Rise of the Anti-Machine

Photo by Stephan Savoia/AP

If Schwarzenegger’s such an entertainer, how come Planet Hollywood failed?

— Jon Stewart

From the moment an ebullient Arnold Schwarzenegger took over the microphone from mirth-challenged Jay Leno — now here were two jaws you could use to crush boulders — you saw instantly why he’d won such a smashing victory. Strutting confidently and grinning with pleasure more genuine than any he’d shown in the previous eight weeks, Duh Guvenuh radiated the qualities to which Californians feel entitled: star power, optimism and fun.

True, he hadn’t said anything substantive on the campaign trail (indeed, a full two-thirds of his supporters acknowledged that fact). True, his key backers were developers, corporate millionaires, and political hacks covered in the nasty spoor of Pete Wilson. No matter. Schwarzenegger’s mere presence in the race had made California feel exciting and hopeful again. He helped us upstage Iraq! All talk of Hitler aside (the Daily Show’s Stephen Colbert jokingly accused him of groping Der Führer), Ahnold came across as a leader. Or at least a guy more likely to make things happen than bums like Gray Davis and Cruz Bustamante, who, in a hugely liberal state, offered the electorate nothing compelling to vote for. Even Twisted Sister started to look good. If the actor’s campaign contained the implicit promise that "Everything is possible," the Democratic Party essentially replied, "No, it’s not. Now, take your medicine and vote for somebody who even we hold in contempt." There could be no joy in such a vote, only self-disgust.

The entire emotional atmosphere of the state changed Tuesday night. Gropegate lost its sting (except to those Arnold had degraded), and the political stars shifted their alignment. Watching Arianna snipe away at Schwarzenegger on the post-speech telecasts — before he’d done anything except convince millions of voters to believe in him — you realized that our liberal left (which couldn’t muster a single good candidate in a state that’s 60 percent for it) was being as clueless as usual. The majority of Californians will turn on those who have nothing to offer but criticism. Finally paying attention to state politics (however goofily), they want Arnold to succeed.

Of course, the voters’ idea of success may differ from Schwarzenegger’s own, whose most striking feature is its obvious obsession with power: What he admires about Hitler isn’t the Holocaust but the hero-worship business. This has been clear from the early days, when Arnold resembled the ambitious provincial hero of a 19th-century European novel. You have to be impressed by the discipline and shrewdness with which he has pursued his goals, whether popping steroids and doing endless reps to build up his undersize calves or cannily using his comical accent ("Fuck you, asshohr!") to help turn a laughable, almost unpronounceable name into a worldwide brand. Knowing that a largely apolitical electorate wants nothing more than to be led, he used his undeniable record of hard work and achievement to offer voters a soaring idea of "leadership" free of the ballast of saying where he would actually lead us.

In that sense, his politics are just like his movies. While I’ve often enjoyed him onscreen — The Terminator wouldn’t have been nearly as original without his robotic vibe — what’s striking about his film work is that, like his campaign, it’s resolutely content-free. Although he tried to model his career on Clint Eastwood’s, shifting between action pics and comedies, the two stars couldn’t be more different. Where Eastwood spent 30 years exploring ideas of masculinity, violence, social justice and his own persona as a screen idol, the only meaning you find in Schwarzenegger’s movies is his desire to make money and increase his stardom; all his mystic rivers lead back to his own greater glory. Indeed, his famous self-reinventions have been about nothing larger than repositioning himself in the marketplace. For those terrified of a Schwarzenegger governorship, this is probably reassuring news. Arnold’s too pragmatic to be a right-wing ideologue.

In fact, it’s no surprise that Schwarzenegger finally stonewalled less on his sexual past than he did on his plans for California. He doesn’t have any (auditing the books doesn’t count), and his political ideas are as shallow as his movies. His run for office brilliantly tapped into public anger about politicians — although I might have killed myself if I had to hear him quote from Network one more time — but witnessing his exultation during his victory celebration, you could see that he didn’t really feel that anger any more than he was fascinated with overseeing state pension plans. For finally, his decision to run had nothing to do with principles, policies or even California. It was all about himself, which means that he’s actually a lot like, well — Gray Davis.


Grope Therapy

When the Schwarzengroper story broke in last Friday’s L.A. Times, the candidate promptly adopted the puzzling "Where there’s smoke, there’s fire" defense. (So there’s more?) No matter, the universal awareness of Arnold’s sexual thuggery turned the days before the election into a bad-faith jamboree. Liberals who once defended Bill Clinton were suddenly treating Arnold as Caligula, drawing vast distinctions between a president being rimmed by a dim college-age intern in the Oval Office and a gubernatorial candidate pulling a woman on his lap and asking if she’s ever had a man stick his tongue up her backside. Such a refined moral calculus would bring tears to the eyes of Immanuel Kant.

This doesn’t excuse all those hypocritical Republicans who switched off their usual sanctimony once they saw a chance of their party winning. The same Congressman David Dreier who voted to impeach Bill Clinton not only served as the Schwarzenegger campaign’s co-chairman, he turned up on CNN’s Late Edition to personally vouch for Arnold as a great family man. He was going to win anyway, dude. You didn’t have to sell whatever’s left of your soul.

Perhaps the most flabbergasting response was the deathly silence from our famously liberal film industry. Its most visible reaction to the groping charges came from Paramount Chairwoman Sherry Lansing, who proved once again that she’s about as much the champion of women in Hollywood as Quisling was of the Norwegians during the Nazi occupation. She told the L.A. Times that there’s no sexual harassment on movie sets, adding that "Moviemaking is a very gender-blind business" — a line that sent bitter female laughter echoing from Culver City to The Mouse. Quick now, name three women directors in Hollywood.

Still, if anyone should feel embarrassed, it’s those well-known actresses — including Jamie Lee Curtis, Rita Wilson, Kelly Preston and Linda Hamilton — who wrote letters to Premiere complaining about a March 2001 article ("Arnold the Barbarian") that chronicled Schwarzenegger’s notoriously crude antics. They all said they’d never experienced or witnessed any such thing. "Well, of course you didn’t," I wanted to shriek. He wasn’t going to grab Mrs. Hanks’ ass, or sit with the wife of his director, James Cameron, and tell the waitress to put her finger in what the L.A. Times nervously termed her "[vagina]." These women are his peers — or at least he thinks their husbands are. Assuming that they weren’t simply lying to protect him, you can only marvel at the cocooned obliviousness that would keep them from grasping that Arnold would be charming to them and save his barbarianism for those he could harass with impunity.

Dittohead Blues

Last Sunday, ESPN’s Sports Reporters devoted a segment to the brouhaha over Rush Limbaugh’s remark that Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb is "overrated" because "The media has been very desirous that a black quarterback do well." Although the show’s panelists agreed that this was a dumb thing to say, the Miami Herald’s Dan LeBatard asked someone to "explain where the racism is" in Limbaugh’s statement. His question was widely echoed on countless radio talk shows. After all, it should be no more inherently racist to call an African-American quarterback overrated than a white one (even if, like McNabb, he’s been to the Pro Bowl three times); nor is it necessarily racist to suggest that some media folk hope for a black QB to do well, although this sentiment grows less true all the time. As Watergate-fanatic-turned-talk-show-host G. Gordon Liddy sagely told Ted Koppel, the most startling thing about Limbaugh’s controversial statement was that it was so dated.

But still potent. For we live in an impure world of racial code words and innuendo — context is all. Had the comments on McNabb come from, say, radio host Jim Rome, a white guy who’s sometimes been criticized for being too soft on black athletes and callers, sports fans might have argued the claim on its merits. But they came from a radio thug who has made his name saying things like "The NAACP should have riot rehearsal. They should get a liquor store and practice robberies." Knowing this, one asks why Limbaugh chose to bring up race in the first place. After all, right-wingers like him were all for the defeated Proposition 54, which wanted to remove all racial information from state government forms. So why bring up McNabb’s skin color here? Why not bring up the overrated defensive back Jason Sehorn and say he got all those TV ads because he’s white?

Because it fits Limbaugh’s ideologically charged belief that insidious "liberals" — that is, the media and government — keep bending over backward to give African-Americans special treatment that they don’t deserve. (This will come as news to most black Americans, who have a far higher level of poverty than the rest of the country.) We’ve moved beyond the point where big-time media figures will claim that blacks are inferior (and I have no evidence that Limbaugh thinks so). But you can still nab a huge audience by stirring up underlying racial resentments while pretending that you’re actually talking about "the media" — which is precisely what Limbaugh did in the McNabb case. Like many of those who rushed to say that the Jayson Blair scandal was actually about The New York Times cosseting a reporter because he was black, Limbaugh was practicing a kind of second-degree racism — on the carom, so to speak. And when he was called on it — not by his ESPN colleagues, alas — Rush beat a gutless retreat back to the bully’s pulpit of his radio show, where he can insist that widespread revulsion at his words proves they’re actually true (what reasoning!) and if anyone disagrees, he can just cut them off.

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