Douglas Kennedy: The Governator - Judgment Day

California and Arnold Schwarzenegger were made for each other
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Yes, California has done it again. For the second time since the Second World War, it has elected an actor as its governor. Then again, the fact that Arnold Schwarzenegger follows Ronald Reagan as the second thespian chief executive of America's most populous and convoluted state comes as no surprise to the rest of the country. After all, this is the place that bequeathed to the world such dubious icons of popular culture as Mickey Mouse, the world's first motel, the Church of Scientology, the drive-in taco bar and the Heaven's Gate cult in San Diego whose members killed themselves to join a spaceship travelling behind the Hale-Bopp comet.

So, in the eyes of fellow Americans (especially those more circumspect, educated residents of the Atlantic seaboard, which conservative commentators like to label "the eastern elite"), the elevation of Austria's second most famous political export is yet a further example of Californication. This is a catch-all word, much used by sardonic New Yorkers, and loaded with unalloyed contempt for the alleged banality, superficiality and New Age goofiness that the Golden State exemplifies.

No wonder, therefore, that, in the days since the election, the witticisms have been coming thick and fast: that Schwarzenegger will be referring to himself as "the Governator"; or how, like George W Bush, he demonstrates that you can be a successful politician in the US even if English is your second language. And then there's this gem from the comedian Bill Maher: "I have two questions about Gov Schwarzenegger: what does he know, and when will he know it?"

More telling still, much hand-wringing has accompanied Schwarzenegger's victory. To the New York Times columnist Bob Herbert (one of the great unapologetic voices of liberal America in the illiberal age of Bush), the actor's elevation is the Götterdämmerung of serious political discourse in the United States: "Welcome to the world of undiluted narcissism. The man who is now ... the next governor of the crazy state of California has spent a lifetime pirouetting in front of cameras.... If there's a voter anywhere in this state who thinks that this character will spend even a hot minute wrestling with the realities of budgets and such, that person should seek immediate counselling.... The adoration is the thing. In the mad, mad world of Hollywood stardom, the undiluted narcissist doesn't have to worry about what to say. The image is everything. The words come in a script. It's a splendid system. The mind - undisturbed by original thoughts - remains focused on the most important matter, which is always the self."

Tough talk from an outraged fellow citizen. And, indeed, it would be easy to dismiss Schwarzenegger's election as yet another example of all-American moronicism: the Jerry Springer-isation of our legislative life. But amid all the acerbic punditry, everyone seems to have forgotten one of the key reasons why Schwarzenegger has proved so popular with the electorate of his adopted state. Yes, Ah-nold is a hunky movie star. And, yes, Ah-nold is a man who concretises (in all his pumped, pectoralled glory) the obsession with celebrity. But he is also a great exemplification of that most American of sagas: the immigrant who made good. He proves that hoary mythology about the US being the gilded land of opportunity, not to mention God's preferred terrain.

Such hokum may strike most outsiders as outmoded Cold War propaganda, but the fact remains that the country continues to be obsessed with its own self-righteousness and belief that - with hard work, fortitude and a song in your heart - anyone can find success under American skies. Schwarzenegger has embraced such folklore with a vengeance. After all, he was the impoverished body-builder who arrived in Los Angeles from the Austrian provinces and began to inch his way up the cursus honorem (the proverbial greasy pole) of southern California life. And although his heavy Germanic accent may have been an initial liability, he did have certain obvious things going for him.

To start with, he was a muscle-man. Americans have always venerated beefy hunks because they know that you become said hunk only if you have reinvented yourself as Mr Body Beautiful. (Consider the l950s breakfast cereal Wheaties, which advertised itself as "the breakfast of champions": its testimonies came from "98lb weaklings" who had transformed themselves into strapping lifeguards.)

The important word to remember here is reinvention, one of America's credos.The country still embraces the old puritan doctrine: that man may be in a fallen state of grace but he can constantly better himself (through analysis and assorted self-help therapies, not to mention pumping iron). The perfectibility of the individual is a tenet whichhas been omnipresent in the nation's psyche since its founding as a religious experiment. Equally, the concept has been the foundation for the conservative ideology about "people standing on their own two feet" - not to mention the social Darwinism that still informs social debate.

Schwarzenegger understood early on that epitomising the proverbial success story would be central to his acquisition of power. Unlike other emigrant societies such as Canada, the United States demands its new arrivals assimilate at an allegro con molto speed. In short, it insists that they adopt American values and an American point of view. Ah-nold did this straight away. Well before his film stardom, he was the model New World entrepreneur, making a considerable sum of money as a property speculator in California. He endlessly played the patriotic card, trumpeting the fact that America was the best thing ever to happen to him; that California had given him everything he had; and that the United States was still the last great hope of mankind.

California's new governor is a modern-day version of Horatio Alger's favourite characters. And if you're wondering who I'm talking about, Alger was the best-selling American author of the l9th century, whose 130 popular tomes sold more than 20 million copies. To quote The Oxford Dictionary of American Literature, his books were "all based on the concept that a struggle against poverty and temptation inevitably leads a boy to wealth and fame".

Now, Ah-nold may not have resisted temptation during his meteoric rise, but in every other respect he has substantiated the Alger formula. His fame, his wealth and his clout can be held up as proof that the system works; that you can be what you want to be in the United States. That's why his fellow Californians voted him in. Moreover, here is a self-made man who also personifies the virtues of a protector. As David Thomson wryly notes in his wonderful Biographical Dictionary of Film, in film after film Schwarzenegger has shown that "he can walk through walls".

But, as a hugely well-paid film star and über-American, the Terminator also realises that the bottom line is everything. Failure is considered the worst of sins, punished by instant rejection. And what he might soon find out is that Americans reserve their deepest contempt for a politician who fails them.