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Commentary | ON THE RECALL By Peter H. King

A True Populist ... the Pose Says So

October 01, 2003|Peter H. King | Peter H. King's twice weekly column will run through the recall election.

A remarkable little nugget from that mother lode of nonsense known as the recall popped up last Sunday in the San Francisco Chronicle. To illustrate an interview, the newspaper published a trio of photographs that appeared to show a comfortable, animated Arnold Schwarzenegger, fielding questions from a political reporter.

There he was, in the first shot, pumping both fists, as if to make a point. And there he was in the next, wary, holding up a hand like a stop sign, a gesture that seemed to say: "Now, wait a minute." There he was, finally, face lighted up with a not-quite-pleasant grin, jabbing a finger as if he had scored some rhetorical triumph: "Gotcha!" this last expression appeared to exclaim.

The pictures, however, were not what they seemed. As the text of the story explained, these were not candid snaps taken in the course of the interview .

What had happened, as the reporter described it, was this: "Striding into a conference room in his attorney's office, [Schwarzenegger] first directs a news photographer -- with a firm smile -- to shoot him in a variety of conversational poses.

" 'Why don't you take the pictures?' the candidate says, ' ... And I will do all the things with the hands.' He gestures; that's one shot; points, that's two; then clenches hands, 'pumping up ... the power for California,' he jokes.

"When the photos are finished, the interview begins."

In terms of illumination, nothing in the interview matched the message to be mined from the staged photographs: Schwarzenegger might not be Oscar material, but the man can act. Schwarzenegger can strike a pose with the best of them. And the pose he has chosen to strike, of course, is that of populist candidate for governor.

It seems to be working. An aura of inevitability has begun to envelop Schwarzenegger. Forget about the varying polls. The millions now pouring into his campaign are clear evidence that the folks with deep pockets, who underwrite California politics and policy, have concluded that California is but a week away from the Schwarzenegger era.

What's amazing is that he has managed to make this surge despite a host of unanswered questions about both his character and his politics -- the sort of uncertainties that would swallow up most politicians. He is the Kevlar candidate: The bad stuff just bounces off him.

Forget that his father was a member of the Nazi party. Forget that he's been captured on film happily puffing on a joint. Forget about his copping to steroid use, or his boasting about a bout of gang sex -- not "group sex," as the papers now politely phrase it -- at a gym in Venice Beach. Or even his cunning denials, in which he maintains that in his rowdy old days he'd say almost anything to promote his career -- usually not a winning admission in politics.

No, let's just stay within the boundaries of his current campaign. Here is a candidate who promised not to raise money, but who has matched Gov. Gray Davis dollar for dollar and pulled in more contributions than all his debate opponents combined -- from developers, car dealers, timber and oil interests and on and on. Schwarzenegger defends his pile by saying as governor he won't negotiate with any of his contributors. He's right: The people pumping his campaign full of cash do not expect him to "negotiate." They expect him to be a good employee and do as he's told.

Here is a candidate who strikes the pose of outsider, but who has stuffed his campaign with members of former Gov. Pete Wilson's staff. That Wilson & Co. has found in Schwarzenegger a way to sidestep term limits and return to power might not be such a bad thing: Who doesn't miss those glorious days of taking out our economic frustrations on the children of nannies and fieldworkers?

Here is a candidate who, in his new commercial, vows that he knows "what we need to do" in Sacramento, but who has complained that he finds the state budget too complicated to sort out and who has offered few concrete proposals for fixing the fiscal crisis -- unless "pumping up" Sacramento counts.

What will he do? He doesn't have many choices, given the way the budget is locked up. He can do what Ronald Reagan and Wilson did when their campaign rhetoric butted into the reality of red ink: raise taxes. Or he can hunker down, raise every fee (as opposed to tax) on the books and hope the national economy turns around. In any case, unless Davis has an October surprise hidden in his hip pocket, we are about to find out.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Get used to it.

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