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California and the West | Capitol Journal

Is Politics Any Business for The Terminator?

March 19, 2001|GEORGE SKELTON

SACRAMENTO — Politics ain't beanbag.

--Mr. Dooley, saloonkeeper-philosopher

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Politics isn't beanbag, but must it be dirtbag? Sleazy? And what is dirtbag politics?

Is it what was done to actor Arnold Schwarzenegger by Gov. Gray Davis' chief political strategist? Did that cross the line into unacceptable sleaze?

Strategist Garry South clipped two tough articles alleging a pattern of boorish behavior toward women by Schwarzenegger and faxed them to 200 political reporters. The articles were in Premiere--a movie magazine--and National Enquirer.

Premiere has drawn the most media attention because it's considered the more credible publication. It cites mostly anonymous sources accusing the actor of groping, grabbing and general womanizing. It does quote one London TV talk-show host by name, saying the actor "was like a dog in heat" before fondling her.

All this is heatedly denied by Schwarzenegger's aides. And four of his female co-stars, including alleged grab victim Linda Hamilton, have called the charges false and outrageous.

South didn't stop at just faxing out the articles. He tacked on some pithy sarcasm in cover sheets. The most controversial alluded to the magazine's assertion--denied by doctors--that pig valves were implanted in Schwarzenegger's heart: "AH-nuhld's Piggish Behavior (Maybe It's the Pig Valve?). . . . A real 'touching' story--if you get what I mean."

South, 49, a Montana-reared, 6-foot-4 outspoken veteran of hardball politics, says he acted after Republican Schwarzenegger called this columnist and commented he was thinking about running against Davis next year. He accused the governor of lacking leadership, especially on energy.

Pretty mild stuff.

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But South insists, "you do that and you put yourself in the line of fire. Anyone who thinks he can do that without some kind of response is very naive or very full of himself. . . . This is not a game for the faint of heart."

A brushback pitch, in other words. Anybody who steps up to the plate and takes a swing at Davis better expect to be knocked back onto the dirt. Call it dirtball.

"I didn't plant this article," South adds. And there's no indication he did. He only distributed it, a common political practice.

But South has planted previous negative stories. Example: the dismal voting record of Davis' 1998 primary opponent, rich businessman Al Checchi. There's suspicion he also recently planted a story about the poor voting patterns of Schwarzenegger and another potential GOP candidate, L.A. businessman William E. Simon Jr.

His immediate goal in distributing the womanizing pieces, South says, was to startle "family values" Republicans who were about to gather at a state party convention. Any boorish behavior aside, Schwarzenegger supports abortion rights, "sensible" gun controls and "social programs that work." Says South: "Go out and sell that to [GOP] primary voters!"

I suspect he could--that Republicans are wising up and desperate for a winner. They'll pick their best bet. And if he runs, that's probably The Terminator.

South must suspect that too.

He "conducted one of the meanest political smear jobs in recent memory," wrote columnist Robert Scheer in The Times. But that's assuming the word "mean" applies to politics. It's like calling a quarterback sack "mean."

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Was South out of bounds? I asked several political pros.

"I don't think it crosses the line," says Republican consultant Sal Russo, who has been trading barbs with South as an advisor to possible candidate Simon. "Distributing anything in the public domain is not crossing the line."

But GOP strategist Ken Khachigian says South should have handed off the dirty work to a party lackey. "What Garry, frankly, needs to remember is that he's representing the governor. There really needs to be some kind of dignity."

UC Berkeley political scientist Bruce Cain: "It's smart politics, but it's low-road politics. Unfortunately, it's in line with standard campaign behavior."

GOP analyst Allan Hoffenblum: "If Arnold Schwarzenegger announces for governor, we'll find out rather quickly how much is true. If it is true, he shouldn't run."

Myself, I think South showed bad taste--boorish behavior--poking fun at Schwarzenegger's past heart problems. Otherwise, published articles are fair fodder for faxing. South achieved his purpose: badgering The Barbarian and spreading the ugly stories.

In these situations, I'm reminded of those classic lines in the Godfather films: "It's business, not personal" and "This is the business we've chosen."

In the political business, you can be smacked by a dirtbag.

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