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As Political Drama, Reagan's Takeover Still Gets Top Billing

October 27, 2003|George Skelton

Sacramento — The hyperbole is a bit thick. Arnold Schwarzenegger's seizure of Sacramento is historic. It even is entertaining. But some pols and newsies should get a grip and calm themselves.

It's not like this is the most momentous, exhilarating transfer of power ever at California's Capitol. For political interest, anticipation and anxiety, it so far isn't matching Ronald Reagan's takeover 37 years ago.

There are still a few of us who remember the drama.

This wouldn't matter except that the first draft of history -- as news reporting sometimes is called -- is now being written about the new governor-elect. And before we toss around such overused superlatives as "biggest" and "most exciting," the old histories should be understood.

As stars -- or meteorites striking the Capitol -- Schwarzenegger and Reagan are different. And that's what is being lost in all the hype.

Schwarzenegger is a bigger movie star. Bigger at the box office. International in scope. Still in his prime, perhaps.

Reagan was a bigger political star. That's the key. For years, he'd been a political philosopher on the lecture circuit. A Republican activist. The best known celebrity supporter of the party's 1964 presidential nominee, Sen. Barry Goldwater. Reagan was a conservative hero.

He was seen even then as a potential president. Theodore H. White -- famed Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "The Making of the President" book series -- had followed Reagan along the 1966 gubernatorial campaign trail, anticipating a future run for the White House.

That's missing here. Being foreign-born, Schwarzenegger is not eligible to become president. Spare the national speculation. California's next governor already has topped-out politically.

Moreover, Reagan was a political star when politics played a larger role in people's lives.

It was only six years after John F. Kennedy had inspired a new generation of voters. Most Americans hadn't yet caught onto the U.S. government's lying about Vietnam. The Watergate scandal that soured voters on politics was years away. Compared with today, government seemed more credible and politicians more respectable.

When Reagan was elected, 79% of registered voters went to the polls. By contrast, only about 51% voted in last November's gubernatorial election. In the recent recall, the tally so far is 59%, the secretary of state reports.

Reagan was about to take over an institution that Californians considered more relevant than they do today.

In his campaigning, Reagan -- unlike Schwarzenegger -- had constantly articulated core beliefs and a long-term vision for the state. He truly did represent change. Schwarzenegger talks vaguely about change. But so far he symbolizes a circus.

The Capitol community was intensely curious about Reagan -- some in eager anticipation, most in anxious trepidation.

"One big difference in atmosphere," recalls lobbyist George Steffes, then a Reagan legislative liaison, "was that Republican legislators weren't any more friendly to Reagan than Democrats were. All were resentful."

The most influential GOP legislators were moderates who had opposed Reagan and Goldwater for their party's nominations. They and majority Democrats alike feared Reagan's direction and, as career pols, they also doubted an actor could perform as governor.

Because Reagan ultimately did handle the job, there's less alarm today about Schwarzenegger's inexperience.

Reagan's arrival stirred more tension and passion.

In large part, that's because he was replacing -- and had trounced -- a man whose big government, liberal spending philosophy was 180 degrees from what Reagan preached. Pat Brown had been a builder, his administration solid. And although his third-term bid had been rejected, Brown still was respected.

"There was a sense that Reagan had beaten somebody," says his biographer, Lou Cannon, then a Capitol reporter. "Schwarzenegger hasn't beaten anybody."

People also sensed that in the switch from Brown to Reagan, California government might be changing forever. They sensed correctly. It marked the end of a post-war progressive era of bold public projects.

Today, this seems mostly about the end of Gov. Gray Davis. It's about strengthening leadership, rather than sharply changing direction. It's also about returning to celebrity governance.

Reagan wasn't as big a celebrity actor as Schwarzenegger, although he'd been in twice as many movies and hosted two popular TV shows. But he was plenty big enough to attract the network affiliates to Sacramento. Schwarzenegger is drawing them back, plus even more TV because there's more TV now.

"By virtue of his celebrity, charm and raw political skills, Reagan turned Sacramento upside down," recalls lawyer Steve Merksamer, then a college GOP activist who later became an aide. "He wowed the crowds. I watched it. I traveled with him. He was besieged by people seeking autographs."

Schwarzenegger won't match that other actor for political excitement until he inserts more substance into his script.

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