By Thane Peterson
Here it is: Oct. 7, Recall Day in California. By the end of the day, California voters will decide whether to oust Governor Gray Davis and elect Arnold Schwarzenegger governor of the nation's most populous state. No matter what happens, the only intelligent reaction I can think of can be summed up in a single word: Ugh! Let me explain.
How has it come to pass, that basic political processes are so easily subverted, celebrity trumps competence in every sphere of public life, and the press has turned into a mindless instrument of personal slander? Why does every election seem to devolve into a weird test of the status of various social groups? California's recall would be a new low in American political life -- if it weren't all so familiar.
If I lived in California, I'd vote against the recall and for an experienced candidate such as Lieutenant Governor Cruz Bustamante, a Democrat, or Republican State Senator Tom McClintock. To me, the reasons for voting against Ah-nuld are clear. He has no experience, no platform to speak of, and seems highly unlikely to put in the 18-hour-days that are going to be required over several years to deal with California's $38 billion budget deficit. He's an opportunist who's making a grab for the brass ring -- and California will probably suffer even worse government than it has under Davis if he wins, it seems to me.
That said, the coverage of the final days of Schwarzenegger's run has been appalling. The campaign has turned into a weird and largely meaningless morality play aimed at assessing the front-runner's character. Most of the allegations against Schwarzenegger -- that he's an admirer of Hitler and a serial groper of women -- are so old and so confused as to be virtually meaningless.
Yet, because the campaign has been telescoped into just a few weeks, not enough time is available to sort out what he actually did and didn't do. It seems entirely possible, as the Schwarzenegger camp claims, that the press is being used.
Anyone who wants an assessment of the actor's character already has plenty of material to work with. He was born in Austria. His father became a member of the Nazi Party after the German invasion in 1938, but Arnold was estranged from him at an early age. The young immigrant built his career as a bodybuilder, pumping himself up into a caricature of athleticism (a grotesque one, in my view) and then as an actor who starred in violent and vapid action films.
Pumping Iron, the 1975 documentary about bodybuilding that launched his film career, clearly demonstrates that he was a narcissistic, ambitious young man who would say just about anything to attract attention to himself or rattle an opponent. It also shows that he largely reflected the era's Southern California bodybuilding culture. The film only hinted at the raunchier aspects of that culture, but Schwarzenegger has admitted (or hasn't denied) participating in the steroid and drug use, random sex, and racial and sexual taunting that seem to have been routine.
The recent allegations don't add much to that already questionable picture, except by innuendo. The suggestion that Schwarzenegger once admired Hitler, for instance, comes from a summary of outtakes from Pumping Iron contained in a book proposal by George Butler, who made the film and later sold all rights and material connected with it back to Schwarzenegger. Someone leaked the filmmaker's proposal to The New York Times, and the paper quickly published the story on Oct. 3.
My question is this: Does anyone seriously think that at this point Schwarzenegger harbors pro-Nazi sentiments? In the leaked quotations, he sounds to me like he sounds throughout Pumping Iron -- a self-absorbed fellow, trying to attract attention (in the film, he also says he admires Napoleon). And if he ever did harbor antisemitic secrets, he seems to have tried to make amends. In recent years, he has made frequent, large gifts to the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, which fights against antisemitism.
The bigger problem, for students of modern day political discourse at least, is that author Butler got the original quotations partly wrong. According to Schwarzenegger, who has the only transcript, here's what he actually said (as quoted in The New York Times):
"In many ways I admired people -- it depends for what. I admired Hitler for instance because he came from being a little man with almost no formal education, up to power. And I admire him for being such a good public speaker and for his way of getting to the people and so on. But I didn't admire him for what he did with it. It is very hard to say who I admired and who are my heroes. And I admired basically people who are powerful people, like Kennedy. Who people listen to and just wait until he comes out with telling them what to do. People like that I admire a lot."
By Thane Peterson
Butler now admits that he left out the rather important phrase, "But I didn't admire [Hitler] for what he did with it." The Times added the phrase to its story in later editions on Oct. 3 after receiving a call from Butler, making Schwarzenegger come off as less craven. Butler's only explanation: "I am amazed that something like that [got left] out." The whole thing may get sorted out after the election, especially if Schwarzenegger wins. In the meantime, I sure wouldn't decide which candidate to vote for based on anything Butler says.
The groping allegations published in The Los Angeles Times are also problematic. There's no way to really know what happened at this point. Many of the women involved remained anonymous. And most of the incidents happened in the 1970s and 1980s. They have credibility partly because there are so many of them (15 at last count) and partly because Schwarzenegger admitted some of the allegations and apologized, but without being specific.
Still, he has denied most of the more recent allegations -- one involving an incident three years ago and one on the set of the movie Twins in the late 1980s. He says the more serious claims -- that he threatened to rape one woman and pulled up another's blouse to bare her breasts -- never happened.
MIND WIDE OPEN.
Who knows where the truth lies? While the charges are appalling if true, the exercise itself, conducted in the closing days of a campaign, is ludicrous. Davis would have liberals like me glom onto these accusations and not worry about the truth. I'm not playing that game. Until we know more, I'm certainly not buying the contention of Davis and other Democrats that Schwarzenegger's behavior may have been "criminal."
The charges can best be sorted out in the weeks after the vote. That's the way it happened in 1992, when The Washington Post held up a story about alleged sexual harassment against Senator Bob Packwood (R-Ore.) until three weeks after the vote -- in which Packwood was reelected. Packwood later ended up resigning when the charges proved to be true.
In the meantime, anyone with doubts about Schwarzenegger's attitude toward women should ponder this recent disquisition on dumb blondes from the candidate quoted in the July issue of Esquire magazine: "As much as when you see a blonde with great tits and a great ass, you say to yourself, 'Hey, she must be stupid or must have nothing else to offer,' which maybe is the case many times. But then again, there is the one that is as smart as her breasts look, great as her face looks, beautiful as her whole body looks gorgeous, you know, so people are shocked."
Apparently, he's trying to sound open-minded. To me, he just sounds dopey.
Peterson is a contributing editor at BusinessWeek Online. Follow his weekly Moveable Feast column, only on BusinessWeek Online
Edited by Douglas Harbrecht