Star-struck Golden State offers a cautionary tale

October 12, 2003|By Leonard Pitts Jr.

WASHINGTON - As every creature on earth with a pulse knows by now, Arnold Schwarzenegger, the actor who played the cyborg from an apocalyptic future, is now the governor-elect of California. What once seemed improbable hardened into fact Tuesday as voters, fed up with a costly car tax, an energy crisis and a budget deficit, turned incumbent Gray Davis out of office.

California, the state other states once wanted to be when they grew up, has become a cautionary tale. And 3.7 million voters thought Mr. Schwarzenegger was the man to fix that. They hinged the future of the nation's most populous state and the world's fifth-largest economy on a political neophyte.

I hope their trust is not misplaced, but I won't be surprised if it is.

I don't say that from any presumption that a movie star is unfit to govern. Britney Spears aside, celebrity does not automatically equal vacuity. Besides, there's a long history of entertainers becoming effective politicians, including California's former governor and Bonzo's former co-star, Ronald Reagan.

Wrestler Jesse "The Body" Ventura was once elected governor of Minnesota, and actor Fred Dalton Thompson went from Hollywood to the Senate and back again. Dirty Harry was mayor of Carmel, Calif., Gopher from The Love Boat was a four-term Iowa congressman, Cooter from Dukes of Hazzard represented the 4th District of Georgia in the U.S. House. All of which apparently survived intact.

So celebrity is not the issue. Substance is. As in, does Mr. Schwarzenegger have any? And if not, does that matter to a pop-culture-besotted public for whom fame is often a character reference?

Maybe it played differently for voters in Cali, but out here in the un-golden states, we surely received nearly as much campaign coverage as they did. Yet I'm still waiting for Mr. Schwarzenegger to explain in detail how he plans to turn things around or just to show that he can think on his feet.

I mean, in the one debate he agreed to participate in, Mr. Schwarzenegger was supplied the questions in advance. That's not a debate; it's an open-book test. And when pressed for specifics of his plans for California, he inevitably fell back on movie quips. Lots of "I'll be back," "Hasta la vista, baby" and at least one memorable promise to "terminate" the legislature.

Apparently, that was enough for his fans. I mean, his voters.

Celebrity is a funny thing. Like that trick of the light that makes desert sand look like cool water, it has the ability to make us see what isn't necessarily there. You "know" a person because you saw them on the screen, think they are capable and good because they portray somebody with those qualities, believe them to be courageous because they sink a jump shot under pressure.

We are all guilty of it, as anyone who read my last column on Kobe Bryant can attest.

But Mr. Bryant is just an athlete. Mr. Schwarzenegger is the next governor of California. And the people who chose him for that job despite his inexperience, despite his lack of specificity, despite over a dozen allegations that he mistreated women, seemed swayed as much by a movie image as by any plan he ever articulated.

Now this political circus does what circuses always do. It folds its tent and moves on, leaving only an empty place where gaiety has been. The sun rises on spent confetti and problems are suddenly real again.

This is where California finds itself now. And it's an open question whether the man who will soon be in charge is equal to the challenge of leading it to a better place.

At a minimum, a candidate owes it to the electorate to explain why he should be taken seriously. And the most sobering thing about the California recall isn't that Mr. Schwarzenegger failed to do this. It is, rather, that most voters apparently didn't notice.

Or simply didn't care.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for The Miami Herald and appears Sundays in The Sun.

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