The landslide election of Arnold Schwarzenegger didn’t surprise anyone in the suites atop the Century Plaza Hotel. The action-movie superstar’s tracking polls on Sunday and Monday nights had forecast impending victory, and exit polls by a media consortium had made it clear.
“Is it just me, or does this feel anti-climactic?” Schwarzenegger media consultant Don Sipple asked as CNN called the election for the former Mr. Universe at 8:01 p.m. He wasn’t the only one who felt that way. After days of huge Schwarzenegger crowds around the state and all the sturm und drang spewed by the desperate, mudslinging last stand of Governor Gray Davis and his forces, the relative calm of election day was the only shock.
With all the satellite TV trucks ringing it, the Century Plaza looked like a space station. Upstairs, the view was impressive, and the talk, some two hours before the governor-elect went downstairs to make his victory speech, turned mostly to the future. Planning for the succession was well under way, and the new transition team would not be dominated by veterans of former Governor Pete Wilson’s administration. Many had expected Wilson chief-of-staff-turned-Schwarzenegger-campaign-manager, Bob White, to head up the effort. White tells me he will be very involved, but the lead role goes to Congressman David Dreier, the mediagenic chairman of the powerful House Rules Committee. Dreier and others such as Congresswoman Mary Bono are key to Schwarzenegger’s effort to create a modern Republican Party even as he governs from the center.
Dreier emerged as Schwarzenegger’s chief surrogate and one of the Republican Party’s rising stars in the wake of Wilson’s declaration two months ago that the actor/businessman had voted for Proposition 187, the anti-illegal-immigrant initiative of nine years ago, which, as I reported, he no longer supported. A somewhat awkward moment momentarily broke the festive mood in Schwarzenegger’s suites when White asked Wilson if he remembered me. I’ve been critical of the former governor for years. “Oh, yes,” said Wilson with a wintry little grin.
Despite all the talk of Wilson dominating Schwarzenegger, two sometimes divergent camps joined the upstairs celebration — the Wilson people, moderately conservative Republicans; and the non-Wilson people, who urge on the populist inclinations of the action hero. The two groups didn’t mix much. The transition, most everyone agreed, is being designed to emphasize the non-Wilson crowd, and Schwarzenegger is well aware of the need to be his own man.
For all the money that Schwarzenegger raised, I didn’t see too many fat cats in his suites atop the Century Plaza — mostly friends, like Jay Leno, Rob Lowe, Tia Carrere, and Fred Dreyer and family (perhaps California’s greatest collection of Shrivers and Kennedys) in the inner sanctum; key advisers, staff and supporters in the other penthouse suites.
With the dimensions of the victory having been apparent for some time, Schwarzenegger and Shriver looked more at ease than during the highly contentious close of the campaign. As staff members grew impatient waiting for Davis’ call to concede, I inadvertently called former Davis consigliere Garry South, whose cell-phone number is similar to a friend’s. He was, of course, helping to craft Davis’ remarks and could not talk.
Once the governor made his gracious call of concession to the governor-elect, the Schwarzenegger crew made its highly choreographed way downstairs to the stage in the jam-packed Los Angeles Ballroom — first family and friends, then Jay Leno and Arnold Schwarzenegger and Maria Shriver. Closing the circle begun just nine weeks ago on The Tonight Show, Leno introduced Schwarzenegger for his conciliatory acceptance speech.
With the formalities out of the way, the party continued upstairs into the wee hours of the morning. White, Sipple, strategists George Gorton (who developed much of the early plan for the campaign) and Mike Murphy (the John McCain strategist who was brought in to help broaden what turned out to be a very successful appeal to many independents and Democrats), spin doctors Sean Walsh, Todd Harris and Rob Stutzman (who will be the new governor’s communications director), Hollywood Democrat Bonnie Reiss, and many others talked about this victory, which first germinated in the post-election musings last year about a recall by maverick Democratic pollster Pat Caddell.
One thing that was striking and a bit disconcerting was how few of these top Arnistas intend to go into the government they have just won. That will be a problem for the Schwarzenegger transition team, which will thankfully, due to the time it will take to certify this election, have until sometime next month to get its act together.
What will it be? That is still an unanswered question. Last Saturday night, after the statewide bus caravan pulled into Sacramento, the recall’s champion, Congressman Darrell Issa, told me that he thought many Republicans would be surprised: “This won’t be a Republican administration, it will be an Arnold administration. It has to be.”
That is the hope, at least.
This, after all, is a candidacy that came together very much on the fly. While in the midst of ’round-the-clock briefings and late-night readings just a few weeks ago, Schwarzenegger told me, “I am a sponge.” He reveled in the work, and seemed to marvel at the audacity of what he was doing as a not-especially-well-prepared rookie political candidate driving for the leadership of America’s megastate.
As before, when he discussed his potential candidacy before he declared it to the shock of most, hearing the great enthusiasm in his voice, I was reminded of the scene in, ironically, Total Recall, in which Schwarzenegger’s character is about to receive his memory implant of a trip to Mars. Big grin, shining eyes, total anticipation.
Schwarzenegger and many around him were amused by how many experts had gotten this race wrong. Most pundits concluded that Davis was the winner of the big September 24 debate in Sacramento, because of all the contentious cross-talk between the candidates and a series of dustups between Schwarzenegger and Huffington. But that was wrong. Voters were entertained. Schwarzenegger seemed knowledgeable about state issues and unruffled by criticism. Huffington’s already small support level plunged further, while Schwarzenegger, who had been locked in a close race with Bustamante, began surging.
The last-minute sexual-misconduct charges raised by the anti-recall/anti-Arnold Los Angeles Times created turbulence for Schwarzenegger. But the very timing of the charges — the Thursday before an election is a classic day on which a political campaign drops a hit piece — and Davis’ foolish decision to become personally involved in pushing the story, made things all the more suspect for voters. My discovery that senior Democratic strategists gained valuable advance knowledge of the particulars and timing of last Thursday’s Times exposé completes the picture.
Of course, some of the charges of sexually obnoxious behavior are undoubtedly true. Even Schwarzenegger admits this. Some seem shaky. After the last woman, a client of media-loving attorney Gloria Allred, surfaced the day before the election, I called Democratic hitmeister Bob Mulholland, an old friend and former colleague, to ask why he hadn’t done a better job of vetting the accuser, whose rap sheet is longer than Shaquille O’Neal’s arm. (Only the Times saw fit to devote an article to her charges, neglecting to mention her background.) Though it was only 10 p.m. on election eve, Mulholland, who at first pretended not to know what I was talking about, said: “I’m tired, I’m going to sleep,” and hung up.
And so we have an Austrian-American muscleman governor. One definite downside is the rash of Arnold impressions we are bound to hear from now on. They were beginning to sprout in full bloom among the press on the statewide bus tour last week. Most are pretty weak. But with inevitably incessant practice, even the worst will improve. Let’s hope that is true of California, as well.