A giant birthday party is on tap for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger next week — it’s his 61st and, naturally, it’s also a fund-raiser. The event, hosted by the ubiquitous Rick Caruso, got me thinking about Arnold or, more relevant, got me thinking about why I’m rarely thinking about Arnold.
What I mean is this: Schwarzenegger marched to power amid a momentous drumbeat of attention and controversy. This was not just another political candidate but a movie star. And not just a homespun Reaganesque movie star, but a foreign-born action android with an edgy personality and a fascinating Kennedy connection.
Schwarzenegger’s ascension five years ago seemed like a rebuke to the entire political system. Here was California once again saying “no” to the status quo. The electorate didn’t just want a politician, it wanted a “Terminator.”
So here’s the surprise result of this melodrama: Despite all the noise, Schwarzenegger turned out to be a relatively blah governor. Despite some early environmental initiatives, there’s been no succession of legislative triumphs to suggest the beginnings of a “Schwarzenegger legacy.” Though Maria Shriver remains faithfully at his side, there’s no Kennedy-like aura over Sacramento — no imposing sense of style or substance.
During his campaign, Arnold was beginning to display a gift for oratory, but it’s hard to remember a single speech or message he’s uttered over the last couple of years. When it comes to presidential politics, he’s been equally pallid: McCain’s OK, he seems to be saying, but there’s certainly been no ringing commitment. (He even offered last week to accept a position in an Obama cabinet.)
Further, despite the chain of troubles in Hollywood, “The Terminator” has made no effort to terminate the labor disagreements until last week, when he said he’d intervene if invited to (no one’s inviting him). Indeed, he still seems oddly reluctant to reconnect with Hollywood on any substantive level.
In fairness, Schwarzenegger has been as unlucky in economics as he’s been lucky in movies. California’s great prosperity has melted and deficits loom. The governor has been forced into a defensive mode, as though apologizing for exponential cuts that he himself seems reluctant to propound.
Sure, when the fires burn up big swatches of the coast, he does all the appropriate photo ops. But he seems more like an actor walking through his scenes rather than a political leader relishing his moments.
Mind you, he still relishes his own iconography. He keeps a sword from “Conan the Barbarian” in a glass case in his office. A huge Warhol portrait of his wife hangs nearby. A bronze bust of Reagan adorns his conference room, as though to remind visitors of his Republican roots. (His appointment of a cigar-smoking, lesbian Democrat as his chief of staff shook up some Republican colleagues in Sacramento.)
But insiders admit there are times Arnold seems downright bored. Californians are a bit bored, too. After all, this isn’t just another state — this is the nation-state of California, with 12% of the U. S. population and an economy stronger than most of the nations of Western Europe. It houses a restless population that covets change and resents much of the rest of the U.S.
Californians aren’t evangelicals like Southerners, or warriors, like Texans. They’re open to diversity — how else could Burlingame, Rancho Cucamonga and Hollywood co-exist?
Californians want to be rich and flaky. That’s why the Governator was an instant hit from the moment he announced his candidacy (on the Jay Leno show, naturally). He, too, was rich and flaky and, as such, was the ultimate role model.
Maybe he’ll catch his second wind one of these days.
As an editorial in the Los Angeles Times pointed out last week, the state is more than two weeks past the legal deadline for adopting a budget, and its governor has not focused on it. Schwarzenegger owes voters not just pronouncements on global warming or anti-smoking campaigns but also effort to broker a workable budget.
It’s a mundane task, perhaps. It may even keep him off the TV interview circuit. But, it’s what governors do.
Maybe he can even take that Conan sword out of its case and carve out a few savings.