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 California’s 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 California’s 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 GSN’s offering money to the winner of Who Wants To Be Governor of California? violated any election laws and asked if the involved parties weren’t contributing to the recall’s circuslike atmosphere. GSN CEO Rich Cronin calmly replied that the show’s $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 Carey’s 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 (diff’rent strokes, indeed), but the actor was not falling for it.
“I’m 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 she’d raised her arms and jumped up and down, causing the heads of the room’s 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.”
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 it’s about the public’s morbid fascination with an unpopular politician’s collapse. Gray Davis has fallen down and he can’t get up — and we love it.
What happens after the recall, though? How can elections ever be the same after you’ve 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 needn’t bother making it public or speak to the press? It’s one thing to call an election a “game” or “beauty contest,” but it’s 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 state’s recall measure. There’s 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 we’re doing in a voting booth when we could be home watching TV.