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New Yorkers Meet to Talk Politics -- California's

Members of the city's elite discuss the recall vote and ponder: Are they crazy out West?

October 02, 2003|Josh Getlin | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — Is California crazy? That was the hot political topic before New York literati and media pooh-bahs Wednesday, as they gathered for their monthly gabfest at a steakhouse in Manhattan's Grand Central Station.

The answer proved elusive, but the novelty of the occasion was hard to miss: For once, a roomful of elite New Yorkers were talking intensely about California issues -- not themselves. And the two-hour discussion sponsored by The Week magazine occasionally grew as bizarre as the California recall.

As they dined on shrimp and iced tea, audience members showered questions about the Golden State's political turmoil on panelists including Ron Reagan, the former president's son; former U.S. Rep. Barry Goldwater Jr.; former California state Sen. Tom Hayden and Kennedy clan biographer Ed Klein.

But a handful of surprise audience members nearly stole the show.

"This is, like, the first serious event I've been at," said Mary "Mary Carey" Cook, a porn star and one of 135 candidates trying to replace California Gov. Gray Davis. After being introduced by moderator Harry Evans, she briefly addressed the attentive crowd, calling for a tax on plastic surgery ("to raise new state revenue") and the filming of a reality TV show at the governor's mansion in Sacramento.

"Imagine if we'd had that with Bill Clinton in the White House," Cook said. "It would have been very exciting."

Others posed tough questions about California politics to the panel, which changes monthly to deal with a special topic.

"Is the recall more about race or the economy?" wondered Bernard H. Goetz, who shot four black youths on a New York subway in 1984 and ran for mayor two years ago.

Reagan said the move to oust Davis was "an infantile idea," suggesting that "the California public has become a 2-year-old." Last year, he said, "they chose this strange little Gray Davis alien figure, but this year they want mommy to buy them the Arnold Schwarzenegger action doll instead."

Like other panelists, Reagan criticized the actor's refusal to engage in more than one debate with other candidates running for governor.

He recalled that Lou Cannon, a respected journalist and biographer of former President Reagan, told him that when his father first ran for California governor in 1966, "he would meet with the press every other day and he'd take questions. He'd give the impression of a man who wasn't afraid of anybody.... We'd like to see that kind of courage in Mr. Schwarzenegger, but unfortunately we don't."

Goldwater, a California Republican while in Congress, strongly defended the actor, however, saying that Davis was calling for debates in the campaign's waning hours mainly because he's trailing Schwarzenegger in recent polls. "It doesn't matter" if the candidate doesn't have a lot of specific proposals on economic issues, he added, "because he's really a born leader."

Democrat Hayden, who reserved most of his ire for a state Democratic Party that has "abused and ignored the grass roots," said Schwarzenegger's election might trigger moves by California Republicans to recruit other celebrities for higher office.

"There's talk of a new strategy," Hayden said. "[Comedian] Dennis Miller may be next against [Democratic] Sen. Barbara Boxer. That may or may not pan out. But the important national impact is on the Democratic Party.... They should recognize what Jim Hightower, a Texas politician, said: 'The only creatures in the middle of the road are dead armadillos.' "

Journalist and biographer Klein tried to stay above the fray, speculating on the racial and economic underpinnings of the recall movement. But even he couldn't resist getting in a shot or two, suggesting that Schwarzenegger agreed to only one campaign debate because his wife and chief advisor, Maria Shriver, a member of the extended Kennedy family, told him to.

The couple, he said, are the "Hans and Franz" of California politics, referring to the body-building duo in "Saturday Night Live" sketches.

So is California crazy? The verdict was mixed.

"California is crazy, but that's a good thing," said Goldwater, noting that democracy "is never a smooth operation. It's got a lot of bumps."

Hayden lamented the media circus and the election free-for-all. Maybe the increased focus on politics would be good for California and the nation, he said, but the prime focus seemed to be on Schwarzenegger's celebrity, not real issues.

"Oh, I think we'll be just fine," said Cook, looking for a cookie to pop into her mouth. "I've gained 15 pounds on the campaign trail because people are always giving me bottles of champagne. But it's been fun."

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