The Recall

Eight weeks; 135 candidates; two wives; 11 lessons

Wilentz is the author of “Rainy Season: Haiti Since Duvalier” and the novel “Martyrs’ Crossing.” She is at work on a book about the recall and California.

5 October 2003
Los Angeles Times
Copyright 2003 The Los Angeles Times

By Amy Wilentz

When the textbooks are written, when the historians finally tell us what it all meant, I trust they’ll keep in mind the lessons that the California recall taught hard-bitten, tough-minded political observers who suddenly discovered they’d heretofore been naive.

1. Fake is always best. The more it looks like a television studio or a movie set, the better. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the front-runner, proved this by staging every detail of every blessed event; he had a sound team for each of his many “Town Halls,” he had staffers rolling out flags and banners, he had pre-selected audiences who didn’t need applause signs to provide television-appropriate responses. His skin and hair were a burnished color that looked quirky at best in reality but worked fine with Oprah’s color scheme. His teeth were a white that looks natural only in L.A.

2. More is not more. Having 135 candidates on the ballot did not make a shred of difference as far as the final contours of the race were concerned. We did, however, end up with two abnormal elections — but not because it was so easy to get on the ballot. We ended up with one election in which a Democrat was running against a Democrat who happened to be … himself! And another in which a different Democrat was running against two vote-splitting Republicans and still would manage to lose, according to the polls.

3. Fame has no downside. It places a politician beyond most rules. When you are a celebrity running for office, you can grab girls however you like, whether you’re not yet married or already married, and you don’t need a cigar as a substitute for the parts of your anatomy you’d like to put in certain places. Not only can you smoke pot, but you can smoke pot in front of cameras … that are filming … a documentary … that is for general distribution … in movie houses. You can pull girls’ hair in the manner of the censured former Sen. Bob Packwood, only without the consequences. Because you are super-famous, people (especially those on talk radio) will ask only the following questions about your behavior: What are the motives of the reporters who got the story? And why didn’t they write the story about the other candidates? (Answer: the rest of them are not so into lap-dancing).

In fact, only one classic rule still applies to the celebrity candidate: You must continue, as Arnold might say, the fine balidical dradition of speaking in bladidudes.

4. Pandering isn’t enough. You can’t sign into law a bill you once vetoed as dangerous, just to get an ethnic bloc vote. Ethnic people are not stupid. Nor can you accept vast sums from one group without everyone noticing.

5. In California, it’s not enough just to be a Democrat. Gov. Gray Davis proved this when he had to eliminate Richard Riordan to get reelected. Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante is continuing his party’s grand tradition of being so unpalatable that even a Democratic state will reject him.

6. Ethnic works. But for the moment in California, it’s better if the ethnicity is closer to the Master Race. Speaking of which …. Schwarzenegger has said that if he is elected and the Legislature refuses to go along with his “vision for California,” he will turn to the initiative and referendum to get his work done. Perhaps I am influenced by having repeatedly heard him speak German with the Austrian press over the last few weeks (you don’t see that on the American nightly news!), but it grates on my nerves to hear leaders — especially ones with Nazi dads — resorting to calls for referendums, a favored political tool of Adolf Hitler.

7. Wives are good, but some wives are better than others. And no wife is no good at all. To have no wife is to have no one around to stand up for you. In Sharon Davis’ case, she had to vouch publicly for her husband’s sexiness; she had to claim that he was very different from what he appears to be. In Maria Shriver’s case, she had to vouch for her husband’s … well, for her husband’s just being “Arnold.” Neither Peter Camejo nor Bustamante has a visible wife (there is a person in a Bustamante television ad that may be his wife; is that her, lieutenant governor?) Arianna Huffington is exempt from having to have a wife, but a good husband — in the mold of the husbands of many women politicians — might have helped her. Certainly her ex was no plus.

Now, Sharon Davis is a nice lady and a good wife and a respectable person all around. She was once a flight attendant (what red-blooded American does not respond to this title?), and she did as good a job as possible (with an able assist by the actress Cybill Shepherd, who actually admitted to a passionate premarital kiss with the man) putting some red blood into her husband.

But Sharon Davis is not Maria Shriver. Shriver has everything Sharon Davis has, and then some (for example, her own name, her own continuing career, a Westside hairstylist). Schwarzenegger may be out feeling bottoms and squeezing bosoms, but, unlike her husband, Shriver is never laughable. Even he seems aware of how lucky he’s been in that regard.

8. Truth resides on the Internet. To register to vote, to get the details of poll results, to look at campaign contributions, just find the right site. And use the blogs for the latest and best gossip; for the Oui magazine Schwarzenegger interview; for the best, most current political analysis; for the closest readings of policy statements and political pronouncements; for accurate quotes and quotes you’re not seeing in the papers; for on-the-scenes reporting and excellent armchair speculation and bitter caustic wit and sympathetic human perception.

9. Sell the product. Arnold knows how to sell his businesses.

He’s sold LifeCycles, he’s plugged Hummers, he’s marketed his movies, he’s publicized his restaurant — he knows the business of selling, and the easiest thing for him to sell is his favorite product: himself. He’s packaged himself in this race as the Terminator. (The other day, I actually heard him mutter “I’ll be back” semi-under his breath to the press; he’s funny.) But he’s also added the ribbons and furbelows of kindness (“Did you get that injury on the job?” he asked a woman at his Town Hall last week, leaning over and examining her cast; and he let an older woman ramble on and on about life in South Los Angeles). He knows that people want a leader. In fact, at the heart of the whole election has been the public longing for someone who can stir the blood. The recall has been all about leadership, visible leadership, and Davis’ obvious shortcomings in this department.

Which leads to the oldest political lesson of all:

10. Character is destiny. Duh. This was the lesson learned by Davis (Schwarzenegger already knew it, and he understood that the character in question doesn’t necessarily have to be “good” — witness Maria slapping her very rehearsed hand over his very rehearsed mouth on Oprah after he said something rawthah off-color). The complementary lesson is: Experience is meaningless. Don’t talk about the halls of the Capitol or the bills you’ve signed; pushing a pen is deadly. Talk instead about the movies you’ve made in colorful locales. Apologize for all the pretty girls you groped. Remind them you’re a self-made man. Be strong.

11. Short is sweet. Remember, however long the last eight weeks seemed, the 9th Circuit nearly extended things another five months. Ouch!