By Ciro Scotti Electing a bodybuilder with a penchant for randomly groping women who set his testosterone aflutter isn't the scary part of the ascension of Arnold the Barbarian. Nor is handing the state with the fifth-largest economy in the world over to a monosyllabic actor who has never managed or administered anything more complex than his tanning schedule the insane part of Governor Schwarzenegger.
Even scattered talk of rescinding the requirement that a President be born in the USA so that Arnold, a son of Austria, may someday take his rightful place beside Lincoln, Roosevelt, and Reagan isn't all that earth-shattering.
What's really cause for alarm is the possibility that the electorate is becoming increasingly unable -- or despondently unwilling -- to separate fiction from reality.
TUBE TALES. California, never a Utopia for thinking men and women, isn't the first state to elect a muscle-head with no political experience (save that gleaned from groping for relevance with the Kennedy Clan), no management record, and no specific agenda. Remember the blustery reign of Jesse Ventura in Minnesota?
Doddering, brain-dead baby boomers and spoiled, TV-numbed echo boomers are having a hard time distinguishing steak from sizzle, fact from film, and Paris Hilton from a mannequin that talks. You can blame the blurring of lines in the public mind on a populace looking for easy answers to complicated issues. But it's more than that.
You drag yourself home after putting in hours that aren't really counted in the productivity numbers, flop in front of the tube, and flip on a little reality TV that's oh-so real -- if you have family or friends who look like Anna Nicole Smith or live like the Osbournes.
Finally, The Tonight Show with Jay Leno comes on, and there's Arnold, the action hero with Anne Rice-ian fangs and a political agenda that amounts to little more than a smiley face, declaring that he plans to rule Caly-forn-ya. Weeks later, you're up late and damned if Leno isn't standing at a podium, dropping a few one-liners, and introducing the same big-neck as the next governor of the most populous state in the union.
SERIOUS COMMENTS? Or you might be one of the seven people in America -- outside of New York and Washington -- who have watched K Street. In the not-long-for-prime-time HBO drama, real-life political operatives Mary Matalin -- who just a few months ago was at the elbow of Vice-President Dick Cheney offering counsel -- and her husband, Clinton political guru James Carville, portray themselves as lobbyists in a quasi-fictional storyline drawn from the daily news.
Washington, the papers tell us, is agog at this exercise in navel-gazing, with Senators like Chuck Schumer and scribes like Joe Klein, among the Belt-eratti who have appeared as themselves making fictional comments about serious issues. Then the next day, they're making serious comments about serious issues. Or is it serious comments about fictional issues? Who knows anymore?
And it didn't help to have Super President swoop down onto the deck of an aircraft carrier in Top Gun regalia to declare the end of the war in Iraq. Mission Accomplished. Not.
Trust me, folks, it's not going to end. Running a macho figurehead for office who'll have most of the thinking done for him by others (Cheney, Rove & the Gang in Bush's case, the Pete Wilson Machine in Arnold's) is turning out to be a winning gambit for the GOP. And if the Democrats want to answer back, they'll have to get in the game soon. George Clooney, your party is calling. Scotti, senior editor for government and sports business, offers his views every week in A Not-So-Neutral Corner, only for BusinessWeek Online