Can It Carry Schwarzenegger To Sacramento?

By TJ Sullivan
Published: 09/21/2003
Ventura County Star

When the crowd of thousands began to roar, the round body of 60-year-old Everett Knell rose up on tiptoes; his chin and the curved bill of his baseball cap went up too, straining to see "The Terminator."

Up and down, up and down, and still nothing but a field of heads.

"I thought he was 8 feet tall," remarked Knell, a health insurance broker from Rossmore who was still unable to spot Arnold Schwarzenegger's approach at California State University, Long Beach.

Knell seemed to expect the Hollywood hocus-pocus, the bigger-than-life projection of an image, the power of the mighty Oz.

It's magic that some say is being applied to politics in California now more than ever as Schwarzenegger moves toward his goal of succeeding Gov. Gray Davis in the recall election. But the questions being asked by many include whether star power alone can carry a candidate, or if, in the end, voters will judge them by sum and substance, instead of simply weighing the parts they've played.

As Knell witnessed earlier this month, "Conan the Barbarian" may loom large on screen, but he's still a 56-year-old, 6-foot-something human being, a point that was underscored when Schwarzenegger stepped on the risers at CSU Long Beach in a white, short-sleeved shirt that was sticking to his pectorals. The wetness on the shirt appeared at first to be perspiration but later proved to be the remnants of an egg hurled by a critic.

"That guy owes me bacon," Schwarzenegger later remarked to a television reporter, smiling through it all the way.

Voters, political consultants and academics say movie stars like Schwarzenegger have a Teflon armor, a charm to deflect embarrassments, missteps and the indiscretions of their past, such as the so-called "gang bang" described in a Oui magazine article in 1977 in which Schwarzenegger said "everybody jumped on" a naked girl in the gym and "we all got together."

Schwarzenegger has since couched the comment as a kind of true lie — he said it, but made the scenario up to promote his bodybuilder image at the time.

Political observers say it's what is said and done during the election that will stick in people's minds like a freshly broken yolk, not something that happened more than 25 years ago.

Collateral Damage

Celebrities earn forgiveness for past indiscretions and dirty deeds far more easily than their political counterparts, said Darrell West, the author of "Celebrity Politics," published in 2002.

"We do tend to be more forgiving of celebrities because we expect them to be wild and crazy people," said West, who directs the Taubman Center at Brown University in Rhode Island. "We don't expect that of career politicians."

But former U.S. Sen. Fred Thompson, a Tennessee Republican who also is an accomplished actor and currently portrays District Attorney Arthur Branch on NBC's "Law and Order," said celebrities who enter politics actually have a harder time of it.

"I think it's just the opposite," said Thompson, an attorney who served as chief minority counsel to the Senate Watergate Committee in 1973 and 1974. "If there's a misstep, it's an 'Aha! I told you so.' Every misstep that (former president) Reagan took, it was 'Aha! Bedtime for Bonzo! We told you so.'"

Mainstream politicians who have sought elected and appointed office in recent years have been haunted by their past.

President Bush was dogged with questions about past drug use during the 2000 campaign, though he declined to respond.

A now infamous, albeit alleged, pubic hair on a can of cola stirred doubts about Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas during his confirmation hearings before the U.S. Senate.

And former senator Bob Packwood's diaries, which he was forced to surrender to a U.S. Senate ethics committee in 1994, featured detailed descriptions of both hairstyle and sex life, claiming passionate relationships with more than 75 women.

"If a diary turned up (for a celebrity) … we might have the same judgments about what was said in the diary, but the fact that there was a flamboyant lifestyle … would be more in keeping with our expectation of what performance allows," said Kevin Hagopian, a lecturer at Penn State who specializes in the history of the American film industry.

Athletes in bodybuilding agree, saying celebrities like Schwarzenegger need to have their past judged in the context of the bodybuilding lifestyle. After all, he won 13 world titles and was Mr. Olympia an unprecedented seven times.

Jerome Ferguson, 35, a former Mr. L.A. who stands a pumped-up 5 feet, 10 inches tall and weighs 280, said the world of bodybuilding is a path fraught with temptation. "You can get into a lot of situations that other people never would get in," Ferguson said. "You know, like, 'I can get any girl I want.'

"They just throw themselves at you. 'Can I touch you, can I feel you,' " Ferguson said, mocking the way a woman might squeeze a bicep by pinching the arm of the reporter before him. "If you've got a body like that, it's like, shucks, you can't even go out in public because you don't know what kind of situation you're going to get caught up in.

"Average guy has got to buy a girl a drink. We don't have to do nothing but show up."

The Running Man

Schwarzenegger has been received warmly at most of his public appearances and enjoyed phenomenal attention from the national and international media.

In the first week of September alone, his name was mentioned 623 times in the American press, according to a count produced by Factiva, Dow Jones and Reuters company. That was more mentions than Gov. Gray Davis, whose count was 526. Next was Bustamante with 356.

"I want to turn this mad-ness around," Schwarzenegger boomed into a microphone during his rally at CSU Long Beach that same week. "Something has gone terribly wrong in this state."

As he has bounded from appearance to appearance in the past month, Schwarzenegger has offered many political promises.

He'll put children first, fix the state budget, and even call a special session to "reform the entire system." But other than those kinds of sound-bite pledges, he has only recently begun to offer details. He has granted few one-on-one interviews and even then primarily on programs like "The Oprah Winfrey Show" and "The Howard Stern Show." And he has yet to participate in a debate.

Numerous telephone calls and written requests for an interview for this story were directed to the campaign office during the past several weeks but were ignored.

Former Gov. Pete Wilson's office referred requests for comments to the Schwarzenegger campaign, which did not reply to those either.

Michael Bradbury, a former Ventura County district attorney and an accomplished Republican campaigner, declined to discuss his work on the campaign.

David Howard Murdock, the owner of Dole Food and a resident of Ventura County, spoke briefly about the candidate but preferred not to go into much detail. "He's someone that I know, someone I like," said Murdock, whom Forbes Magazine ranks among the richest people in America and is among those advising Schwarzenegger on financial matters.

Herb Gooch, a political science professor at California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks, said the lack of availability may be unavoidable, if not intentional.

"His people are fighting against time," Gooch said. "It may also be true that this is part of the strategy, to not give the other side threads to pull on."

The Schwarzenegger campaign has demonstrated a preference to play on its strengths, including a reliance on scripted commercials and a blockbuster reputation.

At public appearances, Schwarzenegger has been introduced using his tough-guy movie role titles, such as "The Terminator." His speeches have been peppered with movie lines, including one from a film he didn't even star in, a line from "Network" in which a television personality urges viewers to yell out their windows: "I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it anymore."

Fans have even adopted his movie "Total Recall" as a moniker for the electoral recall effort. In that movie, the lead character, played by Schwarzenegger, is told "by the time the trip is over, you get the girl, kill the bad guys, and save the entire planet."

Nothing less appears to be expected from some voters who say they support the actor-turned-candidate if for no other reason than they think he's a kind of Nietzsche superman.

Pumping Iron

"He's a great man," said Los Angeles resident May Ford, 22, after she purchased an "Arnold 4 Governor" T-shirt at Venice Beach, where Schwarzenegger began his rise to bodybuilding stardom in California. "He definitely has a lot of power."

But when asked to define that power, Ford, like other supporters, offered a queer look.

"He's a powerful man in Hollywood," she replied. "He helps a lot of people. He's well-known anywhere."

There are no T-shirts for sale in Venice bearing the name and image of Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, or state Sen. Tom McClintock, or even Davis. But Schwarzenegger is everywhere, his face and candidacy being hawked by entrepreneurs who aren't even connected to his campaign.

A local breakfast restaurant in nearby Santa Monica even offers a Schwarzenegger omelette — diced ham, shredded Swiss cheese and freshly chopped tomatoes. "Look what it did for Arnold!" boasts The Omelette Parlor's menu, which has featured the Schwarzenegger for years.

Steve Schubert, 30, of Huntington Beach, has cashed in on it all, selling T-shirts with the slogan "The Terminator for Governator." The front of the shirts proclaim "Total Recall" and the date of the election.

On Labor Day the price per shirt was dropped from $15 to $10 in the hopes of increasing sales. "Everybody's not so sure how celebrity can translate into a politician," said Schubert, who said he donated some of the proceeds to the Schwarzenegger campaign and even sent along a free extra-large version of the shirt. "My view is, why can't anybody do it?"

With more than 130 candidates still in the race, just about everybody seems to be represented, but only Schwarzenegger has people like Schubert selling his image.

Where are the McClintock T-shirts?

"I can't imagine who would buy them," Schubert said.

End Of Days

In his book "Hidden History," former Librarian of Congress Daniel J. Boorstin refers to the celebrity as "a person who is known for well-knownness."

"He is neither good nor bad, great nor petty. He is the human pseudo-event … fabricated on purpose to satisfy our exaggerated expectations of human greatness."

Former NBC Washington correspondent Sander Vanocur, who is the last living participant in the first televised Kennedy-Nixon debate, said Boorstin's description applies to the question of the power of celebrity in politics.

"In this case I think we're seeing an illustration on how stardom alone is not doing it," Vanocur said.

Questions continue to be raised about Schwarzenegger's stand on issues, Vanocur said, and perhaps the candidate is waiting to release those answers. For now, however, support could be waning.

Gooch and other academics agree. "To really make it big," Gooch said, "he's got to be seen also as somebody who's more than pretty."

Michael Shires, an assistant professor of public policy at Pepperdine University, said he believes the deciding votes won't be for Schwarzenegger's celebrity, but instead, they'll be votes against Gov. Gray Davis and Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante.

"If people vote for Schwarzenegger … it will be because they believe he is a capable leader," Shires said. "Californians are starved for leadership.

"The deep down thing about Schwarzenegger's mystique is that he is living the American dream," Shires said. "Here's a poor immigrant who comes to America and does it all."

There have been many others, both celebrities from in and out of Hollywood who have gone to Washington — former "Love Boat" sitcom actor and U.S. Congressman Fred Grandy, the late performer and U.S. congressman Sonny Bono, former athlete and U.S. Sen. Bill Bradley, not to mention former professional wrestler and Minnesota Gov. Jesse "The Body" Ventura.

For some of those candidates, celebrity wasn't much of a help, said Thompson, who often repeats the old joke that describes politics as "show business for ugly people."

"Sonny had this kind of jokester kind of shtick that he did," he said. "Fred Grandy had (his 'Love Boat' character) 'Gopher.' That's not the kind of name you want to go into politics with but, frankly, they overcame it."

Bono went on to be an important fund-raiser for his party, and Grandy was viewed by many as a bright, well-spoken and well-respected politician.

"The proof is in the pudding," Thompson said. "If you're just a celebrity and nothing more, it's going to become pretty obvious."


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TJ Sullivan is a literary author, investigative journalist, photographer and college instructor whose work has been published in a myriad of newspapers and magazines, including the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and The Detroit News, the latter of which he delivered while working as a paperboy during his childhood in the City of Detroit. Sullivan's writing has received many top national honors, including the Sigma Delta Chi Award, the second oldest journalism award in the United States after the Pulitzer Prize. Other state and national accolades include first-place awards from Best of the West, the American Association of Sunday and Feature Editors, the Associated Press News Executive Council and the Los Angeles Press Club. In 2006, Sullivan was commissioned a Kentucky Colonel, the highest title of honor bestowed by the Commonwealth of Kentucky, the home of his alma mater, the University of Kentucky. Sullivan's years as a full-time newspaper reporter were spent at several esteemed publications, including the Santa Fe New Mexican, The Albuquerque Tribune, and the Ventura County (CA) Star. Sullivan has also written for NBC Universal, The Dallas Morning News and the preeminent public affairs website LA Observed. Sullivan is frequently sought as an informative and entertaining speaker on the craft of writing, the art of investigative reporting, and the intricacies of state, county and municipal government. His presentations have been featured at professional development conferences conducted by both The Poynter Institute and the national Society of Professional Journalists. Sullivan has taught journalism courses and coached writers at UCLA's award-winning student newspaper, The Daily Bruin. He has also taught as a part-time faculty member in the Journalism Department at California State University, Northridge. And, in 2006, he was an adviser to SPJ's The Working Press, an internship program for college-level student journalists. Sullivan is currently at work on his third novel, [working title "Howard is Home from The Loop"]. He lives in Chicago, Il.