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Barbarian at the Gate

ICM’s Wednesday motion-picture meeting was convulsed with laughter. It was the mid-1970s, and agent Lou Pitt had just proudly announced to colleagues his signing of “Hercules.” Yes, that near-naked weirdo from Pumping Iron. The bit player in The Long Goodbye. The actor who had caught the eye of young CAA agent Rick Nicita, only to be told by boss Ron Meyer, “You don’t sign someone who, when he comes over to your table at dinner, you’re embarrassed to say he’s your client.”

Pitt faced a roomful of incredulity. “I believe in him,” Pitt told the group. “I believe he’s going to be something.” The rest, as they say, is history.

So don’t doubt the truth of another present-day prediction about Arnold Schwarzenegger: His attempt to go from Hollywood Terminator to California Governator is great news for Democrats nationally and Hollywood politically.

No, you didn’t just catch a typo. This post-millennium rarity of Republican Party leaders and pundits around the country rushing to embrace a show-biz celebrity campaigning in a political race — even if this is only a semi-sane one — has huge ramifications for the coming 2004 presidential and congressional elections. Because it re-enfranchises actor activists, who, if they’ve supported Democratic candidates or causes during the George W. administration, have been Bush-bullied to shut up, or sit out, or at least realize their stumping can be a PR nightmare.

It all boils down to this: Everyone in Hollywood, even the most untalented and unastute, is still entitled to the First Amendment right to have a political opinion, to make it public and, if possible, to pull a Reagan.

Hard to believe it was only last year that Ohio Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tim Hagan, married to Star Trek: Voyager actress Kate Mulgrew, was harmed by a Republican fund-raising letter charging his campaign benefited “from friends in the Kennedy family and his connections to Hollywood.” In the case of Schwarzenegger, he’s married to a Kennedy and he’s the personification of Hollywood.

Even Fox News Channel and its clone MSNBC can’t miss the obvious hypocrisy of, on the one hand, discouraging Americans from listening to the political views of the steroid-salaried entertainment elite and, on the other, urging Californians to hang on every public-policy word Schwarzenegger has yet to utter.

Which is why film and television producer Robert Greenwald, co-founder of the Hollywood anti–Iraq invasion group Artists United To Win Without War, is pointing out the inconsistency. “I look forward to all the folks on the Fox Network who busily attacked actors for having an opinion about the war coming forward and attacking the Terminator for running for office with no ideas, no plans and no platform.”

(FYI: In March, Schwarzenegger fled into the bathroom during one pre-Oscar party rather than express an opinion to reporters about the American pre- emptive strike on Baghdad. Unlike Brad Pitt, who directed his publicist to call New York Daily News columnist George Rush that same day to clarify he wasn’t just against the war but really, really against it.)

Right now, California Democrats are understandably consumed with finding a cure for recallitis and can’t see that Schwarzenegger’s run for public office, which, if he wins makes him the richest governor this state has ever had, inoculates Democratic candidates in other states against right-wing attacks that campaign contributions from Hollywood are diseased and therefore dreaded.

As for Republicans, their symptoms fall into two separate categories: the slobbering majority who are ballyhooing this Barbarian at the Gate, and the sneering minority who are booing him.

Conservative John McLaughlin pronounced Ah-nold “tough enough to handle it.” Leaning even righter, Pat Buchanan proclaimed Ah-nold “smart enough.” And that’s not counting the dozens of do-or-die types who want a Republican back in Sacramento, no matter if it means doubling back on their party’s staunch anti-Hollywood stand.

But Rush Limbaugh warned listeners last week to beware of what he termed “The Republican Hollywood Syndrome,” which he defined as “those conservatives so insecure in their own confidence of the belief system that they need it validated by celebrities or Hollywood types.”

Limbaugh’s lament, albeit condensed from his usual windbag self, consisted of this: “Any time a Hollywood person utters one sentence that is conservative, I am overrun with e-mails that begin, ‘Rush! Rush! You should hear what Blah, Blah said! Because, Rush. They can persuade a lot of people.’ And I cringe. We don’t need to be validated by celebrities or anybody else.”

Republican support for Schwarzenegger’s candidacy doesn’t mean party hacks won’t still try to ridicule the bona fides of Barbra Streisand, Martin Sheen, Susan Sarandon, Tim Robbins, Sean Penn, Janeane Garofalo, et al. (all of whom are probably no better or worse qualified to run for public office than Ah-nold). Or try to protest whenever Robert Redford or Alec Baldwin appears at Democratic fund-raisers. Or try to link entertainment liberals to Hollywood’s stereotypical image as a haven for sex, drugs and shoot-your-wife violence.

Of course, Hollywood makes itself an easy target, though our scandals appear no more often than those of that other high-crime clique, CEOs.

And sometimes coming out of the mouths of these babes and boy toys is something stupid, especially if Woody Harrelson is speaking. But today’s politics also make for strange bedfellows: Sean Penn and Dick Armey both worry about civil rights being trampled by the war on terror, while Ed Asner and Bob Barr both support the ACLU.

And now there’s hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons (who, because of his fight to relax drug laws, has already become the Sammy Davis Jr. to New York Republican Governor George Pataki).

Ann Coulter didn’t charge “treason” when famously Republican Clint Eastwood threw support to his old friend Rusty Areias, the Democratic nominee in California’s 12th District Senate race, in the midterm election. And conservatives were quick to claim Steven Spielberg as a George W. supporter for some anti-Saddam remarks at a European movie premiere — until the liberal director issued a statement that “It was never my intention to give an endorsement.” North Carolina Senator Elizabeth Dole said in midcampaign that “It’s my secret desire to guest star on Law and Order” — while her political attack dogs, California-based Strategic Perceptions, have as their slogan: “As far from ‘politics as usual’ as Hollywood is from Washington, D.C.” And what to make of Virginia Republican Congressman Tom Davis, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, who invited donors contributing at least $5,000 to join him at a Rolling Stones “Forty Licks” concert?

 

SURELY IT’S APPARENT THAT for George W. to praise Schwarzenegger is tantamount to White House approval for the near-worst excesses in Hollywood, from R-rated movies (since Arnold has been responsible for 500-some onscreen deaths) to self-indulgent celebritydom (since Arnold claims environmental concern while driving SUVs and running that multihouse estate in Pacific Palisades) to pie-in-the-sky paydays (since Arnold, as part of his compensation for The Last Action Hero, was given a Gulfstream IV by Sony’s Columbia studio, whose management was brought down when the movie bombed).

At the same time, actor activists have the most to lose if Schwarzenegger opens his mouth too often or not enough and becomes a laughingstock. He also could drop out if his personal life is exposed as tawdry. (Right now Newsweek’s Michael Isikoff, who uncovered the Bill and Monica mess, is trolling for dirt on Arnold.)

Finally, let’s look at Arnold’s past as his political prologue. Pitt and Schwarzenegger had a long and loyal relationship. Until the actor’s career faltered. When times got tough, the Terminator terminated his agent. Let that be a warning to the former Pete Wilson gang who now advise The Running Man.

Contact Nikki Finke at deadlinehollywood@gmail.com.