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The Nation | Ronald Brownstein / WASHINGTON OUTLOOK

Schwarzenegger's Next Test: Play by the Rules

October 13, 2003|Ronald Brownstein

Celebrities behaving badly are hardly a new story. Fame and scandal go together like vodka and regrets. Fatty Arbuckle and Errol Flynn, fallen Hollywood stars of earlier generations, would feel right at home with the headlines in the Los Angeles Times these days.

But even by those standards, the last few weeks have offered a dispiriting peek inside the mind-set of the modern megastar. Lots of celebrities live quiet, serious lives. But in their own ways, Kobe Bryant and Arnold Schwarzenegger have demonstrated again the dark side of celebrity culture: the belief that ordinary rules don't always apply to stars who shine the brightest -- and contribute the most to the bottom line.

Leave aside the question of what happened in the hotel room in June between Bryant, the Lakers' star guard, and the 19-year-old Colorado resort employee; that's for the courts to decide. But at last week's hearing in the case, Bryant's defense provided a particularly ugly demonstration of the sense of entitlement that grows around too many celebrities coddled by managers, lawyers and bodyguards.

By repeatedly identifying the accuser's name in open court, and then luridly referring to her alleged sexual history, Bryant's defense showed it did not consider itself bound by the ethical and legal constraints meant to protect the alleged victim in such trials. Bryant may or may not have brutalized the woman last summer, but his lawyers clearly brutalized her last week.

Bryant probably didn't design that strategy. But if he wanted to stop it, he could. He has spoken volumes about his own attitudes by refusing to rein in lawyers who appear to be calculating that Bryant's fame and public acclaim will allow them to get away with tactics most other defendants wouldn't dare use.

That same assumption of immunity looms over the accounts from women who in The Times claimed that Schwarzenegger groped, humiliated and sexually harassed them during his days as a body builder and movie star. The most disturbing aspect of the accounts may be the way that Schwarzenegger -- correctly, as it turned out -- apparently believed his status as a box-office hero would shield him from any consequences.

None of the women who complained about his behavior to their bosses or co-workers reported that anyone pressured Schwarzenegger to stop. One woman -- who described a particularly harrowing series of encounters where she said Schwarzenegger repeatedly cornered her in an elevator -- told The Times that when she complained to her boss, he only said: "Just stay away from him.''

In such an environment, it's easy to imagine Schwarzenegger grew to consider himself as bulletproof as his cyborg character in "The Terminator." He was inside a bubble of fame where none of his accusers could reach him.

In his gubernatorial campaign, Schwarzenegger didn't venture very far outside that bubble. His campaign minimized his exposure to the media, the other candidates and even voters who weren't already enthusiastic supporters.

At his events, the public usually played the same role it did at a movie premiere: It wasn't there to interact with the candidate or question him so much as to cheer and celebrate him. With the media, he likewise replicated the Hollywood model of strictly limiting access, favoring interviewers considered friendly or soft, and limiting detailed exchanges.

Inside the campaign, the view was widespread that Schwarzenegger's fame and positive public image would allow him to win -- without the tough questioning from reporters and rivals that ordinary politicians must endure. His advisors made clear they believed Schwarzenegger transcended the rules of political life when they allowed Dana Carvey to interrupt a (rare) news conference from the candidate with his take-off on Schwarzenegger from "Saturday Night Live." Maybe it was news that Carvey, contrary to recent evidence in his film career, is still alive, but most candidates might have felt compelled to offer something more substantive.

It's another question whether Schwarzenegger can carry this imperial style into governing. Legislators can't be easily manhandled.

And he may find that, with the novelty of his first campaign behind him, he cannot command the huge international media spotlight that boosted him during the race. Schwarzenegger will attract more attention than a typical governor. But he'll likely discover that, to advance ideas on issues like worker's compensation or immigration reform, he will need to rely less on Oprah Winfrey and Howard Stern than on the usual tools of political persuasion: speeches, sessions with influential constituencies and detailed encounters with reporters.

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