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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

The running man

As regular readers may have noticed, despite this web site’s name, implying that it is supposed to deal with movies, this column actually delves into all sorts of popular entertainment—and its influence of and by society. So, some of you might have wondered why I hadn’t before now gotten around to discussing the California recall election.

As a native of California myself, I have had an interest my whole life in following its twisted political path, but as a non-resident for the past quarter-century, I have not been an active participant in the Golden State’s political life. Fortunately, following this election’s progress from Europe has been no problem, since the media here have spent lots of air time and print space on it, taking delight in the fact that the whole thing apparently validates the general view here that Americans are loony imbeciles who, through a bit of damnable luck, just happen to have the world’s hugest stash of conventional and nuclear weapons.

Of course, you can’t trust the European press to give a sophisticated information consumer like myself all the detail and nuance I require to follow this important story. Thankfully, I have the best source of this sort of coverage delivered right to my own television set. I am speaking, of course, of CNBC Europe, which broadcasts The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. As with so many watershed events in American culture (the O.J. trial and the Florida election come to mind), Leno is indispensable for understanding what is going on. Not only did the eventual election winner announce his candidacy on Leno, but every night Leno has put things into their proper perspective. (In an early monologue, California resident Leno explained, “Things are so bad that people in Florida are laughing at us!”) There is a down side and an up side to watching Leno in Europe. The down side is that the programs are broadcast several days late. The up side is that the commercials and slow bits are removed, so you can watch an entire program in about 12 minutes.

But back to the recall. From the beginning, all of the attention was focused on Schwarzenegger. The prospect, and then the reality, that such a major celebrity would seek the governor’s office energized the media. It was unprecedented that a movie star should seek such high office. Okay, not unprecedented. But it was the first time that a movie star, who was still a movie star (anyone still remember that Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines was in cinemas only a couple of months ago?), would seek major office.

My other main source of California news, besides Leno, is my mom, who gave me updates by phone during the campaign. I was thrilled last week when she reported that Arnold was in Bakersfield. And not just because I was born there. It has always stuck in my mind that the character Schwarzenegger played in The Running Man was nicknamed “the butcher of Bakersfield.” I wonder if he mentioned that during his speech there. The Running Man, by the way, is just one of many titles (along with Total Recall) of Arnold’s movies that now seem downright prescient.

At the end of the day, Schwarzenegger’s candidacy completes a logical circle. Ronald Reagan broke the movie star barrier by being elected California governor twice and then U.S. president twice. Beginning four years after Reagan left office, Bill Clinton got elected president twice, largely through studying and adapting Reagan’s ability to be media-friendly. (I didn’t make this up. George Stephanopolous, who was Clinton’s aide at the time, said so in his book.) Now comes Arnold, who not only follows in Reagan’s movie-star-turned-politician footsteps, but also benefits from Clinton’s considerable media savvy. Almost on cue, in the final days of the election, Schwarzenegger experienced something akin to what was called (rather rudely) in the Clinton years a “bimbo explosion.” And, thanks at least in part to Clinton’s pioneering in this territory, it made not one bit of difference. But Clinton doesn’t deserve all the credit. The popular culture that both Schwarzenegger and Clinton inhabit has, through movies and television, made the world comfortable (at least in the abstract) with pushing the sexual envelope.

Of course, it was a total random coincidence that The Los Angeles Times’s investigation into Arnold’s groping days just happened to reach fruition and publication scant days before the election. But if it had been a plot (what a juicy sound bite, if only Maria Shriver had gone on Today to proclaim it “a vast left wing conspiracy”!), the plotters would have been inept indeed. Or did they forget that they were dealing with California, the place where, the more revelations about Bill Clinton’s private the life were pried loose by Ken Starr, the more wildly popular Clinton got?

In retrospect, everything seemed absolutely predestined to go Arnold’s way. Could he have planned it any better, to be coming off a big-budget summer movie marketing campaign (how high-profile can you get?) as he began his political campaign? Or the fact that his movies had so many catch lines that lent themselves to perfect sound-bite slogans ("Hasta la vista, car tax!”)? And, most importantly, what foresight to have an extremely long name, making it all the easier to find in a ballot containing some 135 names! But if Republicans are getting drunk with joy over this victory, they should consider this. When the choice boiled down to a buttoned-down, religious-faith-proclaiming boring guy who looked down his noses at his opponent’s moral foibles on one side and a flamboyant immigrant who proudly declared himself pro-choice, pro-gun-control and pro-gay-rights and was married to a Kennedy (and don’t forget those womanizing stories) on the other, well, who could blame the more zoned-out denizens of L.A. and San Francisco if they were a bit confused as to which was the Democrat and which was the Republican?

When all is said and done, will Schwarzenegger actually be any good as governor? Or does it even matter? We are, after all, talking about California. For now, the only thing that seems to count is the fact that, as they say in Hollywood, Arnie has buzz. I don’t know if the California economy will survive. But, if his new job stops Arnie from making sequels to Raw Deal and Collateral Damage, then it will certainly have been worth it.

-S.L., 9 October 2003

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