, a Texan, released his energy plan.

The image is straight from an old western.

"Gray Davis is playing John Wayne against the guy with the black hat,"
said Mark Petracca, chairman of the political science department at the
University of California Irvine. "You sound like a socialist if you demonize
middle-aged white guys in suits who own capital. You sound like a cowboy with a white hat when you demonize oil barons."

U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, another Democrat, plopped a black hat on Vice President Dick Cheney, architect of Bush's energy plan: "You have the vice president sounding like an oil man."

Said Petracca: "Of all the possible images that one could pick, the oil
baron is the easiest to manufacture. It has the deepest cultural resonance,
because people have been exposed to this imagery on TV stations for years and years."

Helping to bolster that image, of course, is the fact that both Bush
and Cheney worked in companies involved with oil.

While Bush professes no part in the blame game -- "He's not interested
in finger-pointing," said White House press secretary Ari Fleischer --
Cheney raised the stereotype of the superficial, mollycoddled, air-headed
Californian. On a national news program, he called California's electricity
deregulation scheme "harebrained" and Davis' suggestion that Bush allowed price-gouging "goofy."

"You have a war of two biases," said Jack Pitney, a government
professor at Claremont McKenna College. "The bias of Texas as greedy and money-grubbing, and the bias of California as shallow and narcissistic."

No matter how unrepresentative, these stereotypes are a way for the
Davis and Bush administrations, and the national political parties, to
convince voters whom to blame for the energy mess. That one of the parties should be a "culprit" is itself somewhat disingenuous, since the crisis has roots that run across Republican and Democratic administrations.

Davis' once-stellar public approval ratings have withered, as
Californians increasingly disapprove of how he has handled the crisis. Facing re-election next year and a considered a presidential prospect in 2004, the governor often reminds Californians that the crisis grew out of a
Republican deregulation scheme, and that he is working around the clock to build new power plants.

California Attorney General Bill Lockyer, also a Democrat, recently
portrayed power-company executives as criminals: "I would love to
personally escort (Enron Corp. Chairman Kenneth) Lay to an 8-by-10 cell that he could share with a tattooed dude who says, 'Hi, my name is
Spike, honey,' " Lockyer said.

Meanwhile, national Democrats have aired a TV ad in the Long Beach
district of GOP Rep. Stephen Horn that says the congressman teamed with Bush to oppose price caps that might have offered relief from summer blackouts.

"It's a short-term effort by Davis to blame (others) for his
difficulties, but it's also part of a longer-term national Democratic Party effort to make a case that the administration is rather friendly to the big-energy interests, and less friendly to conservationists," said Bruce Buchanan, a University of Texas expert on the presidency.

If gasoline prices stay high, or if California's electricity problems
spill over into other states, it may be Bush -- and Republicans running in next year's elections -- who land in trouble with the public. The GOP fears that voters may perceive Republicans as the monopolistic and environmentally unfriendly tools of oil companies.

In the 1970s, politicians found an easy culprit for long lines at gas
stations and high fuel prices: They preyed on stereotypes of Arabs.

"All you had to do was show a bunch of Arab sheiks -- who already look
to us sort of exotic -- meeting in some country that makes people think of
international terrorism," said UC Irvine's Petracca. "Bingo -- you have
some people to blame."

Now, as then, the images have little to do with reality.

Ben Paulos, who promotes alternative power with the Energy Foundation, said "it's a simplification" to paint the culprits in California's
energy crisis as Texas oil companies.

"These are international companies that own things all over the place,"
he said.

In fact, most of the privately owned power generators in California are
owned by companies that are not from Texas.

And while conservationists get mileage out of associating these
companies with J.R. Ewing -- the Larry Hagman character who ran an oil company on

TV's "Dallas" -- "these (Texas) companies we're talking about are not
oil companies," Petracca said. "They're energy companies, natural gas
companies. But people lump it all together."

Said Pitney: "When you're trying to get on (with news anchor) Dan
Rather, detailed matters about energy policy just don't make the cut.