Schwarzenegger: Muscle Beach Politics, NYT, August 8, 2003


Most Hollywood celebrities seem to lean Democratic, but whenever one of them decides to run for office, it's almost always on the Republican ticket. Perhaps they feel more room to shine there. If the current California recall imbroglio involved ousting a Republican governor, it is hard to imagine the Democrats parting the sea and allowing someone like Arnold Schwarzenegger to dominate the field of candidates.

Mr. Schwarzenegger announced his candidacy to Jay Leno on "The Tonight Show," but despite plenty of encouragement from Mr. Leno and the audience, he seemed rather flat. Even in the thought-free environment of late night television, his vague ramblings about pumping up Sacramento and telling the politicians "Hasta la vista, baby" sounded surprisingly mindless.

Given his enormous celebrity, Mr. Schwarzenegger immediately becomes a favorite in the struggle for control of California's executive office. Candidates like this offer a particular challenge for the voters, who have to get past the screen persona and decide how much substance there is to the candidate himself. Unfortunately, this particular election seems custom-built to make that as difficult as possible. It frequently takes several months for a colorful newcomer to wilt under public scrutiny remember how good Ross Perot looked at first? But the California recall vote is scheduled to take place in two months. The easy access to the ballot is an invitation to hordes of candidates, making it unlikely that there will be a way to hold debates. Given the fecklessness of the news coverage at most California television stations, the number of candidates and the crazy rules for the election, the person with the best name recognition begins with an enormous advantage.

Of course, Mr. Schwarzenegger, who has been dancing around the edges of politics for some time, may turn out to be a more thoughtful candidate than he appeared in his initial outings. And while California voters do not seem to focus on elections until the last minute, they generally turn serious once it is time to make a decision. Mr. Davis, after all, was elected the first time over far more glamorous opponents. Look back over the state's modern governors, except for Ronald Reagan and Jerry Brown, and you will find a whole host of middle-aged men in suits who look as if they would be more comfortable at a Rotarian dinner than the Academy Awards show.

So far, the recall campaign has been a vehicle for the expression of public dissatisfaction with Mr. Davis, who seems to be bitterly disliked everywhere outside his immediate family. We have always thought that the idea of tossing Mr. Davis out of office on the grounds of general irritation was a terrible idea. But now that the recall is under way, it seems counterproductive for other California Democrats to stay out of the race. It is possible to oppose the recall but still make sure that if Mr. Davis goes, there is a good alternative on the ballot, stuck in there amid the pornographers and exhibitionists and Terminators.