Here’s my latest column in the print version of Variety, on newsstands today.
Among the many reactions last week to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “love child” scandal was one from Sean Walsh, a former gubernatorial aide. “From his Hollywood life, I don’t see this as a surprise,” he told KABC. “Were this to occur when he was governor, I would be shocked.”
That’s not exactly an endorsement of celebrity and politics.
Hollywood certainly has no exclusivity on infidelity, but the Schwarzenegger scandal, and the circumstances involved, may only feed into the stereotypes that are already out there. The advantages of a celebrity making the leap into the political arena — name recognition, visibility, marketing prowess — now don’t look so advantageous.
“I think that the public will probably view the situation as not just solely about Hollywood, because really when you look at it, crisis or scandals involving infidelity have been equal opportunity offenders, involving people in all walks of life,” says Judy Smith, president of crisis communications firm Impact Strategies and former deputy press secretary to President George H.W. Bush. “But this incident will probably add to the public skepticism about entertainers involved in politics.”
Schwarzenegger has his movie career on hold as he deals with the fallout. If he returns, he could very well make a comeback, as the public has a history of forgiving celebrities for their indiscretions. However, it may have been different had he chosen to seek another elective office.The public has a different “litmus test” in “deciding to see a movie and deciding to vote for somebody,” Smith says.
Entertainment figures who run for office not only have to persuade the public that they are serious, but that they should be taken seriously, and it may be an even greater leap to establish that trust after this week.
Donald Trump’s decision not to enter the race for the GOP nomination only gave credence to those who suggested all along that he was dangling the prospect as a publicity ploy or bargaining chip.
Schwarzenegger’s revelation seemed to revive criticism of his gubernatorial legacy — namely, that he was in over his head in his years in Sacramento — even if private scandal and public performance are not directly related.
Last week on his show, screenwriter-turned-MSNBC host Lawrence O’Donnell connected the two as examples of politicos who try to appeal to the public with “simple-sounding solutions to complex problems.”
Darrell West, VP and director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution and the co-author of “Celebrity Politics,” says the public has tended to view celebrity candidates as “white knights who can come from outside the political process and clean things up.” That was true in Schwarzenegger’s case. During the recall campaign in 2003, one of his props was a broom, to show how he’d sweep away Sacramento’s budget travails. There was also the famous campaign event where he used a giant wrecking ball to demolish a car as a metaphor for how he’d cut the state’s vehicle license tax.
“In the past, people tended to focus on the public lives of celebrities and what they could bring to government,” West says. “Now they are going to see if there are private blemishes that might have consequences in public life.”
The question is whether the scandal only magnifies the negative aspects of fame — like the sense of entitlement or a lack of empathy. Schwarzenegger “was an unknown politically, but he had such a following back then that the public gave him much more the benefit of the doubt. But now we find ourselves in such a crisis, people want credentials,” says Mark Young, professor at USC’s Marshall School of Business and co-author with Drew Pinsky of “The Mirror Effect: How Celebrity Narcissism Is Seducing America.”
What separates this story from other scandals is not just the public figures involved — one that has sent mainstream media and sites like TMZ and RadarOnline into overdrive — but the magnitude of the deceit. Schwarzenegger kept his secret for so long from his wife and family. Political consultant Donna Bojarsky cautions that it’s “one individual with abhorrent behavior.
“I would very much hesitate to jump to a place where this is a ‘Hollywood’ thing. I wouldn’t want the entire entertainment industry to be brushed by Arnold’s bad stroke.”