America breathed a little easier last week, now that the big blackout had given everyone something to talk about beside the California recall. Still, on the day the lights went out back east, the kliegs turned on at campaign press conferences across the state. At the Century City Hyatt, the Game Show Network (GSN) unveiled two of the 135 officially registered applicants for Gray Davis job. There was Gary Coleman, representing the little people, and porn star Mary Carey, whose explosive cleavage marked her as a Mellon Institute alumnus. GSN was promoting a show called Who Wants To Be Governor of California? in which five of the less serious, offbeat gubernatorial contenders will square off as five game-show contestants in a kind of parallel Q&A competition.
Obviously, GSN is playing a dangerous game itself by trying to compete with the recall carnival and by constructing a parallel narrative to Californias delirium. Coleman and Carey, nevertheless, were willing and eager to perform as they entered a hotel meeting room festooned with red, white and blue bunting and balloons, and supervised by network staff wearing plastic boaters. The candidates he, in herringbone jacket, and she, in low-low-cut top stood behind contestant podiums and, to give a taste of what the one-hour GSN show will look like, fielded questions from its hip-Tory host and ex-MTV figurine, Kennedy:
Which of the following is not a marijuana brand? a) Panama Red; b) Columbian Gold; c) Bustamante Green. (Coleman answered correctly, after slamming his electric buzzer.)
Which of the following is Californias largest national park? a) Yosemite; b) Cruz Bustamante Park; c) Death Valley. (Point to Carey.)
Spell Schwarzenegger. (Neither could do this.)
After this grueling interrogation, the press conference was thrown open to questions from the floor.
One old scold wanted to know if GSNs offering money to the winner of Who Wants To Be Governor of California? violated any election laws and asked if the involved parties werent contributing to the recalls circuslike atmosphere. GSN CEO Rich Cronin calmly replied that the shows $21,200 prize money is the absolute legal limit a candidate can receive from a corporate donor and that, anyway, the whole thing is for fun.
The photo-op session that followed was a delightfully tacky display of measurements as the tiny Coleman was scrunched up against Careys boisterous body, his nervous eyes just level with her 36DD air bags. At one point a photog asked Coleman to put his hand on Carey (diffrent strokes, indeed), but the actor was not falling for it.
Im not gonna make you money today! he said.
Afterward reporters questioned Coleman and Carey on opposite sides of the stage. (A grim-faced Kennedy stationed herself a few feet away.) Carey had stated she wanted to be elected because I want to see how much fun it would be to be governor and jump up and down! whereupon shed raised her arms and jumped up and down, causing the heads of the rooms men to nod likewise. Coleman, though, actually sounded like a candidate as he wistfully spoke about lowering taxes and repairing our health-care system and doing something about traffic congestion.
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Coleman, of course, had been terribly misinformed. The recall is not about fixing California or anything else, for that matter. The campaign is partly another Republican coup attempt to undo a democratically decided election and partly its payback from progressives whom Davis has cynically taken for granted. But mostly its about the publics morbid fascination with an unpopular politicians collapse. Gray Davis has fallen down and he cant get up and we love it.
What happens after the recall, though? How can elections ever be the same after youve had 135 candidates run for governor? And after so many amateurs have entered the race that Arnold Schwarzenegger is seen as a godsend to the state, a Metternich with a program so sublime he neednt bother making it public or speak to the press? Its one thing to call an election a game or beauty contest, but its quite different to make it literally so.
Electoral politics, like theater and baseball, is a public spectacle with its own private rituals and commandments solemn mysteries that empower it with meaning beyond mere entertainment. Once candidates begin jumping up and down, once the whole thing is done for fun, elections will become subject to manipulation far worse than they already are. The winner of Who Wants To Be Governor of California? will be voted upon by viewers nationwide who, also, will get to cast votes (mercifully nonbinding) on the states recall measure. Theres a difference between democracy and populism, between the masses and the mob. But when Q&A buzzers go off and prizes are handed out, that difference gets lost, and before long we wonder what were doing in a voting booth when we could be home watching TV.