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Lights ... Camera ... Election!

August 24, 2003|Neal Gabler | Neal Gabler, a senior fellow at the Norman Lear Center at USC Annenberg, is author of "Life the Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality."

AMAGANSETT, N.Y. — As soon as Arnold Schwarzenegger entered the California recall election, pundits declared it a milestone in America. With the Terminator running, they said, politics and entertainment had consummated their decades-long flirtation. Schwarzenegger is no over-the-hill actor like former California politicos George Murphy and Ronald Reagan, both of whom had long toiled in the Republican vineyards after their movie careers declined. He is still a box-office draw who seems to have cast the election as a referendum on his movie persona, not his politics. In doing so, he has tangled politics and entertainment into one big knot, promising, in effect, that what you see on the screen is what you'll get in Sacramento.

That the recall election merges politics and entertainment seems an inescapable conclusion, especially when one considers candidates like former child star Gary Coleman and TV gadfly Arianna Huffington also vying for the governor's office in a campaign more Lollapalooza than Lincoln-Douglas. But if inescapable, it is also dead wrong. Rather than melding politics and entertainment, the election is the latest and quite possibly most momentous chapter in a continuing battle between the two. What it poses is a stark choice between the functions each traditionally serves and the values each represents -- not politics and entertainment but politics or entertainment.

After half a century of politics cozying up to entertainment, it is understandable why even seasoned political observers can't easily distinguish the two. Politicians and their operatives long ago discovered that they could deploy techniques of showmanship in campaigning, and even governance, and achieve many of the same effects that entertainment achieves -- most important, satisfying the audience.

Franklin D. Roosevelt was a polished orator with a rhetorical flair that made him a great radio performer. John F. Kennedy had a glamorous movie-star aura that prompted novelist Norman Mailer to predict that "America's politics would now be also America's favorite movie," meaning, in part, that people would henceforth follow the president the way they followed their favorite actors. Reagan was a professional performer who once quipped that he couldn't fathom how anyone could essay the office of the presidency without being an actor. When pundits talk about the convergence of show business and politics, this is generally what they mean: how the trappings of show business have penetrated the political process -- everything from staging photo ops to doing guest spots on television talk shows to rehearsing one-liners for debates.

Although these are essentially cosmetic touches, they have had a tremendous effect on our politics. Candidates are now often held to entertainment standards of performance and are roundly criticized when they don't meet them. At the same time, the political press has increasingly come to resemble the entertainment press, focusing more on a candidate's style than on his substance and sounding more like film reviewers than political analysts. Finally and most significantly, the emphasis on show has gradually converted the public from an electorate into an audience that demands of its politicians the sorts of things it gets from its entertainers -- blandishments rather than tough choices.

So it is a bit hypocritical that, after years of treating elections like soap operas and after weeks of treating the recall like a cosmic joke, the media seem to have suddenly decided that enough is enough. They have demanded that Schwarzenegger take stands, be more specific in his policy proposals -- that he behave like a politician rather than a persona, pressing him to hold a news conference last week at which he announced his economic policy, even though his TV ads, running simultaneously, were still floating empty platitudes. If the polls are accurate, the public, slapped into a state of guilt, responded with its own questions about whether, when it came to Arnold, there was any "there" there.

But what the media missed in their new sobriety is that show biz isn't just politics lite -- the cosmetics without the content. Entertainment and politics are really antagonists. Politics is a process, and in a democracy it is typically a messy one. In a nation as large and diverse as the United States -- as in a state as large and diverse as California -- the political process is entrusted with mediating among numerous, often diametrically opposed interests and arriving at some conclusion. It is necessarily about compromise, negotiation, bargaining, glossing. It lurches rather than glides, and it seldom satisfies anyone entirely. It is the art of the possible.

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