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THE RECALL CAMPAIGN

In Foreign Media, Zingers -- but Humility Too

August 10, 2003|Sebastian Rotella | Times Staff Writer

PARIS — You could almost hear the chortling and the hands rubbing together in the newsrooms of Paris, London, Mexico City and other capitals when the story broke: The Terminator had become the Running Man.

Roused from the vacation sloth and no-news languor of August, political writers, pundits and other opinionated sharpshooters opened fire on Arnold Schwarzenegger, California's zany recall election and, let's face it, America. They got off a few nasty zingers.

"He is a barely articulate, pumped-up bodybuilder with a cupboard full of skeletons," read the headline in the Guardian, a British newspaper whose writers appear unlikely to get front-row seats at a Sacramento inaugural or the premiere of any eventual "Terminator 4."

Saying Schwarzenegger's candidacy reveals pervasive "desperation in the Golden State," the article described him as "the son of a Nazi police chief" and recalled allegations of sexist behavior and his friendship with fellow Austrian and former U.N. Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim, who was accused of involvement in Nazi brutality during World War II.

The movie star "talks as if he has just arrived on Austrian Airlines," the article sneered. "His rise to fame owes more to steroids than charm, and he is best known for impersonating a robot."

Across the Channel, a French commentator opted for more restrained disdain.

"Let's see if Arnold performs well in his role as Governator," Jacques Guyon wrote in La Charente Libre, a regional newspaper in northeast France.

"Even if one would have preferred in this role actors with a stronger personality, more subtle, less brutish, like Sean Penn, Susan Sarandon or Warren Beatty. But what can you do -- those folks would never make it in California. Remember, they aligned themselves with 'old Europe' to criticize Bush for making war on Iraq."

The California election spectacle apparently confirms the suspicions of critics who think Americans can't tell the difference between their movies and their reality -- both of which are seen by many overseas as big, loud and silly.

And the apex of the problem is California, the "legendary gathering-ground of America's kooks and crazies," according to the Economist.

Nonetheless, the reaction around the world has by no means been uniformly critical or derisive. In places where elections are still dreams deferred, the jokes about the recall don't translate too well.

"I don't think it's ridiculous," said Li Zhining, a professor at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing. "You have to realize we live in a country that doesn't have elections. So elections are better than no elections. If anybody can run for office, then that's probably a good thing too."

Citizens of democracies seemed to agree that spending a lot of time mocking politics elsewhere is not the best idea. It's hard to find a country where the word "circus" has never popped up in reference to an election.

On Saturday, the Mexican newspaper Milenio used the picturesque gallery of California candidates -- adult-film actress Mary Carey, pornographer Larry Flynt, former child star Gary Coleman -- to poke fun at Mexico's history of wild politics.

"The gringos are so jealous," the article joked. "Now they even want to copy the serene, educated and civilized style of our elections!"

Even many Europeans, who are increasingly inclined to trash the U.S. approach to democracy, admit they're living in glass houses.

Take France: Last year's 18-candidate presidential field featured a gnarled barroom brawler who had spent decades fending off accusations of racism and fascism. Not to mention assorted old-school Trotskyites and Stalinists and the standard-bearer of the sacred rights of hunters and fishermen.

In fact, the barroom brawler -- Jean-Marie Le Pen of the far-right National Front -- set off weeks of political hysteria by actually beating the hapless Socialist prime minister in the primary. Le Pen then lost in a landslide to current President Jacques Chirac.

But the left still doesn't like Chirac. The satirical weekly Le Canard Enchaine mused that it might be a good idea to adopt California's ballot mechanism for incumbent disposal.

"Applied in France, it could bring together enough malcontents to drag Chirac to the ballot box," the newspaper said. "Even if he would have to run against Jean-Claude Van Damme."

It's also clear that fame and fortune propel politics on both sides of the Atlantic.

Consider Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, a former lounge crooner turned media magnate turned triumphant, if perennially investigated, politico. Or Glenda Jackson, an eloquent Labor Party member of Britain's Parliament and, as columnist Tim Hames pointed out in the Times of London on Friday, a gifted actress who "first shot to prominence appearing with a sometimes-naked Oliver Reed in 'Women in Love.' "

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