“American Idol” may have had something to do with the election of the world’s most high-profile pop politico, Arnold Schwarzenegger.
The success of the reality show phenom was in part due to its anti-establishment spirit, by which kids from nowhere, with just a little talent and a modicum of professional advice, are turned into stars virtually overnight.
The Teflon Terminator also tuned into the anti-establishment zeitgeist last week to wrest the governorship of California from longtime politico Gray Davis.
Just as “American Idol” and other shows of its ilk implicitly point their fingers at the dried-up creative juices within the established media congloms, the Schwarzenegger campaign was an indictment of the political, even the media, status quo.
The depth of Californians’ disgust with the icy, aloof Davis was deeper than pundits expected, as was the strength of the disdain (at least among Arnold supporters) for the L.A. Times’ last-minute revelations about the actor’s alleged sexual peccadilloes.
Like the “Idol” kids from Paducah and Peoria, Schwarzenegger managed to convert his relative inexperience into an asset.
The makeovers participants undergo on “Idol” and other reality shows echo the transformations Schwarzenegger has undergone: resculpting his body, trading in brooding postwar gloom for sunny California optimism, perhaps reshaping the entire state body politic.
And just as reality shows demonstrated that the old cookie-cutter concepts of half-hour sitcoms and hourlong dramas were tired TV constructs, the Arnold phenom suggested Democrat and Republican straitjackets are just too confining.
“For the people to win, politics as usual must lose,” he told a jubilant crowd on Election Night, Oct. 7.
Surrounded by scions of the Kennedy clan at his victory celebration, Schwarzenegger emphasized that the old pigeonholes of right and left, progressive and conservative, simply will not do, and said he intends to draw on support from all quarters.
In standing out from the 134 other recall candidates, it didn’t hurt that Schwarzenegger brought to bear three traits that traditionally help celebrity candidates on the hustings: media savvy, money and movie-star looks.
During those wacky, whirlwind 62 days leading up to the vote, Schwarzenegger alternately played up his celeb status — appearing with Chuck Norris and Dana Carvey and breaking into Terminator-speak — and stressed his humble Austrian farm boy roots — “I don’t have all the answers. I’m not that smart. I owe everything to California.”
He used appearances on “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno,” “Larry King Live” and “Oprah Winfrey” to his advantage and kept questions about the issues largely at bay (submitting to only one stage-managed televised debate); he spent $8 million of his own money and still managed to appear sympathetic to working people.
Reality shows like “American Idol” also encourage viewers to vote their onscreen preferences — it’s that interactivity that makes them so appealing.
So, too, Schwarzenegger.
While revealing next to nothing about his recipe for solving the state’s fiscal problems, he adroitly reached out to “the people of California,” emphasizing constantly that he wished to be their representative and not the pawn of so-called “special interests.”
Politicians always mouth such platitudes, but the action hero managed to distance himself from the Hollywood elite (at least as much as it shunned him), and to emphasize his ties to the common man.
If reality TV’s major accomplishment has been to blur the lines between fiction and nonfiction, Schwarzenegger has managed to further blur other lines, most notably the one between entertainment and politics.
Journalists no doubt felt it, as they veered between having fun with the circus aspects and grappling with the substantive issues of the campaign.
So too did the Bushies, as they ostentatiously steered clear of the Hollywood hoopla, while no doubt privately relishing a Republican beachhead into the heretofore solidly Democratic state.