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Schwarzenegger is no Reagan

August 09, 2003|TIM RUTTEN

Until 1966, John Wilkes Booth was the only actor to make much of an impact on American politics.

Then Ronald Reagan announced his candidacy for governor of California and the rest -- as no practitioner of the higher punditry ever likes to admit -- was unexpected.

As a great California poet, Kenneth Rexroth, once wrote:

History would be so much simpler if you could just write it

Without ever having to let it happen.

History and the element of surprise were on a lot of commentators' minds this week when actor Arnold Schwarzenegger at least momentarily turned the media's chattering classes into a stuttering rabble by surprising his own aides and the nation -- at least that part of it that watches the "Tonight Show" -- with his decision to stand for election, should Gov. Gray Davis be recalled.

What is past is not necessarily precedential, but that didn't keep one analyst after another from quickly springing from Arnold's announcement to Ronald's example. But is the comparison apt?

Aside from their party registration and the hours spent reciting improbable dialogue in front of cameras, Schwarzenegger and Reagan share one important quality: a deep, almost instinctual understanding of the interplay between media and politics. But both are just as profoundly men of their time, and that interplay has changed dramatically in the nearly 40 years since Reagan began his ascent to the Oval Office.

Looking back -- and is there any exercise more secure? -- it now is possible to see much of the former president's career as an extended apprenticeship in electoral office-holding. First of all, Reagan was a product of the now-vanished studio system and was trained, virtually from the moment he entered the film industry, to listen to others' expert advice and, more important, to trust others with the management of important parts of his own life.

That experience was one of the things that later allowed him to benefit from the counsel of wealthy businessmen and lawyers who formed his "kitchen cabinet" and to follow the advice of the shrewd Republican political operatives who gathered around him.

In those days, an actor under studio contract was constantly on display, trotted out for all sorts of public occasions and made available to every hack with a typewriter or a camera. Good practice for retail politics.

Reagan's run for governor wasn't his first foray into the democratic rough and tumble. As a prominent activist in the Screen Actors Guild and, later, as its two-time president, the future governor helped guide the union through one of its most tumultuous and decisive periods -- the break with its unsavory hoodlum connections, two strikes and the congressional and legislative probes into allegations of communist influence.

In the latter matter, it is worth recalling that Reagan's testimony before the investigating committees was far more centrist, nuanced and judicious than his detractors subsequently would admit.

Reagan's last private-sector job, corporate pitchman for General Electrical Corp., amounted to a kind of electoral finishing school. Former Times political reporter and city editor Bill Boyarsky described it this way in his still-essential 1981 biography, "Ronald Reagan: His Life and Rise to the Presidency."

By the early 1950s, Reagan had become a kind of unofficial public spokesman for the movie industry as a whole. "In 1954, the General Electric Corp. was looking for a host for its new half-hour television series -- a man who could act, sell General Electric products, help build the company's corporate image and visit G.E. plants to improve employee morale." Reagan was hired and "G.E. was delighted, for Reagan was a superb television salesman. There was a joke in Hollywood about someone who watched him delivering an institutional advertisement for General Electric's nuclear submarine and remarked, 'I really didn't need a submarine, but I've got one now.' "

These experiences, plus his activism in the GOP's post-Goldwater politics, made for a deep connection with the increasingly alienated suburban voters who were about to reshape American politics. "Even in 1967, the estrangement from liberal government that would help elect him president could be seen in the white middle-class suburbs of California, the heart of the Reagan constituency," Boyarsky wrote. "There in the tract ranch houses and pleasant backyards, homeowners began to feel betrayed by government they believed was much too generous to the poor.... By 1980, the resentment had spread around the country.... When that happened, Reagan became their spokesman and their president."

He was by then what his experience had made him: the Great Communicator.

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