Illustration by Robbie Conal
Once upon a time, Hollywood was the most influential force in shaping people’s attitudes about hot-button issues. Think Gentleman’s Agreement (religion), The Man With the Golden Arm (drugs), The Defiant Ones (race), Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (sex). Politics came a distant second. Now, in the Schwarzenegger candidacy, there’s a confluence of both cultural catalysts. Just one problem: The Running Man and the media are walking away from this historic moment. Whether Schwarzenegger is made to publicly account for his past behavior may turn California’s recall election into a national test that decides once and for all if messy private lives are off-limits as campaign issues.
It’s not shocking that sex would surface in this post-Clinton gubernatorial recall election — especially given the movie star’s penchant for baring his butt and simulating coitus for the camera. After all, we remain fixated on everything in the entertainment industry that’s most sensational or scandalous because it’s the unifying prism through which we view the world, from Britney tongue-kissing Madonna, to Denzel’s and Halle’s Best Actor Oscars, to Robert Downey Jr.’s addiction saga.
But what is surprising right now is the continuing way that the media coverage remains muffled about each new explosive Arnold revelation. Not just the political bomb that he boasted about a gangbang and drug taking in a 1977 Oui magazine interview. It’s also the orgy he described in a 1981 Penthouse interview, the groping and fondling ascribed to him by a 2001 Premiere magazine interview, his Nazi father’s real wartime activities unearthed by the Los Angeles Times last month, the broken campaign promises he made in recent weeks, and then, last weekend’s report of alleged racist statements.
All of this smacks of celebrity worship or semicollusion with Schwarzenegger’s Republican campaign (demonstrating just how monolithic Big Media’s POV really is despite the FCC’s recent claims to the contrary). It’s also a case of squeamishness on the part of men (who don’t see a gangbang as any big deal whereas for women it’s another minefield in the Mars/Venus battle of the sexes). Certainly it’s not stupidity deserving a pass (especially since the same forces snuffing out Arnold’s 25-year-old outrageous past are fanning the flames of Cruz Bustamante’s long-ago collegiate affiliation with MEChA).
What’s going on here is easy to explain to anyone familiar with Hollywood: The Schwarzenegger campaign is the replica of the worst kind of movie junket, replete with the same media manipulation, controlled access and make-believe message. No wonder the only debate Arnold wants to join is the one that submits all questions in advance. That’s a comfortable setting for an actor accustomed to memorizing lines.
On Fox News Sunday, Schwarzenegger’s skin-mag admissions were not discussed. Meanwhile, ABC News reportedly is delaying an on-camera interview with a former Mr. Universe, now a Caribbean newspaper publisher, accusing Schwarzenegger of making insensitive racial comments years ago, like “If you gave these blacks a country [like South Africa] to run, they would run it down the tubes.”
This week, Gloria Allred was booked on MSNBC’s The Abrams Report, but only to talk about the Laci Peterson murder and not to repeat the R word (“sounds as though it was a rape”) she expressed to the L.A. Weekly last week about the gangbang. “The press for the most part is reducing it to a footnote,” Allred complained on Tuesday.
And, one day after he denounced California’s Democratic Party chairman, Art Torres, for raising the P word (“sexual predator”) during a screaming match on KNX radio with Schwarzenegger campaign chair, Representative David Dreier, MSNBC’s Chris Matthews — broadcasting from the left coast through the October 7 election — could deliver no better qualified Californian to discuss the recall than, get this, ex-Nixon cohort and Ferris Buehler bit-part player and game-show host Ben Stein.
And that’s not even counting all the hours upon hours of local right-wing talk-radio time whose suck-up interviews (yes, KABC’s Larry Elder and KFI’s John and Ken, we’re talking about you) Schwarzenegger has used like paid advertising. While in the pages of the Los Angeles Times, even just the semblance of a debate has been ripped out of news reporters’ hands and relegated to the marginal turf of columnists.
Then there’s what Hollywood likes to call the “character arc” that’s written into the best scripts. So this recall could be a referendum on how much of a “work in progress” voters will tolerate in their candidates, especially one that’s a movie star. Supporters argue that Schwarzenegger’s flip-flopping on the issues is merely part of his maturation process. But that doesn’t explain going back on pledges not to take special-interest money or attack his opponents personally. It also doesn’t excuse remembering, then forgetting, then remembering again, giving that 1977 Oui magazine interview.
With a startling specificity of language, Schwarzenegger fondly recounted one several-guys-and-one-lone-gal orgy: “Bodybuilders party a lot, and once, in Gold’s — the gym in Venice, California, where all the top guys train — there was a black girl who came out naked. Everybody jumped on her and took her upstairs, where we all got together.”
Asked by the interviewer if this had been a “gangbang,” Schwarzenegger said, “Yes, but not everybody, just the guys who can fuck in front of other guys.”
Allred said of his description: “I am disgusted, appalled, revolted, sickened, disturbed and troubled.” On Labor Day, in a luncheon speech to the National Foundation of Women Legislators meeting in Las Vegas, she read from a letter she sent to Schwarzenegger demanding it is “imperative” that he stop his “evasive and simply unacceptable answers about this serious issue. The comments attributed to you appear to both condone and make light of the victimization of a woman. A group sexual assault of a woman is no joke and no laughing matter. It is reprehensible, repulsive and injurious to women.” Added Allred, “Sexually targeting women for ‘relief’ is the act of bullies and men who have no regard or concern for women or girls and the long-lasting harm that such conduct may inflict on them. If you were involved in such behavior we call on you to take full responsibility for your actions.”
Although two local stations covered Allred’s speech — one CBS affiliate, the other Fox — the feed has not shown up in Los Angeles or on any national broadcast. Yet major news was made when Fox TV bounced Frenchie Davis as an American Idol contestant because she once posed nude for an Internet porn site. Talk about a major disconnect.
But the Oui interview wasn’t a she-accuses, he-denies allegation like Juanita Broderick vs. Bill Clinton. This was a he-bragged-about-what-he-did situation. No one may ever know what really happened until the woman involved is heard from. Yet it’s also clear that no one will get any clarity on the subject courtesy of Schwarzenegger.
And no one supporting Schwarzenegger has yet to explain that March 2001 Premiere magazine article which recounts more recent moviemaking allegations of groping and fondling by Schwarzenegger, including one claiming that “Arnold went up to the woman, put his hands inside her blouse, and proceeded to pull her breasts out of her bra.” According to the article, the woman ran off and became hysterical, but refused to press charges for fear of losing her job. “Stories of his boorish behavior can no longer be routinely erased,” the magazine said. “Then again, he’d make a helluva politician.” A lawyer for Schwarzenegger denied the accusations but never sued.
Yes, the U.S. Supreme Court recently confirmed what most Democrats had been saying during the Clinton scandals: that people’s sex lives are their own personal business. But sex as a political sniper is disarmed only as long as the sex is consensual and all parties are willing participants. As for this self-described gangbang: In the eye of the beholder, was Schwarzenegger a youthful sexual hijinxer or craven sexual predator? Or, put into Hollywood parlance, was this a scene out of American Pie or The Accused?
Even in the sexually liberated 1970s, the term gangbang had then, still has and will always conjure up an image of an act of sexual aggression. And the description of several heavily muscled men at one time having a sexual encounter with a single woman, where words like jump and took are used to describe it, suggests roughness even if the woman found it pleasurable. Even in terms of contemporary morality when attitudes careen from politically correct feminism to Howard Stern’s she’s-asking-to-be-treated-like-a-ho humor, it’s a rare set of circumstances to equate a gangbang to a “party,” as Arnold does.
At first, Schwarzenegger had only this to say about the article: It was not the type of interview he would give today. “I never lived ‰ my life to be a politician. I never lived my life to be the governor of California,” and so forth. By Friday, he developed amnesia overnight, claiming at a public appearance that he had no recollection of who, what, where, when. When that didn’t fly, Schwarzenegger tried to give the impression that the sex talk was a publicity stunt.
The Oui question-and-answer interview, which took place when Schwarzenegger was 29 years old and already a minor celebrity (having appeared in two movies, Stay Hungry and Pumping Iron, the documentary about the 1975 Mr. Olympia contest, which Schwarzenegger won), first came to light on the Internet last Wednesday. By evening, some of California’s TV newscasts made general references to Schwarzenegger’s “graphic” description of his “wild” past without fleshing out the lurid details.
Last Friday, the author of the Oui interview, Peter Manso, told Pacifica Radio’s Democracy Now! show that Schwarzenegger’s attitude back then was “to put it bluntly, women are hunks of meat, no more, no less.” It was clear in a 1981 Penthouse interview that Schwarzenegger, then dating Maria Shriver, had become more politically correct. But he still expressed a belief that “I was introduced to sex in the right way, so I didn’t develop any hang-ups about it” — this, after describing “a very pleasurable scene” of serial group sex where, in his native Austria, he joined a group of fellow bodybuilders who “said that women were really just there to have sex with, and at 15 I believed them. On Sundays, they went out to train at a lake near town, took their weights and some female companions,” and had “very free and open sex” during which “nobody knew who belonged to whom.”
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There was an eerie silence about the revelations, especially among those blanket-covering the recall, including talk-radio and television gadflies not exactly known for being shy about shouting their opinions. On Thursday morning, conservative commentator Bill O’Reilly referred to the Schwarzenegger interview on his radio show only in passing to opine that “People’s personal lives have nothing to do with their political lives.” Yet O’Reilly had been among those many pundits and politicians who consistently maintained that the details of Bill Clinton’s sexual past were appropriate fodder for political attacks and press probes — a position vigorously opposed by both liberals and even moderates. At the same, some Democrats who had wanted everyone to keep silent about Clinton’s blowjobs were ready to stir the political pot and watch Schwarzenegger boil. Amazing that the media would slap down such sensationalism.
By Friday, shock had turned to show. But as the holiday weekend continued, fewer radio and television commentators were discussing the content and context of the interview with politicians and pundits. That’s because a tacit consensus had been reached among these men, not just Schwarzenegger’s supporters but even conservative Republicans who would have been expected to voice indignation, that it would be a mistake to exploit this bump in his political path for “partisan” reasons.
The only mistake here was the media’s, for not making all these hot-button issues into Topic A. Hollywood, ever alert for the next big story, would have known better.
Portions of this column appeared as an LA Weekly Web exclusive last Friday.