Leaving office works a charm

THE CHARISMA OF successful politicians becomes most evident once they leave office and hit the TV talk circuit. Recent book-flogging appearances by Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich with David Letterman and Jon Stewart showcased their amiability and smarts, whatever one’s party affiliation. Bob Dole morphed into a different animal after his presidential bid, and even a between-jobs Richard Nixon yukked it up on “The Tonight Show” and “Laugh-In.”

Charisma, however, goes only so far, which helps explain the woes currently besetting California’s governor and the headaches that await Los Angeles’ newly elected mayor — a pair who share not just unwieldy last names but also ample charm, a trait that quickly dissipates under the political spotlight.

Arnold Schwarzenegger, in fact, reverses the normal political equation — having gained office on the strength of his magnetism and image, during a truncated campaign that allocated minimal time to his policies. In addition, both he and L.A. Mayor-elect Antonio Villaraigosa (taking office July 1) replaced woefully drab politicians in the aptly named Gray Davis and James Hahn, respectively, guys whose speeches recalled Ben Stein’s economics teacher in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.”

Those removed from daily coverage of California politics — or even Californians paying scant attention to such matters while waiting for their overpriced homes to stop shaking — might not recognize how Schwarzenegger’s storybook cruise into office has turned into a Grimm’s fairy tale.

People still like Schwarzenegger personally, and as has been demonstrated before, pundits underestimate him at their peril. Yet the latest polls show his job approval ratings have plummeted, and pithy rhetorical barbs calling state legislators “girly men” suddenly are prompting groans, not the customary applause.

In short, Schwarzenegger was doing boffo biz in his third career act (post-bodybuilding and acting) right up until he tried governing as a fiscal conservative in a heavily Democratic state — one where the electorate harbors an aversion to taxes but an attachment to government services. Sure, that’s irrational, but there you are.

Facing unexpected criticism, Schwarzenegger’s camp has responded as if the challenge is to deflate bad buzz on an upcoming movie. No wonder the governor’s Web site, joinarnold.com, has eradicated the Los Angeles Times and San Francisco Chronicle from a section titled “What the media is saying about the governor’s agenda,” which exclusively features excerpts filled with glowing praise.

Villaraigosa, meanwhile, is still enjoying his honeymoon phase, appearing on Newsweek’s cover and discussing racial politics on “Nightline” last week alongside “Crash” director Paul Haggis and star Don Cheadle. Alas, such theoretical exercises will fall by the wayside as soon as the LAPD gets videotaped tap-dancing on another motorist, reminding the new mayor of the city’s sprawling Babel of disparate interests.

By contrast, Clinton, Gingrich, Colin Powell and other politicos basking in the afterglow of public service display a far more relaxed demeanor, much like Maurice Chevalier crooning “I’m Glad I’m Not Young Anymore” in “Gigi,” minus the top hat. Clinton and Letterman actually engaged in an extended chat about undergoing bypass surgery, which had the host appearing more fully engaged than he normally does when quizzing, say, Lindsay Lohan.

The inevitable question here — or more accurately, the lament — is why these politicians never seem as likable, nimble or urbane when conducting the people’s business. The nearest analogy I can think of, in closer-to-home terms, would be the demeanor of network and studio chiefs after leaving those fishbowl jobs, once they’re free to assume the mantle of elder statesman and needn’t fret about triggering firestorms among stockholders, affiliates or interest groups.

Based on that dynamic, Schwarzenegger can probably say “Hasta la vista” to his easygoing manner and put his personality in storage until he bids farewell to Sacramento and returns to an arena where every quote isn’t pounced upon and parsed.

All this brings to mind the 1972 movie “The Candidate,” where Robert Redford’s character finally wins the election, only to ask, “What do we do now?”

Three decades later, the best advice would be to take copious notes, even in the darkest of days. They won’t provide much comfort now, but the anecdotes come in handy when it’s time to unleash the charm offensive in connection with that book tour.

RUNAWAY ANCHOR: With any luck this will be the last mention of the “runaway bride,” but give Katie Couric credit: Her cloying interview offered a case study of how to prop up a shaky subject through leading questions and pop psychology.

During the hourlong (which felt a lot longer) NBC special, Couric not only posed questions to Jennifer Wilbanks but simultaneously answered them, saying things like, “What were you thinking? Were you terrified to face your fiance and your family?” so the wide-eyed Georgian could parrot back, “I was terrified.”

So it goes with a “get” where there’s nothing to be gotten.

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