October 28th, 2005

Schwarzenegger’s Ventura/Clinton Moment

by Philip Baruth

I spent a good chunk of my adult life in Southern California, and I still have a soft spot for the place: the sun, the date shakes, the sense that Paradise could simply drop into the ocean at a moment’s notice. And while I had no real affection for Gray Davis, I was aggrieved when greedy energy companies manipulated the state’s power supply, tanked Davis’s poll numbers, and allowed uber-bully Arnold Schwarzenegger to slide into the Governor’s chair.

But I didn’t worry overly much. Pro-wrestler Jesse Ventura demonstrated the glide path of the hyper-masculine political outsider: a slow, downward spiral once the public gets a good look behind the muscles, and sees an opportunistic demagogue — not a particularly bright one at that.

And then comes the crash.

Well, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, Schwarzenegger is deep in the midst of his Ventura-moment. Nasty parodies are proliferating (this one is particularly good). All four of his special election initiatives are apparently dead in the water:

“Sacramento — Support for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s special election ballot measures remains weak, with none of them enjoying majority support despite millions spent in advertising by the governor, according to a new poll by the Public Policy Institute of California . . . .

The Public Policy poll shows Schwarzenegger’s approval ratings remain low, with just 38 percent of likely voters in support and 57 percent disapproving. A majority of Democrats and independents do not approve of Schwarzenegger’s job performance. Latinos are also highly critical of the governor, with 76 percent saying they disapprove of his performance in office.”

Couldn’t happen to a nicer guy. Schwarzenegger has made films that I like: Terminator II comes to mind. But personally he’s a bully, and an autocrat, with the sort of intensely privileged mind-set that comes from being both an A-list celebrity and a member of the extended Kennedy family. He believes, to this day, that he will be President — a two-term President. Much of his life has been dedicated to making it happen, his marriage most notably.

If you don’t believe that, you’re naïve: a public relations campaign was under way for the so-called “Schwarzenegger amendment” until last year, but it’s been driven underground by the man’s rapidly dwindling popularity. According to a USA Today article this morning, Schwarzenegger has had to pull his own picture from ads hyping this month’s special election.

Can you imagine how hard that must be for the man to understand?

This is a guy who regularly walks into boardrooms and signs contracts in which corporations offer millions to use his image, his name, anything to connect their widgets with his marvelousness.

And now he’s being told by his handlers that he’s liked, but not well liked. They’re telling him that, politically speaking, he’s the girly-man now.

Prediction: This sort of frustration has a way of making self-loving power-seekers seek a little illicit power-loving (think Bill Clinton in the wake of the disastrous 1994 midterm elections — thong, intern, impeachment). Who wants to bet lunch at Pacific Rim that the Big Guy gets caught in some sort of sexual imbroglio before next spring? Harrassment, consensual adultery, paternity scandal — the flavor may vary. But I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see this guy, in the midst of his own Jesse-Ventura-moment, swan-dive right smack into a Bill-Clinton-style debacle.

Just a prediction. But one based on the science of human nature, and a novelist’s nose for the storyline.