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Thin Skin May Terminate Schwarzenegger's Hopes

Commentary

Hypersensitivity doesn't play well in politics.

January 30, 2003|Garry South | Garry South, a Los Angeles-based political strategist, managed Gray Davis' gubernatorial campaigns in 1998 and 2002 and when Davis was lieutenant governor served as his chief of staff.

So, governor-wannabe Arnold Schwarzenegger is suing an auto dealer in faraway Akron, Ohio, for $20 million. The offense? Using a thumbnail-sized picture of the Terminator in an otherwise full-page newspaper ad hawking cars.

To those familiar with his "swat a fly with a sledgehammer" history, Schwarzenegger's overkill will come as little surprise.

During most of his movie career, the megastar has kept at the ready a platoon of high-priced lawyers and public relations flacks poised to pounce on anybody who dared utter a word that flies in the face of the former Mr. Universe's rather lofty self-appraisal.

In an eye-opening 1992 account of Arnold Inc.'s maniacal attempts to control his press, Spy magazine detailed numerous efforts to browbeat or deny access to journalists or publications that had the audacity to criticize him. One executive from Paramount was quoted as saying that "Arnold exercises power the way old-fashioned moguls did -- they could cover up anything, make any problem go away."

I was the intended target of one such attempt two years ago.

Schwarzenegger had called up Los Angeles Times political columnist George Skelton to badmouth Gov. Gray Davis. Among other things, he threatened to run against Davis unless the governor shaped up according to Schwarzenegger's standards. The nonpartisan National Journal called it "the most definitive attack any Republican governor candidate-to-be" had made against Davis up to that point.

In response, I faxed out to a few dozen political reporters a then-current article from Premiere magazine alleging indiscretions in Schwarzenegger's personal life. The Schwarzenegger machine's hysterical overreaction bordered on the ludicrous.

His Century City attorney sent me a five-page letter by registered mail (return receipt requested) threatening to sue me for libel, and also for "copyright infringement" if I made the letter public.

All this over disseminating an unflattering article in a reputable, glossy publication available at any newsstand.

If the image-obsessed Schwarzenegger decides to run for governor in 2006, he's in for the shock of his life.

Commonplace actions like mine in 2001 will be multiplied a hundredfold. Resourceful, well-paid "opposition researchers" -- not to mention a phalanx of hungry political reporters -- will turn over every rock in Schwarzenegger's life.

Maybe in the movie business you can try to bully and intimidate your way into total control over your image. But in a political campaign, it's a jungle out there. Heavy-handed attempts to silence detractors are more likely to make a monkey out of you than out of them.

What's "The Running Man" going to do when another candidate's young staffer -- who makes maybe $1,500 a month and bunks in somebody's basement -- is quoted making a crack about Schwarzenegger's spotty record of voting? Sue him for $20 million?

How will "Conan the Barbarian" respond when some volunteer for an opponent shows up at a Schwarzenegger event with a sign containing crude, critical limericks about him?

It's still questionable whether Schwarzenegger will throw his hat in the ring during the next race for governor -- which will not include Davis because of term limits.

But if Schwarzenegger does run, here's some free advice from someone who works in the Democratic trenches: That hat had better come from a head significantly less swollen than the one it now occupies. And he'd better be prepared to get off his high horse and take the low blows.

If not, it may well be "hasta la vista, baby."

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