Can the terminator save the cuckoo state from financial ruin?

Arnold has pumped up on all those adages that anyone like himself can make it to the top
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The Independent Culture

California is feeling very sorry for itself these days - and it is almost a state law that that condition cannot last. Hence Arnold Schwarzenegger and the most muscular grin in politics. The jokes are all too easy, and, yes, Arnold did actually say "Hasta la vista, baby", on The Tonight Show, the forum where he made his startling (I think he was surprised - it was as if he suddenly ad-libbed) decision to put his name on the recall re-election that threatens our present state governor, Gray Davis.

Don't misunderstand me: the recall election is stupid and very damaging, and the ballot itself is rigged against Davis. Nor do I rule out the possibility that the fiscal crisis that now confronts the state is actually the result of a Republican conspiracy to rig energy prices (thank you, Enron) so as to weaken Davis and the Democratic grasp on California. Indeed, when drawing up the axis of evil, I can believe that Dubya itched to include California, so great was the state's contempt for him at the time of the 2000 presidential election (in which the Supreme Court ordered a re-count, if you remember).

Everything comes down to separation (as in the separation of politics and reason), and I fear that California has grown into this ridiculous state of mind where many issues earn a second chance (or a recall), just as the original jury verdicts on Rodney King and OJ Simpson were finessed (by civil action, as opposed to criminal action) to obtain a more popular verdict. But in a country where people are polled all the time about favourite heroes and villains from movie history (Arnold scored as both), it is hard to recollect that elections occur only every four years. Or that politics belongs to dull, decent bureaucrats prepared to sweat out the detail of legislation (like Gray Davis) rather than to walking sound-bite machines.

Which brings us to Arnold. His opponents are trying to sucker him by saying what a good actor he is. Not even Arnold really believes that. Like so many movie people of this era, he has less interest in acting than in exaggerated presence. He is a producer and a businessman who has learnt to trust punch lines. So his plan is all about getting to Sacramento (if he can find it), cleaning house and ending these awful deficits. That ought to be enough to separate him from Dubya, because our current president is crazy about deficits. The higher the better, he says, because that means the economy is on the move!

Nor is Arnold the hard-core zealot the Republican elite wants. Plenty of those chiefs are nervous about him. Because Arnold is a star and a businessman and an immigrant, and he has pumped up on all the stupid adages that anyone like himself can make it to the top. So why worry about the failures - just keep California open to the business spirit. On many issues that worry Republicans - the environment, abortion, gay rights, education, guns even - Arnold is, if not exactly liberal, carefree. The only thing that worries him is business optimism, and since the audience for his latest film, Terminator 3, collapsed after the first weekend, Arnold is not just worried, but looking for a sideline.

Don't underestimate him. He did come to this country with nothing but his comical body, yet he has become rich and famous, and married to the best-looking of the Kennedys. But he's middle-aged now and a heart patient. The New York Observer recently got a beach snap of Arnold with love handles, a sagging midriff and flabs for abs. The very lean (and dry) Gray Davis may yet use this to mock the robot man (Arnold seems to have digitalised his own body into its old hardness for T3). But Arnie could well call our bluff. He's an exuberant show-off, capable of taking off his shirt in a television debate just to show that he's as out-of-shape as most of the voters. And can you imagine the slow turn and the cold stare and the "Take off your shirt, Mr Governor!"

The Democrats are in chaos. Gray Davis says it's all unfair, but already some of his alleged loyalists have put their names on the ballots, too. The campaign is going to be short. And all Arnold needs is momentum. His grin, his slightly out-of-breath hustle, and his wholesome, empty-headed energy are not just winning assets, but exactly what this cuckoo state deserves. Arnold is like Ronald Reagan: you can say he's naive or fatuous - but can you summon up whatever it takes to dislike him? Whereas, Gray Davis is a drab, humiliated figure - a politician. In the new America, we hope to be rid of that low breed. That is the revolution that Dubya has revealed.