As I watched the governor give the commencement address at Santa Monica College, I started to wonder if Arnold, and his political handlers, have completely lost touch with reality.
I emphasize the word “watched” instead of listened because the jeering and hissing and booing and chanting were so overwhelming that neither I nor the couple of thousand graduating students and their families could actually hear much of what he said.
And, frankly, the catcalls (including the sewer-level sing-song Spanish jeer “culero”) were more interesting than the text of the 15-minute address that Arnie struggled to finish. Here we were on the first campaign day of a five-month run-up to a November 8 special election that, according to the governor, is so crucial to our future it’s worth its $50 million to $80 million cost and worth holding a year before regularly scheduled balloting. But what was the governor’s chosen topic? Well, himself, silly!
Talk about girlie-men. Arnold plain didn’t have the walnuts to as much as broach any of the issues raised by the special election he decreed the day before: the state budget, redistricting or the dreaded e-word — education. Instead, Schwarzenegger clumsily droned out a canned Horatio Algerish homily about how he hard he worked to become a world-class bodybuilder, an internationally beloved movie star (and something far less of a politician). “I never lost sight of my goal,” was the tin-plated advice from the governor now threatening to further shrink state education spending.
He either chickened out completely on arguing his new crusade or he’s so detached from ground-level politics that he still believes he can skate by as a controversial governor plagued with plunging popularity ratings by rolling out one more vacuous celebrity-driven appearance. Pretty pathetic either way.
If Arnold had put aside his fizzed-out text and used his billion-dollar charisma to confront the demonstrators head-on and make some sort of case for the initiatives he’s backing, he might have had half a chance of winning over the crowd.
Then again, what case? Could the governor stand before a gallery of students and faculty at a humble and underfunded community college and, with a straight face, argue that his initiatives delaying tenure for school teachers and blocking public employee unions from making political contributions — while he sucks in millions from the Chamber of Commerce — are going to save Kollyfornia? Maybe it was smarter to avoid the whole subject.
The booing of the governor started a full half-hour before he spoke. Three mentions of his name by previous speakers brought forth the jeers. About two dozen among the 750 graduating students stood up and gave Schwarzenegger their backs during his talk. About a half-dozen black-robed faculty on the dais with Arnie did the same while two held a protest placard right behind him. The real hostility came from the crowd of 2,000 who filled the athletic-field bleachers directly in front of the governor. A good third of the audience were thumbs-down on Schwarzenegger and as soon as he took the podium, a number of protest signs and banners mushroomed among the raucous audience and the massive heckling ran the course of his address.
To be fair, it seemed that the overwhelming majority of the students would have preferred to doze through the gov’s speech and not help disrupt their own hard-won graduation. The protesters were primarily outsiders. Some sympathy, then, must go to the graduates who had their ceremony spoiled. They merely got caught in the crossfire of the bloody political war touched off by the governor ordering a special election designed mostly to save his own hide.
Instinct, however, tells me that that rough ride the governor got at SMC is but a small taste of the shellacking he’ll get if no deal is struck with the legislature to put compromise measures on the November special ballot. If Schwarzenegger goes ahead and makes this a war between himself and Big Business on the one size, and the entire national labor movement on the other, it won’t be his “Iraq,” as possible re-election challenger Phil Angelides has suggested — but rather more like Vietnam.
By the time Schwarzenegger squeezed out his final paragraph, few were paying attention — the constant heckling and disruption had taken its toll. “Remember one thing,” Arnold said in closing, “There’s only one obstacle: you and your mind.” A great lesson that the wilting Austrian Oak himself might want to ponder as he blindly pushes state politics toward an unnecessary and useless $100 million confrontation.
This time last year Schwarzenegger was riding high, making smart deals with the Democrat majority while even liberal union activists were lobbying the legislature on his behalf to pass new Indian-gaming compacts. Now, a mere 12 months later, his favorability ratings in freefall, he finished his speech under an ominously dark coastal sky. As chants of “Hypocrite! Hypocrite!” filled the air, the flustered governor hurriedly left the stage and was whisked away in a golf cart a half-hour before the ceremony ended.