Where's a Good Emperor When You Need One?

When Nancy Pelosi was anointed Speaker of the House, many Republicans pooh-poohed her as the embodiment of San Francisco values. It's true that by today's political standards, La Nance is a staunch liberal. However, by San Francisco political standards she's but a mere moderate.

Perhaps in the difficult times we find ourselves, a pinch of San Francisco values might not be such a bad thing. Baghdad by the Bay has a long history of political intrigue and a reputation for accepting just about anyone. Hell, even Mayor - and political golden boy - Gavin Newsome's affair with his best friend's (and campaign manager's) wife hardly made a dent in his popularity. San Francisco is an astonishingly forgiving place.

A Good Emperor

If there's a central figure in the history of this city-state who might provide a model for handling our current quagmires, he would be Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico.

The good Emperor was a well-known San Francisco character who never shied away from the political duties befitting a self-proclaimed monarch. In a series of proclamations - dutifully legitimized in the local press - he showed himself to be an Emperor of the people. He was a rare champion of the Chinese in an era when anti-Chinese societies were the norm. He put himself between a rabble of local racists and the Chinese to quell a potential riot. He called for citizens to resist the urge to blame others for their problems. Our current Emperor of the United States and Protector of the Wealthy would do well to take a similar path.

Norton was similarly firm with other political potentates. In 1860, he issued a proclamation forbidding Congress to meet - a particularly far-sighted decree indeed. He followed that wise proclamation with one abolishing both the Democratic and Republican parties "because of [the] party strife now existing within our realm". Again, politicians of the present would do well to take note.

He issued other important proclamations as well. He dismissed the Governor of Virginia for hanging John Brown, ordered representatives of the states to change laws to "ameliorate the evils under which the country is laboring", and ordered the arrest of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors for ignoring his decrees. Of course, he did have a touch of the "real" politician in him, temporarily leaving San Francisco to seek a yearly tribute from the legislature and lobbyists in Sacramento.

A Benevolent Monarch

Norton was also an extraordinarily civic-minded man. He issued decrees to clean up the filthy streets, install gaslights to dampen crime, and, in 1869, decreed that a suspension bridge connect San Francisco with Oakland across San Francisco Bay. The Bay Bridge was finally built in 1936. Norton was even a early proponent of a "League of Nations" - probably risking ridicule from the 1800s forerunners of today's anti-UN crowd.

In return for his benevolent rule, bankers honored the destitute man's handwritten money, the police were ordered to salute him on sight, and he received widespread acclaim. When he died in 1880, a two-mile long, 10,000-person funeral cortege accompanied his body to the cemetery. Something that not even St. Ronald Reagan commanded.

Of course, most of Norton's proclamations ever amounted to much - clearly the Democrats and Republicans are still squabbling strong - they were just the scribblings of a man whose mind departed Earth before his body. But his reign was far from pointless. He stirred up civic pride and provided a valuable diversion from the relentless news of a nation in turmoil and the hardscrabble life on the Barbary Coast. He was an inclusive and far-sighted monarch, so different from the one we currently suffer. Norton's story is an important one. One that I wish Emperor George followed more closely. It makes me wonder just what it is that makes San Francisco values so reviled by some. It also makes me wonder something else.

Where's a good Emperor when you need one?

The Poobah is a featured contributor at Bring It On!

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Truth Told by Omnipotent Poobah, Sunday, February 18, 2007

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