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Analysis: California Screaming

By PETER ROFF,UPI National Political Analyst

WASHINGTON, March 26 -- The rolling blackouts in California have been a source of amusement for many Americans living on both the east and west coasts.

For weeks, Jay Leno's monologues on NBC's The Tonight Show have had at least one joke about the power crisis. "God, this power crisis in California is still going on," he jokes. "Who would have thought the 21st century would be the dark ages? ... In fact, the only working lights we have now are from the Mir space thing burning up."

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Still more Leno on the shortage: "To give you an idea of how bad it is: authorities today announced its okay to take your toaster into the bathtub with you ... Last night on the news they had the head of Southern California Edison. He's urging people to wear more sweaters. Not for warmth. If you have a sweater and a balloon, you can make your own electricity."

Many a California visitor to Washington, D.C., either remarks on or is subjected to jokes about what the bright, glowing things in the ceiling are, demonstrating how deeply the issue is penetrating the American psyche.

But there is an odd twist. When a tornado devastates a neighborhood in Alabama or a hurricane levels a community in Florida, people are all too generous in their contribution of time and material goods to ease the pain of the disaster. But, aside from the fact that someone cannot pack a box of electricity and ship it to Los Angeles, there is almost no desire to help look for solutions to the problem.

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It is though the rest of the nation is collectively saying "Serves you right," much like the time America turned thumbs down to New York City during the financial crisis in 1975. New Yorkers still talk about the Daily News headline "Ford to City -- Drop Dead."

President Ford's decision to forego federal financial aid to the troubled metropolis won him few votes in New York in 1976, when he lost narrowly to Jimmy Carter. Republican strategists still say that Ford took a calculated risk that the rest of the country would cheer his refusal to bail out New York City, which they say is exactly what happened.

In much the same way, the country is expecting California to solve its own problem.

Part of this, observers of politics and culture suggest, is that, as the "land of fruits and nuts," California has for many years had a radical obsession with the environment.

Preferring wind and solar power to traditional forms of electricity generation and passionately opposed to nuclear generating plants, voters have repeatedly hamstrung efforts to bring new power facilities on line. Now, many people feel Californians are reaping the results of their neo-Luddite approach to power generation.

A CBS News national poll of 1,124 adults from early February found that only 32 percent of respondents blamed the electric companies for the problem while 42 percent blamed the state government. This is all the more interesting in light of the unending efforts of California politicos to affix blame to those same electric companies and to the partial deregulation approved several years ago by voters.

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CBS did not ask about the impact of environmentalists.

A March 19 Wall Street Journal editorial said: "Okay. We admit it. We have been mean to California We called its chief politician brainless when he announced his solution to the crisis. And we have implied the entire place was inhabited by dim light bulbs. We also admit a certain deep pleasure in having fun at California's expense."

The editorial goes on, however, to warn of the dangersto the rest of the country posed by the problems California is experiencing. "In just a few short weeks," the same editorial said, "California's increased need for electricity will become everybody else's worst nightmare."

On this, power market analysts and politicians disagree. In the meantime, people will continue to have fun with the issue, even in California.

San Diego radio talk show host Roger Hedgecock, the city's former mayor, is organizing a rally on Wednesday at a former power plant, which he says is currently being dismantled and sold off for parts, something that confuses him in the light of the current crisis.

"We'll have free chow, maybe some live music, free handouts, displays by solar energy and other alternative energy folks. It's the Boston Tea Party come to San Diego circa 2001. Bring your flashlight. When the sun commences to dawn we'll fire up and light up San Diego," he says.

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