For the past two weeks, Gov. Gavin Newsom did something that’s very out of character: He stayed out of the public eye.
Declining to offer a detailed reason for his absence until he reappeared Tuesday, one of the first politicians to harness the power of social media to connect with voters seemingly forgot how quickly a dearth of information can give birth to misinformation in the Twittersphere.
By the time Newsom explained that he had simply kept a low profile both in the office and at home, taking time to watch his children play soccer after a grueling recall campaign and 20-month battle leading the fight against COVID-19 in California, anti-vaccine activists had spread rumors on social media that the Democratic governor experienced an adverse reaction to a booster shot he received at a news conference on Oct. 27.
The website of the Children’s Health Defense, which is led by anti-vaccination activist Robert F. Kennedy Jr., alleged Monday that the governor experienced symptoms in response to the vaccine that were “similar to those associated with Guillain–Barré syndrome.”
“In the world of vaccine politics, nature abhors a vacuum,” said Jack Pitney, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College. “And when there’s a vacuum of information, all kinds of nasty stuff will enter to fill it.”
And in an era of hyperpartisanship, politics helped fuel the frenzy.
“People in each party are very eager to assume the worst of people in the other party and place those speculations in cyberspace,” Pitney said.
Joshua Tucker, co-director of the Center for Social Media and Politics at New York University, said that along with social media outlets, the proliferation of unreliable news sources provides sustenance to anti-vaccine adherents looking for confirmation of their beliefs.
Newsom’s decision not to initially explain why he skipped the trip to Scotland and stay out of public view catalyzed the rapid spread of false reports. The void of information made rumors about Newsom’s absence “sound juicier,” Tucker said.
“The easier it is to debunk something, the less likely it is that people are going to believe it’s true or invest in an effort to spread it and cause it to go viral,” he said. “In this particular case, Newsom didn’t do himself any favors.”
Members of the governor’s staff asserted to The Times on several occasions over the last two weeks that he did not have an adverse reaction to the booster shot and that neither he nor his wife had COVID-19. Two of Newsom’s children, though, tested positive for COVID-19 in September.
The sudden vanishing act was particularly unusual for Newsom, a governor who often appears to crave the spotlight and passed up an opportunity to stand on the world stage. As the speculation spiraled out of control, the governor’s office refused to provide an explanation beyond “family obligations” for why Newsom and his wife and documentary filmmaker Jennifer Siebel Newsom on Oct. 29 abruptly canceled a trip to the United Nations Climate Conference in Scotland.
Newsom chose instead to break his silence in a comfortable setting Tuesday, speaking onstage with his former top economic advisor, Lenny Mendonca, in Monterey at the 2021 California Economic Summit, sponsored by California Forward.
In his opening remarks, Newsom blamed a grueling schedule for taking a toll on his family, telling the audience that his four young children staged “kind of an intervention” during a family dinner.
“Mom and Dad missing Halloween. For them, it’s worse than … missing Christmas,” Newsom said at the first official event he’s attended since Oct. 27. “I woke up that next morning with something that’s probably familiar to a lot of parents, that knot in your stomach. I had no damn choice. I had to cancel that trip.”
Sacramento-based Republican strategist Rob Stutzman said Newsom’s explanation about why he canceled the trip and spent time with the family made perfect sense.
“It was a little heartbreaking and it’s a good reminder of what just even these past two years have been probably for him and his family,” said Stutzman, a former advisor to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
At the same time, however, it was baffling why the governor, who has faced criticism for communication fumbles in the past, just didn’t explain it from the get-go rather than issue such a vague statement, he said.
“Why did they let this vacuum of information fester for a couple weeks?” Stutzman said.
The questions about his absence rose to such a crest that the governor’s office finally had to make a public effort to tamp it down starting Monday afternoon.
“Last week Gov. Newsom worked in the Capitol with staff on urgent issues including COVID-19 vaccines for kids, boosters, ports, the forthcoming state budget and California’s continued economic recovery. He will have public events this week related to the economy and vaccines,” Daniel Lopez, the governor’s press secretary, said in a statement.
Newsom’s public absence began the day after he received a COVID-19 booster shot in Oakland on Oct. 27, surrounded by supporters and reporters. The timing created an opening for the COVID-19 vaccine critics and skeptics to question whether he had an adverse reaction.
“Gov. Newsom has repeatedly assured that vaccines are safe. Given the rumors swirling around about the timing of his disappearance (right after getting the booster), I hope he emerges soon to explain his absence, and I hope that’s he’s healthy,” state Sen. Melissa Melendez (R-Lake Elsinore) wrote Monday in a post on Twitter. Melendez is one of a handful of legislators who have declined to disclose their vaccination status.
The governor’s wife vented on Twitter Sunday night in an apparent reply to some of the clamor, telling critics to “get a life.” She deleted the tweet minutes later.
“It’s funny how certain folks can’t handle truth. When someone cancels something, maybe they’re just in the office working; maybe in their free time they’re at home with their family, at their kids’ sports matches, or dining out with their wife. Please stop hating and get a life,” Siebel Newsom wrote in the since-deleted post.
Jessica Levinson, director of Loyola Law School’s Public Service Institute, said Newsom has been in politics long enough to know that the vague explanation he initially gave for canceling his trip to the U.N. Climate summit was going to unleash a wave of wild conjecture.
“It just feels like an unforced error,” Levinson said. “He had the opportunity to control the narrative. He knows that we all descend into speculation and wild conjecture and baseless rumors and that if he didn’t give an explanation, that was going to happen.”
Levinson said Newsom and his family deserve a degree of privacy but that, from the beginning, he should have been more transparent as the leader of the largest state in the nation, home to close to 40 million people, amid a deadly pandemic.
“He has an incredibly important job,” Levinson said. “He’s not a private person.”
The speculation over the governor’s whereabouts sparked heightened interest on social media in last weekend’s high society nuptials of Ivy Getty, the great-granddaughter of J. Paul Getty, to photographer Tobias Engel at San Francisco City Hall. Photographs published by Vogue magazine appear to show Newsom and his wife attending the event — leading to a Fox News headline that said, “Newsom disappears for more than a week, reportedly pops up at oil heiress’ wedding.”
Newsom was scheduled to return home to California before the wedding and could have attended regardless, according to a timeline provided by his office.
The decision to cancel his overseas trip came after several high-stress months for the 54-year-old governor. Newsom easily beat back a Republican-led effort to recall him from office after zigzagging across the state denouncing the effort as the handiwork of hardcore supporters of former President Trump and anti-vaccination activists.
One of Newsom’s persistent critics, Assemblyman Kevin Kiley (R-Rocklin), appeared to attack the governor no matter what he did, criticizing both his decision to attend and to skip the conference. Kiley was among the 46 candidates who ran to replace Newsom in the recall election, receiving 3.5% of the vote.
On Sunday, Kiley took another swipe, with caveats: “I don’t know where Gavin Newsom is and won’t speculate. But it’s pretty strange for the governor to disappear for 11 days without explanation.”
Newsom’s absence from the public stage may have attracted attention, in part, because of the way he has approached the duties of being governor. Previous governors have chosen a different path.
Former Gov. Jerry Brown would frequently carry out his duties behind closed doors, choosing to invite the media to only a handful of events that were designed to help sell his policy agenda.
Most days, Brown would quietly do his job — both in Sacramento and in discreet visits to communities where he would meet with local officials. Brown, who attended a Jesuit seminary as a young man and spent nearly half a century in California politics, enjoyed his role as an elder statesman and appeared more drawn to contemplation than adulation.
Other governors, most notably former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, were more visible than Brown. But they too occasionally stepped away from the spotlight and took vacations during periods when the Legislature was in recess.
Newsom holds frequent public events and made his briefings a daily occurrence during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. When he isn’t in front of the television cameras, he creates content for his 1.9 million social media followers.
But by the time his poorly explained break was over, Newsom was advising people to take their own hiatus from the very platform that has helped boost his own political career.
“I think we’d all do well, taking some time away from social media. It’s just a hell of a thing,” Newsom said.
Times staff writer John Myers contributed to this report.