Schwarzenegger follows Reagan's lead

Hollywood star at last declares his hand in the race to become California Governor - and the pundits install him as front-runner
Click to follow
The Independent US

It was, he said, the toughest decision he had made since opting for a bikini wax back in 1978. Thus Arnold Schwarzenegger - Austrian macho man, former Mr Universe, in-law of the Kennedys and action movie star best known for his thrice-repeated role as a killing machine of strictly artificial intelligence - announced his entry into the looking-glass world of US politics.

As he told his friend Jay Leno, the late-night chat-show host, he would, after all, be entering the extraordinary scramble under way to try to unseat California's Governor, Gray Davis. For weeks he had been agonising over the decision. Last week, he actually told Republican Party officials - who grow weak at the knees over his incalculably valuable name recognition and his electorally attractive moderate conservatism - that he had decided not to participate in the unorthodox recall election scheduled for early October.

Up to the last minute, the assumption was he would say no. Even his press aide thought that was the way he was leaning, and indeed came to the soundstage of Leno's Tonight Show on Wednesday evening clutching a press release that began: "Today, I've decided not to run ..."

Back on stage, Arnie was outlining the broad brushstrokes of his campaign. "The people are working hard," he said, his accented English further inflected by a distinctly Germanic sense of grammar. "The people are paying the taxes, the people are raising the families, but the politicians are not doing their job. The politicians are fiddling, fumbling and failing." He would, he promised, be a tribune for the people against the entrenched special interests of politics-as-usual. He would, like a good body-builder, "pump up" Sacramento, the state capital.

It was a polished, if over-rehearsed performance, but this is just the beginning of what promises to be a rollercoaster of a race. Less than a year after Mr Davis won re-election to a second four-year term, grassroots Republicans led by a right-wing congressman from San Diego have managed to force the proposed recall on to the ballot through a signature-gathering campaign - an obscure provision granted by California's 1911 constitution that has never before been put to the test.

The election, at least as it stands now, will be in two parts: the first, a straight up-and-down vote on whether Mr Davis should be allowed to keep his job, and the second a free-for-all, first-past-the-post contest between his would-be successors. Since the bar for entry into this second part of the contest is remarkably low - it takes just $3,500 (£2,200) as well as 65 signatures - hundreds of people have come forward to take out candidacy papers.

Many political observers, not just Republicans, believe Mr Schwarzenegger is entering as front-runner. But these are uncharted political waters in which absolutely nothing can be taken for granted. For a start, the Republican vote will be split between Mr Schwarzenegger and a clutch of more right-wing candidates, including Tom McClintock, a prominent state senator, and, possibly, Bill Simon, the businessman who lost last November's election.

And then there is the rest of the field, which ranges from the conventionally threatening (California's Democratic Lieutenant Governor Cruz Bustamante, who entered the race yesterday) to the unconventionally threatening (the columnist and anti-establishment rabble-rouser Arianna Huffington, running as an independent) to the simply unconventional (the pornographer Larry Flynt, the billboard model Angelyne, and others in similar vein).

For all his advantages - name-recognition, vast personal wealth, social connections and communications skills - the 56-year-old actor is also open to attack on several fronts. He has next to no political experience, in a state where governors have always been well-seasoned political insiders. Unlike the other candidate with an accent, the Greek-born Ms Huffington, he speaks far from flawless English. He doesn't seem to have much of a programme, other than a handful of populist rhetorical flourishes, a pledge to make California a "business-friendly" environment and some less than specific intentions to be kind to old people and schoolchildren. That may not be enough to satisfy voters in a state facing real, urgent issues provoked by the record-busting $38bn state budget deficit.

Perhaps most dangerously, he has a Hollywood insider's sensibility when it comes to the media - hence the appearance on the Leno show, rather than a programme with more serious political legs - and may be in for the shock of his life as the campaign gets dirtier.

Two years ago, when he was first considering a run for governor, Mr Schwarzenegger went ballistic over a derogatory Premiere magazine article, and even more ballistic when the Davis camp circulated it to political journalists.

Senior Democrats are certainly afraid of the Terminator - or, as Variety now calls him, the Governator - but they also sense weaknesses. Art Torres, state party chairman, said within minutes of Mr Schwarzenegger's announcement that people are going to think "more than twice" about electing a body-building movie star.

The Terminator V The Gipper

The Terminator

Who is he?

You really don't know? Schwarzenegger's single biggest political asset is that everybody knows who he is. Body-builder, action movie star (most recently in Terminator 3), self-made multimillionaire married to one of the Kennedy clan, affable man about Hollywood and, now, ambitious Republican politician.

Why is he running?

Because you can't buff your pecs for ever, and he just turned 56. Because the Republican Party in California is desperate for someone, anyone, who can wow the electorate and actually win statewide office. (California is virtually a one-party Democrat state.) His role model is Ronald Reagan, the last movie star to become Governor of California.

Is he really Californian?

Well, he wasn't born there obviously (check out the accent), but then a lot of Californians weren't. He's lived there since the 1970s and is a naturalised US citizen. Not an issue.

Can he speak English?

The grammar's off and the accent's quirky, but as often as not people find that charming.

What does he stand for?

Good question. He says he's a populist who will stand up to the special lobbying interests that hold considerable sway in the state. He says he wants to provide for pensioners and schoolchildren. He's a fiscal conservative but moderate on social issues such as abortion. His opponents fear, however, that if elected he will be the acceptable face of a right-wing Republican takeover that will give tax breaks to the rich, demolish social services and lift California's strict environmental protection laws.

What experience does he have?

Almost none. Backed an after-school care funding initiative last year. Has done sports-related charity work. Otherwise, his political connections are strictly social.

Any skeletons in his closet?

Plenty, although it remains to be seen how threatening they are. His father was a member of the Nazi Party in Austria, something he seeks to live down by donating lavishly to Jewish causes in Los Angeles. However, he publicly defended Kurt Waldheim, the Austrian president who was an ex-SS member. There have been lurid stories about his attitude to women, and he admitted abusing steroids in his body-building days. Plus points with conservative voters: he's been married to the same woman, Maria Shriver, for a long time. He appears in public frequently with his wife and kids. And he is an assiduous church-goer.

Corny lines from his films he likes to use

Told Jay Leno it was "hasta la vista, baby" for California's current Governor, Gray Davis.

Advice to those who would cultivate him

Don't mention the war.

The Gipper

Who is he?

B-movie star of the 1930s and 1940s who became President of the United States via the California Governor's office. And, most pertinently, Arnold Schwarzenegger's role model.

Why did he switch from acting to politics?

Because he was more successful at politics, because the right people liked him and because it made him very rich. (As a reward for services rendered, he managed to buy his Malibu ranch for a song from Twentieth Century Fox, then sell it on to the state of California for a vast fortune.)

Was he really from California?

No, he was from the Midwest. Then again, so are most Californians.

Could he speak English?

When reading from a script, yes. When extemporising, not so well ­ setting a precedent followed by George Bush senior and the current President, George Bush.

What did he stand for?

Reagan started out as a Democrat, but changed his tune in accordance with the people backing him. (General Electric, a Republican Party looking for a strong candidate to challenge incumbent governor Pat Brown.) Once in office in Sacramento, he was a booster for the defence industry, cut social services and taxes and vilified hippies, homosexuals and feminists.

What experience did he have?

A lot more than Schwarzenegger. As president of the Screen Actors Guild he broke down the firewall between talent agents and producers ­ a move that laid the foundations for today's media conglomerates. He was involved with unions, telecommunications and media companies and was at the heart of important state political decisions before becoming a candidate.

Any skeletons in his closet?

Nothing devastating. He wasn't a very good actor, if that counts as a skeleton. He turned down the part of Rick in Casablanca, which was a big mistake on his part but a blessing where the rest of us are concerned. He was a divorcee, which may have alienated some conservative voters. The land deal that made him rich was pretty scandalous, but it wasn't given a wide airing until the mid-1980s, when he was President, and even then got conveniently buried by White House spin doctors.

Corny lines from his films he liked to use

"Where's the rest of me?" (From a war film in which he had his legs amputated.) Later recycled as the title of his autobiography.

His legacy in California

Highly divided between liberals who loathed him and conservatives who lapped him up. He scored more points as President, his winning personality counting for more than his shaky grasp on the truth or his Star Wars-inflected view of geopolitics.