Traumatized by Gov. Arnold

DEK: The voters have accepted Arnold’s ascendancy, but the pundits seem traumatized by the implications of the Davis recall.

It was a “cultural milepost.” It was “the apotheosis of the Magic Kingdom.” “Britney Spears might run for Congress next.”

This is a sampling of the hyperbole that was spewed forth last week by the nation’s pundits in response to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s election victory.

It’s hard to recall any political or pop culture event that has inspired such a volcanic outpouring. Indeed, generations from now, “the literature of Schwarzenegger” might provide far more interesting grist for a university course than his election win.

The voters of California have calmly come to terms with Arnold’s victory at the polls. The press, however, still seems traumatized, as though California had seceded from the union to declare itself an autonomous plutocracy.

The trauma seems to stem from the following issues:

  • Arnold’s triumph underscores that, in a celebrity-driven culture, name recognition conquers all.

    To the New York Times’ Frank Rich, Arnold represents the ultimate “audio-animatronic candidate.” As for his campaign: “Its scrupulously bogus depiction of an actual political candidacy, as concocted by his staff of Imagineers, resembled a genuine democratic phenomenon in the same way that Disneyland’s Main Street resembles an actual Main Street.”

    To Anthony Lane of the New Yorker: “The most efficient plan would be to index-link political nominations directly to box office performance so that the stars of the moment could be required to assume civic office. In short, the major parties should not commit to their candidates for the presidency until this year’s Christmas movies are released.”

    To several other analysts, Arnold’s image as an action hero was the subliminal key to his instant political success.

    “Voting for a Hollywood action hero who symbolizes power and strength represents a statewide rescue fantasy,” wrote Patrick Goldstein in the Los Angeles Times. Given this theory, I made it a point to talk last week with both Sylvester Stallone and Bruce Willis. Neither evidenced an inclination to run for office. Alas, Charlie Bronson is dead.

  • Arnold’s victory exacerbated the paranoia of the press about its increasing irrelevance to the political process.

    The last president who was beloved by the press corps was Gerald Ford, who would amiably cope with the packs of reporters and their shouted questions and even share a drink with them afterward.

    To Arnold, an in-depth interview means ad-libbing with Oprah. A supposed news conference means orchestrating a skit with Dana Carvey.

    And he’s proved to be right — a fact that gives reporters the crazies.

    Even the levelheaded Ronald Brownstein of the Los Angeles Times was driven to write that Schwarzenegger’s victory is “proof that America is a celebrity and sensation obsessed culture that would probably elect Britney Spears to Congress if she promised to smooch Madonna on television every few weeks.”

    Well, I don’t think so.

  • Celebrities have a sense of entitlement, meaning that they can set their own rules.

    Brownstein lumped Arnold in with Kobe Bryant, an alleged accused rapist, as demonstrating “the dark side of celebrity culture.”

    The editor of the Los Angeles Times, John Carroll, a sober and thoughtful man, wrote a lengthy defense of the Times’ decision to publish accounts of women who said they’d been “sexually mistreated and humiliated” by Schwarzenegger — stories that prompted a cacophony of protest from some of the newspaper’s readers.

    Why the protests?

    For one thing, the stories ran very late in the campaign, because, Carroll explained, the newspaper wanted to investigate them thoroughly. The Times’ thoroughness resulted in the suspicion that the stories were politically motivated.

    Then, too, Arnold acknowledged that while he had “behaved badly” upon occasion, he denied pulling up shirts and grabbing breasts, though when asked whether he was denying all stories about grabbing, he responded, “No, not all.”

    People voted for him anyway.

    Does that mean celebrities believe they can get away with anything they want, as some pundits suggest?

    I’m dubious.

    In the heyday of the studio system, scandalous stories about major stars were systematically suppressed by studio publicists. In corporate Hollywood, no such protective cocoon exists.

    Indeed, most top stars are themselves paranoid; they feel like sitting ducks for random lawsuits. Some believe that Arnold himself was the victim of a McMartin-like phenomenon — namely, if you unleash a posse of reporters within a contained community to seek out supposed victims, you will per force encourage accusers to step forward.

    Does that suggest that stars are angels?

    In my years as a studio executive, I had to deal with one coked-out star who threatened the crew with a loaded gun; with another who trashed a million-dollar rented mansion in a series of drinking binges during a shoot (the house had to be torn down); and with yet another who had the habit of literally falling asleep in the street every night in a total stupor.

    Do stars tend to live in their own universe? Some do, but Arnold is not one of them.

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