Welcome to L.A., Where Politics Are Polite

And so we turn our attention this week to Los Angeles.

As someone who’s spent more time out here than I’d care to admit, I’m always surprised at my fellow New Yorkers’ lack of sophistication about the City of Angels.

“So I hear you’re going out to Lala-Land,” the usual comment begins, followed by a Monty Pythonesque nudge-nudge snicker-snicker sardonic smile: “Going out to ‘take’ a meeting?”

How tired. How 1980’s.

Although there’s some validity to all the Los Angeles clichés-from Valley Girl to Mark Fuhrman to Aaron Spelling’s house, surfer dudes, live car chases, D-girls and Mike Ovitz’s Armani-clad foot soldiers-none is an accurate portrayal of the city as a whole. Certainly no more accurate than thinking that all New York can be summed up by the Sykes sisters or a clutch of champagne-quaffing, Cohiba-smoking, 27-year-old investment bankers stuffing hundred-dollar bills into a stripper’s G-string at the Baby Doll Lounge.

Los Angeles is a place that’s far more nuanced and complicated than we New Yorkers imagine. Yes, it is still 20 suburbs in search of a city; and to an Old World sensibility, there is still no there there: No common meeting ground, no civic focal point and a severe shortage of what might be called the architecture of inspiration-the cathedrals of commerce and transportation, like the Chrysler Building or Grand Central Station-that remains the hallmark of a world-class city. And one might even argue persuasively that in the Internet era, the city’s core cultural identity-the mythology of Hollywood, and the ability to create and shape and realize the great American dream-has been eclipsed by Silicon Valley to the north.

But for all the ditziness and the New Age mumbo jumbo that emanates from this city, Los Angeles remains a place that is determined to arrive in the future five minutes earlier than the rest of us-even if it means driving up in a Hummer, speaking hipster Spanish patois and striving to appear incredibly laid-back as you palm the car valet a five at the gate.

As New Yorkers, we may think they look ridiculous, but the thing we tend to miss in all the fads and frivolity is that the average Angelino is in on the joke.

So, in the democratic spirit of reaching out-attempting to establish a better bicoastal understanding (bicoastmanship?)-what follows here is a sort of cheat sheet. A short Rough Guide to the whys and wherefores of modern L.A.

1) What’s really at stake here . The national aspect of the Democratic National Convention needs no explanation. But to understand why a successful convention is so vitally important to L.A.’s civic leadership, there are two important dates to keep in mind: July 28, 1984, when the torch was lit in the L.A. Coliseum, starting the city’s triumphant summer Olympics; and December 31, 1999, when L.A. followed the spectacular millennium celebrations in Berlin, Paris, London, New York and (even) Las Vegas with an embarrassing, under-attended and much ridiculed non-event that consisted mainly of lighting the Hollywood sign for the night.

And between these dates? Rodney King, the Northridge earthquake, the exit of an N.F.L. franchise, the announced departure of the last two Fortune 500 corporations from downtown, O.J., the Rampart Police Division’s faked-evidence scandal, and-most recently-the riots after the Lakers’ championship victory.

Yes, L.A. is still the entertainment capital of the world. But to the north, San Francisco’s Silicon Valley is the capital of the Internet era; and to the south, San Diego has cutting-edge Qualcomm and high-tech defense research. In short, L.A. is looking for an emotional jump-start. To steal a phrase from Al Gore and George W. (and everyone else who’s run for President since 1960), the city wants “a new beginning.” Which more or less brings us to the real key players this week.

2) The LAPD . The dark, unspoken truth about the Rodney King beating, Mark Fuhrman’s politics and the ongoing Rampart scandal is that none of them was particularly surprising to the vast majority of Angelenos. It’s not that all L.A. cops are bad. In an emergency, they’re probably terrific. But this ain’t New York: From an early age, almost everyone here seems to divine that “policemen are not your friends.” If you get stopped by a cop, it doesn’t matter what color you are: Make no sudden moves. Keep your hands on the wheel where the officer can see them. Don’t even think about arguing.

The oft-cited defense for the LAPD brand of authoritative policing is the department’s relatively small force: Half the size of New York’s, with five times the area to cover. And in the aftermath of the Lakers riot, it was theorized that in the absence of a street-crowd culture-no Central Park, no constant march of parades down Fifth Avenue-the LAPD lacks practical experience in the psychology of modern crowd control. And thus the stage is set for this week. Call it the Staples Center Smackdown: A police force struggling to control its darker angels versus a group of protesters determined to provoke them. Why? As one of the demonstrators explained on Aug. 13, “We need the TV time.”

3) A short geography lesson . When you fly in to LAX, almost everything you see for the last 20 minutes of the flight is Los Angeles. Beverly Hills and Santa Monica are separate, self-governing cities, but Brentwood, Hollywood, Venice, Century City, Westwood, Hancock Park, Cheviot Hills, Los Feliz, Manchester, Inglewood and a hundred others too numerous to mention merely refer to neighborhoods, like our own Murray Hill or Chelsea. (Mail to Brentwood, for example, is addressed to Los Angeles, Calif. 90049. And please, let’s all resist the urge to do the pithy magazine-chart moral-equivalent game, i.e., Venice=Soho. Or Brentwood=Carnegie Hill. I’ve been assigned this task at least a dozen times by various magazines, so trust me: It just doesn’t quite work like that out here.) To the north, on the other side of the Santa Monica mountain range, lies the rest of L.A., usually referred to as the Valley: Studio City and Sherman Oaks, where a referendum is afoot to secede from L.A.

In general, when Angelenos refer to the East Side, they’re talking about the industrial, less affluent areas to the east of downtown L.A. Admittedly, common sense might dictate that the West Side would begin just to the west of downtown. But it doesn’t: The delineation point is some 15 miles further west, at the north-south 405-San Diego freeway. So, to recap: The West Side of L.A. is Venice, Santa Monica, Brentwood, Pacific Palisades and Malibu; Beverly Hills and West Hollywood are in the center; and the East Side begins downtown.

Oh, yes, there is one other thing. By dint of geography, sheer size, and the distance between neighborhoods, Los Angeles has sometimes been accused of being the most racially segregated city in America. I’ll let someone else make that judgment call. But I do know from personal experience that it’s entirely possible to go for weeks-months, in fact-without encountering anyone outside your neighborhood.

4) Downtown and the Staples Center . By now you’ve probably heard the complaints from delegates and media operatives: The Staples Center is an hour from the West Side (where most of them are bivouacked), and the traffic is awful. The only solace to be offered here is this: The traffic is always awful (even without a convention) and getting worse each year.

Downtown L.A. itself is a curious place. On the one hand, it’s the home of burgeoning jewelry, toy and garment manufacturing districts that allegedly dwarf the same industries in New York City. And yet, at midday, the streets of downtown are oddly empty, overshadowed by vacant 1930’s-era office buildings.

There’s always talk of revitalizing downtown-giving it a night life, or creating some kind of culture zone centered on the relatively new Museum of Contemporary Art and the still-unfinished Disney Concert Hall. The Staples Center itself was seen as a way to keep the restaurants open at night. Most recently, there’s been a move to convert the old office buildings to upscale residential lofts, à la Soho or Tribeca. But real estate agents are skeptical: Soho didn’t start out upscale; L.A. is about the beach or the view; there’s no shortage of funky, artistic, vibrant and less expensive space elsewhere.

Whether or not this will work, however, may soon be rendered moot. Because the real future of downtown L.A. may not be determined by lofts, or the Staples Center, or even Disney, but rather by a Pacific Bell switching station on Flower Street. It’s the central node for all Southern California telephone and Internet connections. And slowly but surely, all the surrounding buildings are being emptied of office workers and replaced by network switches-the very same kind of energy-consuming devices that are causing the current power problems throughout all of California.

5) Politics . In Los Angeles, there are two kinds of politics: the real politics of streets and taxes and school boards, and Hollywood politics. The former is similar everywhere. The latter is unique.

Generally, in Hollywood, when one comes to a dinner table, the assumption is the same: We’re all Democrats. We all believe in the same things. War is bad. Peace is good. The First Amendment is inviolate. We all want to feed the poor, help the weak, improve education, secure gun control, ensure a woman’s right to choose, guarantee universal health care and fight discrimination.

Personally, I agree with every one of these things. They’re all fine sentiments.

The problem, however (and once again, in flashing neon, I’m generalizing here) is that once you try to scratch the surface and discuss the issues in more depth, all too often all you find is more surface, with more platitudes. And sooner or later, it all begins to feel vaguely sophomoric: “If America can spend ten billion dollars building a Trident submarine, why can’t we …[insert the name of your favorite cause here.]”

Essentially, it’s politeness, and the illusion of consensus, that are the key sociopolitical mores out here. Nothing will stop a dinner party faster than a contrarian opinion or a viewpoint expressed too passionately, whereupon the speaker himself becomes suspect. I’ve always wondered if part of the reason for this lies in the nature of the film business: The person you said you hated and loathed and despised last night may have a hit movie tomorrow-which means you’ll want to work with her next week. (It’s not for nothing that when Al Gore chose Joe Lieberman, all the quotes in The New York Times from members of the Hollywood establishment sounded as carefully parsed and measured as Warren Christopher discussing Kosovo.) And woe be it to the man or woman who brings up the central dissonance (some might say hypocrisy) in modern show business: Put on a TV show about the need for breast cancer examinations, and we’ll fall over backward patting ourselves on the back for affecting public concern. But if you question our more typical fare-scattered with gratuitous violence and inappropriate language-we’ll swear on a stack of Bibles from now until the beginning of next pilot season that we have absolutely no effect at all on public behavior, and that we’re merely artists whose job is to reflect society, not change it.

To understand exactly what Joe Lieberman is facing out here, consider this: Two years ago, on the morning after the Columbine High School tragedy, there was a regularly scheduled executive committee meeting at one of the artist guilds. In the middle of the agenda, a distraught board member spoke up: “Why are we talking about pensions? We ought to be talking about Columbine. And our role in all of this.” According to someone in the room, there was an embarrassed silence-then, possibly, a murmur about fascism and censorship, after which another board member spoke up: “I have no intention of allowing you to violate my First Amendment rights. Next?”

6) Why L.A. is Bill Clinton’s true emotional homeland . I realize that it might be easy for someone to think that I’m somewhat pessimistic about the future of L.A. Nothing could be more wrong. Because the simple truth of the matter is that the sun will come up out here tomorrow morning, the weather will be beautiful, the palm trees will sway, and people will smile as they say, “Have a nice day.”

And perhaps this is the real reason Bill Clinton feels so at home here.

Above all else, Los Angeles is a city of possibility: a place where you arrive from someplace else to reinvent yourself, and then keep reinventing yourself, buoyed by hope and boundless encouragement.

You will write that screenplay. You will get that part. You will be a star. What you said or did yesterday doesn’t matter; whatever mistakes you made in the past are irrelevant. What counts is who you are and what you say today-in the here-and-now.

In short, it is the Bill Clinton ethos in asphalt and tinsel: A hit show covers a multitude of sins. And no one is going to spoil the party by pointing out that heat dissipates, stars dim, and sometime in the not-too-distant future, it is all but guaranteed that the former President will be waiting on the phone as someone explains: “I’m sorry, Mr. President. Steven really wants to talk to you, but he can’t be disturbed at the moment. Can we call you back tomorrow?”

Yes, Al Gore will be nominated in Los Angeles. But it remains Bill Clinton’s city.

And for the rest us, the title of a film produced by Robert Altman will have to suffice:

Welcome to L.A. Welcome to L.A., Where Politics Are Polite