Blowing leaves and hot air: The incredible shrinking agenda

By Arianna Huffington

January 15, 1998

If President Clinton is looking around for another micro-issue to courageously tackle in his State of the Union address, there is a perfect one that could serve to energize his Hollywood base: leaf blowers. That's right. Machines that blow leaves. And with them, the winds of injustice.

The movement's brave leaders, actor Peter Graves and his wife, Joan, have already established the battle lines against those noisy, gasoline-powered gardening instruments. "We are all victims of these machines," lamented Graves, who was joined in his crusade by Meredith Baxter and the original Cat Woman, Julie Newmar.

Last week, the Los Angeles City Council approved an ordinance that bans the leaf blower from residential neighborhoods. It was the climax of a 12-year campaign by the machines' victims -- a little shorter than Vietnam, a little longer than the Intifada.

Of course, every great protest movement must have a formidable enemy. And arrayed against the anti-leaf-blowing movement (or the ALBM) is the Latin American gardening community, and City Councilman Mike Hernandez, who called the offending machines "a vital tool" of the working class. The other component of a really good protest movement is the hunger strike. No, don't worry, Peter Graves and Julie Newmar are eating plenty of solids. In this case, it's the working man, under the leadership of Adrian Alvarez, the Spartacus of leaf blowers, that has resorted to this age-old weapon of Ghandi and Martin Luther King Jr. in the fight against oppressors.

In a three-tent encampment on the lawn of City Hall, 11 gardeners gathered to drink only water and Gatorade for seven days and seven nights. They probably would have gathered around a musician or two, but the Woody Guthrie of the leaf-blowing movement has not yet emerged. They did, however, get a visit from Mayor Richard Riordan, who discussed his intent to approve the leaf-blower ban while munching on a mayonnaise-dripping Bob's Big Boy hamburger.

The highly publicized vigil came to an end only after the hunger strikers were assured that hearings would be held on alternatives to these hellish contraptions. A thousand gardeners and supporters cheered at the news -- apparently unfamiliar with the general uselessness of the Thompson hearings -- let alone the D'Amato hearings, or the Burton hearings, or the racial reconciliation hearings.

Now, I personally hate those little mechanical buggers as much as the next Screen Actors' Guild member, but there are at least 65,000 other things I would start a crusade against before I got to leaf blowers. And by then, the leaves would be blowing across my tomb.

There is nothing more invigorating for a culture than to periodically restore perspective. Yeah, leaf blowing is noisy, unpleasant and environmentally unsound. But so is gunfire in the middle of the night in neighborhoods with no lawns to leaf-blow. And there are other non-noisy problems to consider -- like the truancy rate and the drug and alcohol abuse among the children in communities of leaf blowers and leaf blowees alike.

Right now, the only thing standing between leaf blowing and an executive order on the subject is the absence of a poll. If Dick Morris were still around, a poll would already have been taken, and the president would have, accordingly, adopted a firm position on the poll's winning side -- either that of the working man or that of the environmentally sensitive worked-for man.

In fact, leaf blowing might still become a defining issue in the Gore/Gephardt primaries. And Bob Dylan may soon be facing a dilemma: For whom will he be rewriting his music -- the leaf blowers or his Woodstock generation now employing them to keep their lawns leaf-free? The answer, mi amigo, is blowin' in the wind.

If the symbol of the declining Roman Empire was Nero fiddling while Rome burned, then the Hollywood elite's crusade against leaf blowing could be the hallmark of our narcissistic times. The problem isn't having an opinion against leaf blowers; it's the unseemliness of devoting 12 years to that opinion.

"This unjust ordinance," Alvaro Huerta of the Association of Latin American Gardeners told me, "is not only elitist but petty-minded, since there are more pertinent social issues plaguing Los Angeles, like crime, unemployment, homelessness and drug addiction." Not only does it seem as if this country's elite has given up on the big problems, but the itsy-bitsy ones they choose to focus on are the ones that make our privileged lives a little more privileged. Let them use rakes.

President Clinton is only the most visible manifestation of a slow but clear sea change in the way we think and act on our long-term problems. What we do, simply, is to note them. And having comfortably and sincerely noted them ("hunger -- noted, huge prison population -- noted, drug use -- noted, income disparity -- noted"), we can devote ourselves to tackling the little news-cycle issues as they come up. Hence: leaf blowers.

"I know this has been presented as an environmental issue," Councilman Hernandez told me. "But why pick on the gardeners? If people are worried about emissions and noise, why not go after gas-guzzling cars?" Could it be because they drive them?

With the president leading the way, we seem to have bought into the noxious notion that if we focus all our attention on small enough problems, the big ones will just go away.

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