The Morning After: Let’s Win One For the Groper

They say trends start in the West. Beyond the recall, the fires and the celebrity murder trials, there’s a new piece of gubernatorial jurisprudence you may wish to put on your radar screen:

According to an A.P. report on Nov. 6, the Governor-elect-that would be Arnold Schwarzenegger-announced that he’s going to hire a private investigator to look into allegations that Arnold Schwarzenegger-the movie star-groped women. The P.I. (O.K., we’re all friends here, so let’s call him “the Dick”) is going to conduct a thorough investigation of the charges against the movie-star candidate and report his findings to the Governor-who will then decide whether or not there is anything to report to the Attorney General, who has called for an investigation into the allegations of serial groping by Mr. Schwarzenegger.

Still with me here? Good. Because if all that doesn’t make your head spin, just imagine the following all-too-likely scenario:

Fade in: L.A. Night. Rain. A private eye with a studio production deal bangs on the door of a Hollywood bungalow; a stuntwoman with a great rack appears in a nightgown. “Tell me, honey,” the Dick leers, “I hear you’ve been telling people you were groped by the Governor. Got anything you want to say?” Standing in the doorway, the woman shivers. She considers her future. She cowers. She caves. “Absolutely not,” she says. “I voted for him!”

Twenty-four hours later, the Dick appears in the Governor’s office in Sacramento. “So, Arnold,” he calls out, “ever grope anybody?” “Absolutely not,” the Governor replies. “Great,” says the Dick. “Let’s call a press conference.”

Now maybe I’ve been at this screenwriting trade a little too long. But it occurs to me that if Arnold pulls this off-this self-investigation bit-it’s a trend that’s sure to move east. Consider:

-After a thorough self-investigation, Martha Stewart pronounces herself not guilty of insider trading. “I don’t know anybody who doesn’t like me,” she says, just before backing over a gaggle of reporters in her S.U.V.

-After a thorough self-investigation, Karl Rove clears himself of any charges that he leaked the name of C.I.A. agent Valerie Plame. “I’m not going to name names,” he says, “but it wasn’t me.”

-Kobe Bryant says he’s “looking into” the rape charges, but expects to clear himself by the playoffs. Putnam Investments assures us, “There’s never been a better time to invest in mutuals.” Dick Cheney says, “Trust me. About everything.” George Tenet proclaims, “Everything’s O.K. at the C.I.A.” Dennis Kozlowski finds that the only thing he’s guilty of is “egregious bad taste.” Dick Grasso isn’t returning the cash, but offers to take the entire stock exchange out for a lap dance at Scores. And-while flying on his private jet to Bermuda-Mayor Mike drops leaflets on the city declaring that “after a full and thorough investigation of the polls,” he has found that he is not, in fact, “out of touch with common New Yorkers.”

And what of our beloved Rosie? “I checked out Gruner + Jahr’s claims, and I’m in the clear,” says Ms. O’Donnell. “You know the C.E.O., Dan Brewster? He’s my new bitch.”

Yes, it’s November 2003 in Los Angeles. And there’s a strange malaise in the air out here: The fall television season has tanked. The studios are cutting back on film development. And budgets for cable-TV shows are finally being cut to reflect the reality of their smaller audiences. In short, everything suddenly seems more difficult out here; there’s a feeling that the gold-rush days of easy money are over. And compounding all this is the fact that real-estate prices continue to skyrocket-which, according to the L.A. Times , threatens to put home ownership beyond the means of first-time buyers. (The two-second explanation for this is that home real-estate taxes are based on the date of sale-say $200,000 in 1982 rather than the current million-dollar value. The result is an economic disincentive for people to move-sort of like trying to convince a New York City dowager to give up her $850 rent-controlled three-bedroom apartment for a $1,900 studio. Just substitute the words “real-estate tax” for “rent” and you’ll get the idea.)

In any event, as they say on the postcards, we’re having a fine time and wish you were here. But as you’re not, here’s the executive summary of the other dinner-table topics in Southern California these days:

Where’s the TV Audience? Alas, blaming the Nielson sampling is a canard. Posit, instead, that there are only 24 hours in a day. Now chart the rise in broadband Internet connections; add in the sales of Nintendo-like electronic games, which now out-gross the U.S. theatrical box-office take; factor in what song-downloading has done to the music business. The time spent doing all this stuff has to come from somewhere -and it’s television. Need more proof? Walk into any 18-year-old’s bedroom at 9 p.m.; the phone isn’t ringing, the TV isn’t on, but the computer screen is filled with instant messages from 15 classmates. Which is why, save for the Super Bowl and the comet-like appearance of something like an American Idol , the New Reality is that even the broadcast networks are now in the narrowcasting business.

The Reagan Miniseries . Surprisingly, working Hollywood’s sympathies seem to lie with Les Moonves for canceling the show. There’s a feeling the producers played it too cute by half-from casting to the script (more sophisticated hands could have easily dramatized Reagan’s shortcomings on AIDS without putting over-the-top cartoon quotes in his mouth) to James Brolin’s announcement that he partially based his interpretation of Reagan on the satirical puppet show Spitting Image . In short, the feeling is that the makers of the Reagan show handed the Republicans the rope to hang them with. Or as one producer put it, “This isn’t about stifling speech or deifying Reagan. This is about show business: You willingly give up your so-called ‘artistic freedom’ when you cash the check from the studio.”

The Real Impact of Arnold . Judging from the recall-election exit polls, the Democratic Party may be in deep trouble in California: Outside of Brentwood and San Francisco, the Democratic base seems to be melting away. Call it the Zell Miller phenomenon gone west: Public schools are in shambles, but the Democrats refuse to consider vouchers; bilingual education doesn’t work and has been firmly rejected by the emerging Hispanic (and once solidly Democratic) majority-but Democrats refuse to concede the issue. Howard Dean may be the favorite of West Side L.A.; Wesley Clark’s campaign feels like a movie script that’s been twisted by too many conflicting studio notes and is about to be put into turnaround. But something is seriously wrong when only Al Sharpton seems to resonate, declaring: “We’ve taken our core constituency for granted for too long.”

Seeking re-election to the White House in 1984, Ronald Reagan campaigned on the slogan “It’s morning in America.” As Arnold Schwarzenegger settles into the statehouse some 19 years later, for a lot of Californians in a lot of different ways, it feels like a very strange and very unsettled morning after. The Morning After: Let’s Win One For the Groper