Sacramento — Arnold Schwarzenegger is no Ronald Reagan. Sure, there are resemblances. But in some ways, Arnold has more going for him. In others, he just doesn't match up to the "Gipper."
Start with those image-molding movie role tags: "Terminator" and "Gipper." One guy's an inspirational college football hero; the other a killer robot wielding an assault cannon.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday August 13, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 53 words Type of Material: Correction
The Gipper -- In the Capitol Journal column in Monday's California section comparing the movie roles of Ronald Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger, the character of the "Gipper" was wrongly called fictitious. The character whom Reagan portrayed, George "the Gipper" Gipp, was fictionalized in "Knute Rockne, All American," but Gipp was a real person.
These characters are fictitious, but they leave real-world impressions. They're reminders that Reagan preferred playing a wholesome good guy. Schwarzenegger chose a career of portraying -- and promoting, many would say -- mass violence. That will bother some voters.
Having covered Reagan in his first race for governor in 1966 and for 20 years afterward, and having interviewed Schwarzenegger a few times and marveled at the TV worship of his political birth, it is clear to me that the two Republican actors do share significant similarities. Like:
* Celebrity magnetism unmatched by any political rival.
Pre-politics, Reagan's star never shined as bright as Schwarzenegger's. Still, as a gubernatorial candidate, he dominated the stage and had a ready audience eager for any message. As for Schwarzenegger, this has got to be the first time that any network has gone live to cover somebody taking out and later returning his candidacy papers.
* Split-second timing behind the mike, the honed ability to read an audience and deliver a line that both entertains and makes a point.
One of my Reagan favorites, aimed at balky lawmakers: "If they won't see the light, we'll make them feel the heat." Schwarzenegger's best line while announcing his candidacy on late night TV: "We all know that Gray Davis can run a dirty campaign better than anyone, but he doesn't know how to run a state."
One-liners from the lips of a Reagan or Schwarzenegger sound even better than they read. They leave people smiling and saying to themselves, "He's right."
* Inexperience in public office, which often means ignorance of issues.
Reagan fumbled facts and confused old scripts with real life. But once people understood that he had core beliefs and was committed to basic goals -- smaller government, lower taxes, beat the bad guys -- they gave him a pass on details.
Schwarzenegger also may be allowed to avoid specifics. But voters will want to be offered more than leadership. They'll insist on knowing where he wants to lead them and whether he has an inkling of how to get there.
Reagan clicked with voters by ridiculing his tarnished opponent, Gov. Pat Brown: "The man who has the job has more experience than anybody. That's why I'm running." Schwarzenegger is smacking Davis with practically the same line.
* Political outsiders: vehicles for angry voters seeking change.
Reagan emerged during a turbulent era of urban riots, campus violence, anti-war protests and civil rights backlash. Plus expansion of government social programs. People took it all out on Sacramento Democrats. People are furious again and Davis has made himself an easy target.
San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown observed to a TV reporter last week: "The people in California -- as in many places -- are pretty sick of people like Willie Brown. They're pretty sick of politicians, smooth operators, who claim they're going to do something and they don't do it."
But look closely and you'll see key differences between Reagan and Schwarzenegger. Like:
* Philosophy, a Schwarzenegger strength.
He benefits by not scaring moderate voters, as the outspokenly conservative Reagan initially did. (Democrats overreached by trying to paint Reagan as a dangerous extremist -- just as Davis has been trying to portray the recall effort as an attempted right-wing coup.)
Schwarzenegger is a social liberal -- on abortion and gay rights -- and sounds like a fiscal moderate: "You have to bring business back to California because when you have more [tax] revenues, you can have more programs."
Fortunately for Schwarzenegger, he doesn't have to run in a Republican primary.
* Reagan benefited from solidly formed political beliefs that he articulated in a long-practiced, inspirational stump speech.
He became a pied piper for "forgotten citizens," proclaiming: "We can start a prairie fire that will sweep the nation and prove we are No. 1 in more than size and crime and taxes."
Reagan took it all seriously, even with his sense of humor. You wouldn't have heard him quipping, as Schwarzenegger did while announcing his candidacy: "It was the most difficult decision to make in my entire life except the one in 1978 when I decided to get a bikini wax."
Says Mayor Brown: "This is the reincarnation of [former Minnesota Gov.] Jesse Ventura, not Ronald Reagan."
Could be. But both "The Body" Ventura and the "Gipper" won their elections after being underestimated and considered long shots.
One difference now is that nobody's underestimating the "Terminator." And the election seems his to lose.