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Schwarzenegger Victory Is International Drama

Reactions range from glee in Austria to dismay in Mexico, but the vote fascinates many.

October 09, 2003|Tracy Wilkinson | Times Staff Writer

ROME — Italians called it Fellini-esque. Mexicans worried about a backlash. Austrians popped champagne corks. And children in U.S.-occupied Iraq rushed to buy "Terminator" videos, perhaps to glean a lesson in this thing called American democracy.

Much of the world was transfixed Wednesday.

Depending on who was talking, the metamorphosis of Arnold Schwarzenegger from multimillionaire actor to governor of the union's most populous state was either a fulfillment of the American dream -- and confirmation of California's independent, populist spirit -- or proof that Americans are crazy and their electoral system rotten.

At the Austrian home of Schwarzenegger's childhood mentor, Alfred Gerstl, a celebration party lasted well into the predawn hours. Gerstl, his wife, Heidi, and other friends watched the election results on TV, confident that victory was at hand, then took a phone call from the governor-elect himself.

"Now the hard work begins," Schwarzenegger said in German to his old teacher, the man who had been like a second father to the aspiring bodybuilder.

"We are so happy," Heidi Gerstl, told The Times by telephone from the town of Graz after chatting with Schwarzenegger.

While joy and adulation rang from Schwarzenegger's native Austrian hills, California's odd electoral drama drew puzzlement, disdain, ridicule and grudging respect elsewhere on the planet.

"From his films, it seems to me he is very good at solving problems," an admiring Nasser Uddin Nasser said, as the 16-year-old shopped for a $4 bootleg DVD copy of "Terminator" at a hole-in-the-wall shop in Baghdad. "California is a big state. He is a big man."

European newspaper columnists were engaged in a collective head-scratch. Anything is possible in the United States, it seemed -- or at least in California.

In Germany, the anchor of the dominant RTL network, Peter Kloeppel, began the evening broadcast Wednesday with a long report on Schwarzenegger and his victory. Then Kloeppel turned to the camera and said: "Now, back to real politics."

On an Internet chat room sponsored by the British newspaper the Guardian, one writer reacted this way: "Hahahahahahahahahahahaha. Too funny." Said another: "And we thought it ridiculous that Reagan was president."

In a similar vein, Internet-posted comments to the French newspaper Liberation posed these questions:

Texas used to be the laughingstock of the world -- is California now the challenger? Can California's intellectuals request political asylum in France? What, concretely, will be the Terminator's fiscal policy to put California back on track?

At the Elegant Bodies gym in Baghdad, Iraqi musclemen celebrated their hero's gubernatorial triumph between sweaty weightlifting sets. A giant poster of a young, flexing Schwarzenegger had gone up over the front door of the gym as soon as Saddam Hussein fell from power. (Until that moment, posters of anyone but the former president were banned.)

"He's a legend in bodybuilding," said owner Sabah Taleb, a former Mr. Iraq and Mr. Asia title-holder who opened the gym in 1996. "Just as he was a hero in bodybuilding, he will be so in politics."

As a dozen young Iraqis pumped barbells on a fan-cooled workout floor, Taleb recalled having written fan letters to Schwarzenegger as a young man, seeking advice about diet and weightlifting routines. He said Schwarzenegger had signed the letters "to my only Arab friend."

"Everyone wants to be like Arnold," said bodybuilder Emad Tarq, calling Schwarzenegger an icon for young men the world over.

Such devotion to Western sports figures was forbidden under the old regime. Taleb said he was interrogated by the secret police after he subscribed to banned bodybuilding magazines such as Flex and Muscle & Fitness.

Nowhere, it seems, did newspapers or television broadcasts resist the temptation to refer to the new governor-elect as the Terminator.

"California, in the hands of the Terminator," Mexico's left-leaning La Jornada declared on its front page. A cartoon inside depicted what it called "the anti-immigrant immigrant," flexing his muscles with the shadow of a swastika behind him.

Mexican media and political pundits followed the neighboring state's election especially closely. Many pilloried Schwarzenegger for having urged restrictions on immigration and services to illegal immigrants.

"We know his history, and it makes us think there could be a surge of anti-immigrant, xenophobic or racist feelings," said Ricardo Monreal, governor of the Mexican state of Zacatecas, which has sent as much as half its population to the U.S. as immigrants.

Schwarzenegger "must act with prudence, and Mexico must be alert to his actions to make sure he respects human rights," Monreal said in an interview.

Though many Mexicans worried about a crackdown on immigration, former Foreign Minister Jorge Castaneda said the reality -- that 13% of Californians are of Latino heritage -- would force Schwarzenegger to "govern for everyone."

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