An election update from The Observer ‘s West Coast bureau:
With a little over a month left until voters go to the polls, the California recall election has taken on all the plot twists and turns of an Arnold Schwarzenegger action film, with one important difference:
Unlike the movies, there’s no guarantee that the self-cast hero in this drama, Mr. Schwarzenegger, is going to triumph in the last reel.
One day Arnold is ahead in the polls by 20 points; the next day he’s being written off as toast. One day his campaign is reminiscent of Thomas E. Dewey’s failed run for the Presidency against Harry Truman in 1948, filled with platitudinous speeches about children and jobs and housewives; the next day, the Terminator appears, making snarky remarks about Cruz Bustamante’s physical appearance.
As they say in Hollywood, nobody knows anything. And things are moving so fast out here in this foreshortened campaign that nobody knows what polls or pundits to believe.
But speaking as a screenwriter, there’s one thing I’m fairly certain about: From the moment Arnold declared his candidacy-remarking on the Jay Leno show that it was the toughest decision he’s had to make since getting a bikini wax-the script he’s been following is in major need of a rewrite.
Obviously, by casting himself as the modern-day savior of California, Arnold must have known he was setting himself up as the No. 1 target in this campaign. But the really surprising thing is just how much ammunition he’s been providing his opponents.
And I’m not just referring here to his opening-week gaffes-from bringing in Warren (“Let’s raise property taxes”) Buffett and Rob Lowe as advisers to brushing aside calls for specifics on the budget crisis with the glib remark, “Voters don’t care about numbers.”
Day by day, Arnold is getting tripped up by real issues: the kind that can’t be dismissed with a tossed-off quip as the action hero reloads and heads off into another thrill-packed sequence of unprecedented civic mayhem.
As I pointed out a month ago, generally speaking, movie stars don’t pay for anything. So I was surprised to hear Arnold proclaim, on Aug. 8, “I’m rich enough that I don’t have to take anyone’s money.” Was he actually going to self-finance the campaign? Well, by the end of the month, contributions were flowing in from all the usual friends who need friends in Sacramento: agribusiness, grocery chains, high-tech, health-care providers. And how did Arnold respond? In Hollywood, when you’re stuck on a plot point, you steal from the masters and call it an homage. So, taking a page from Bill Clinton’s script, Arnold all but said, “That depends on what your definition of ‘special interest’ is.”
Then, of course, there’s the obligatory “sexual interest” subplot. Ordinarily, one would have thought that Arnold’s 1977 Oui Magazine interview, in which he talked about participating in a body-builders’ gang-bang of a black woman at Gold’s Gym, would have amounted to nothing: This is California, after all. But as they say, it’s not the indiscretion that kills you, it’s the coverup. At first Arnold shrugged it off, saying with a Cheshire-cat grin that he did a lot of crazy things when he was young. But then, 24 hours later, he claimed he couldn’t remember the interview, thus shifting the scandal from the act to the candidate’s credibility.
On the political front, instead of courting the center, Arnold has taken his pitch to right-wing talk radio, where he’s been criticized for not being a “real Republican.” (And trust me here: There’s nothing smarmier than hearing Sean Hannity fawn over the movie star. A Democratic candidate with precisely the same views on abortion, gun control or gay rights would be treated with pure contempt. But then, Disney-owed KABC radio makes no bones about where it stands: Violating every notion of fairness, the official station announcements feature a count down of the days till we get the Gray out of Sacramento.)
Meanwhile, savvy political observers question whether Arnold’s playing to the right is a winning strategy. High-profile Hollywood hasn’t joined the cast of supporting players; in a largely Democratic state, Arnold needs crossover Democrats to win. But this only highlights our leading man’s real weakness: Arnold may not have any “core constituency”-beyond 27-year-old boys with a fondness for widescreen carnage. Sure, there are lots of people at his campaign rallies. But according to the San Jose Mercury News , there’s been no surge in voter registrations. The people who say they’re voting for Arnold may not be at all.
So as we close out the first act of the campaign (wherein our hero climbs a tree) and proceed through the second (wherein we throw stones at him), how is our hero’s journey playing with the audience?
With each passing day, Arnold seems less like a benighted savior and more like a typical politician-albeit one with great pecs. And where he might have risen above the fray by running a truly independent, bipartisan Jesse Ventura–type insurgent race, he chose instead to appoint the former Republican governor Pete Wilson as his campaign manager, and to surround himself with Mr. Wilson’s cronies.
As in Arnold’s action movies, there’s been lots of collateral damage along the way.
Arianna Huffington has become something of a laughingstock: living in a $9 million Brentwood home, paying virtually no state or federal income taxes, deducting almost $9,000 in hair and makeup as a business expense, yet calling herself the people’s candidate. On the basis of her tax returns alone, I can’t help but wonder whether her last book, Pigs at the Trough , should have been classified as an autobiography.
Democratic Lt. Governor Cruz Bustamante has been tarred-by Arnold, among others-for being in the pocket of Indian casino money; for accidentally using the N-word at a Black History Month event in 2001; and for his youthful membership in MECaH, a radical Latino group whose goal is to have California returned to Mexico, and whose motto is “For the Race, everything. For those outside the Race, nothing.”
Meanwhile, Mr. 1984 Olympics, Peter Uebberoth, hasn’t gained any traction, while the true-blue conservative, Tom McClintock, nips at Arnold’s heels.
Curiously, in all of this, the one candidate who doesn’t seem to be self-destructing is the very subject of the recall, Gray Davis. Day after day, he signs bills, speaks out against the recall and goes about his business.
He’s disliked, and he’s certainly no Harry Truman, but as the weeks pass in this hyper-campaign, he’s the only one whose numbers seem to have stabilized-if only because he’s starting to look good by comparison.
So with just under a month left, I leave you with two thoughts.
First, despite everything I’ve written here, Arnold Schwarzenegger remains a compelling, charismatic figure. He’s been in a lot worse shape going into the third act of his movies; I wouldn’t write him off just yet.
Second, in the event Arnold does win, I’d give anything to be a fly on the wall at the Creative Artists Agency the next morning, when some other action star approaching his sell-by date calls, bellowing: “God damn it! The son of a bitch won! Get me a governorship! Put me up for Missouri! Put me up for Montana! Get me a meeting with Delaware!”
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